The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1991Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Speech to Conservative Women’s Conference – 27 June 1991

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech made to the Conservative Women’s Conference in London on June 27th 1991.


Thank you for your generous introduction. I’ve been looking forward to this Conference. I knew it would add spice to an otherwise dull week. As you will all know, it’s been pretty quiet recently. Not a lot has happened. This afternoon is typical. I’ve just come from answering questions in the Commons – always a gentle occasion. Full of charm and old world courtesy. You may have seen it.

Next I’m off to the European Council – equally gentle. Full of balm and Euro-courtesy. At least I hope so. But for now, have no doubt. I am delighted to be here in the very midst of our Party to say to you how grateful I am for your welcome and your support.

As I have said, immediately after this session I shall be leaving for negotiations in Luxembourg on economic, monetary and political union. Our European partners know where we stand on these vital issues.

So today I will say just this. There are only three options for our future in Europe. We can leave the Community. That option is barely credible. It is advanced by those who have not thought through the consequences.

Or we can sit on the sidelines. Treat Europe as a spectator sport. Join the game too late to affect the outcome. And then, in the end, inevitably be forced to follow where others lead. That is no role for us.

Or there is a third option. We can put ourselves at the very heart of the Community. Initiate policy. Form alliances. Debate wholeheartedly. Fight for the future Europe we want to see. That will not be a federal superstate, but a Europe of ever closer union between Governments and peoples.

I am in no doubt that is the way ahead for us. And when we have finished our negotiations, we will place the results before Parliament. In the meantime. I know I will carry the full support of both the Conservative Party – and people outside it. And with that support I am confident we will achieve the right outcome for the future.

But today I want to seize the opportunity to consider our domestic agenda.

To talk about what we stand for – as well as what we must stand against.

We stand – as we have always done –

– As defenders of the peace: for personal security at home and abroad

– For a society of opportunity.

– For the freedom and dignity of personal ownership.

– For free enterprise and sound money.

– For quality and choice in public services.

Those are the principles of our Party. They are the values which go to create a nation that is both confident – and at ease with itself.

Everyone’s attitudes are influenced by personal experience, judgment and instincts. I know mine are. But I also know that many of the themes I care about most will strike a chord with you.

They will do so because it is women who are most familiar with the changing pattern of life. It is women – still – who bear most of the daily burden of caring for the very young. And tending to the very old.

So I believe you will instinctively understand the ambition I have – to create a country in which the generations live in harmony with each other.

In peace.

In prosperity.

In personal and financial security.

And I know you will share my aspiration to create an opportunity society. For women as well as for men. For women are now reaching forward, outside the home, taking up opportunities in every field of endeavour. Into Boardrooms, not just backrooms. Even into the Lords and Commons – if not yet into the MCC!!!

Today more women want what most men take for granted: career, marriage and family. Sometimes in combination; sometimes in sequence. It must remain a matter for individual choice. But the role of Government is to set a framework so that women can make their own choices.

And that explains much of recent policy. It explains why, in the Budget, we not only increased child benefit but safeguarded its value for the future. For child benefit goes to all mothers. It does not discriminate between those who go out to work and those who do not.

It is why we reformed the taxation of married women.

And it is why we have eased the tax burden on women’s savings. It is also why as Chancellor, I opened new avenues – the Tax Exempt Special Savings Accounts, “Tessas” – through which 2 million people have already decided to build up their financial independence.

But these policies are part of a wider philosophy. Of personal independence and security. For men and women alike.

There has been much talk recently of “isms”. But there is only one “ism” that I want to talk about. Conservatism. Our joint inheritance.

The ideas that have carried us with such success from the seventies to the nineties.

But more than that: the ideas that have carried our party through in an unbroken line from the eighteenth century. And still show no sign of losing their attraction as we move towards the twenty-first.

It is no surprise that Labour should pretend we are changing one “ism” for another. For their ‘ism” has wilted. Throughout the world it has become a philosophy of yesterday with relevance to the future.

Socialism today is no longer an ISM. It’s an ISN’T.

Its demise has left Labour devoid of principles – envious and resentful of the enduring quality of Conservatism.

For Conservatism is not cobbled together from sociological jargon.

It is born out of the hopes and aspirations of millions of people. Out of the attributes of the kind of people we would like to be – the kind of people we would like to live among.

When we talk in terms of Conservative values, we talk in terms all can understand.

We talk of decency. Tolerance. Hard work. Thrift. Efficiency. Generosity. These are values we can all aspire to. Values that Government should encourage. And never undermine.

As Conservatives we should not claim too much for Government – or expect too much. For, as a Party, we have an humility about the capacities of government that distinguishes us from Labour. As, too, does our sense of the duties of government.

First and foremost, a good Government must provide a sense of security for the nation as a whole.

It must maintain strong defences. For there are battles which cannot be won by force of argument – when we have to resort to force of arms.

As we did, most recently, in the Gulf. Everything our armed forces were asked to do, they did. With a skill and a courage that all of us in this Party salute.

As Conservatives, it is our unchallengeable claim that we stood firm on defence – when others were ready to toss it away. We backed NATO one hundred per cent. And we will go on doing so.

We developed modern, professional armed forces whose quality equals anything in the world. And we will go on doing so.

We maintained our independent nuclear deterrent to insure our safety in an uncertain world. And I can assure you of this. We will go on doing so.

But what of others? I call on Neil Kinnock to give an unequivocal pledge. That he will maintain – and where necessary modernise – Britain’s nuclear deterrent, just so long as dictators like Saddam Hussein are plotting to put their finger on the nuclear trigger.

And if there is no such pledge from Mr Kinnock, the British people will know what we suspect: Britain’s defence is not safe in Labour’s hands.

But security does not just grow out of the barrel of a gun. It comes from working with friends abroad. From alliances through which – in peace, not just in war – we can secure support for our initiatives. And wield power for good.

Safe havens for the Kurds.

Debt forgiveness for the poorest countries.

New approaches to arms control.

All these were British initiatives, advanced by persuasion and argument.

British diplomacy in the 1990s must keep us at the hub of separate, but complementary alliances. Within Europe. Within the Commonwealth. Within NATO and with the United States. Alliances that no other nation in the world can match.

We stood firm in our friendship with the United States through all those years when the Left’s idea of a day out was to join a mob in Grosvenor Square. We will not change now.

We have safeguarded our links with the Commonwealth, which brings together peoples from every continent of the world. And we will not change now.

And we have worked with our partners to make the European Community develop and grow. You can be certain. We will not change now.

Madam Chairman, I have spoken of a “classless society”. I do not mean by that a bleak uniformity, or a rejection of our rich tapestry of traditions. I do not mean a society in which high-fliers have their wings clipped. Where the politics of envy pin them down. I mean one in which opportunity is not confined to the fortunate few, but wide open to all.

So of all the initiatives taken by the Government in a busy seven months, I take perhaps greatest pleasure in our education and training proposals – to increase choice and to raise standards.

I can remember vividly what it was like at 16 to believe that school was a waste of time. I don’t want the 16-year-olds of the 1990s to feel the same way. They must feel that school has given them what they need: the first steps up a ladder of opportunity.

A ladder offering qualifications in which they can take pride, leading towards jobs in which they can perform confidently and well.

A ladder not just for some – but for all teenagers.

They should not be forced to fit in with the system the system should be forced to fit in with them. I want youngsters to have a real choice.

Choice between academic and vocational qualifications that are respected in the world outside school.

Choice between different kinds of training. Our new policies put choice into young people’s hands – quite literally – in the shape of a new training credit. A “smart card” they can spend on the kind of training they want.

That is the way to channel the energies of the young towards the achievements of the future.

But to help all children, we must first ensure they are present in school to benefit from the education we offer.

It is a tragedy that too many children are denied opportunity – and often end by drifting into crime – because they stay away from school or are not made to go.

I am not prepared to tolerate the position in some of our inner city schools, where one child in four is a regular truant.

Such tolerance does not help children. It fails them.

So we will be placing tighter control on school registration. We will make sure that unauthorised absence is recorded. And, for schools as a whole, published each year for parents and public to see.

And if truanting children turn to petty crime, we will see that their parents are brought to court with them.

This Conference understands the principles of parental responsibility and the value of discipline in our schools. I can promise you this. In the 1990s we are going to spread that understanding into every classroom in Britain.

We need, in all aspects of national life, a full sense of involvement. And we gain this, most of all, through personal ownership.

That is why for me, no principle is more crucial than what I call the Right to Own.

To have a home of your own.

Savings of your own.

A pension of your own.

And your own stake in the business you work for. These things spell independence and security.

That is something Labour still finds desperately hard to understand.

No one will trust a Labour Party that still plans to place obstacles in the way of the Right to Buy. That still proposes extra taxes on savings. That admits to tax plans which would condemn millions to working three days a week for the State.

No-one could trust Labour with all that they have built up through the Right to Own. It’s against nature. Like asking the cat to feed the goldfish!

So it would be with the Labour Party. For they still believe in the old dictum. From them that hath, the State must take away.

In the 1990s we will offer new routes to home ownership.

We will encourage more individuals to take out personal pensions. We will promote more personal savings. And we will sell more state holdings to spread ownership in shares still wider.

More homes. More savings. More pensions. More shares. That is what everyone in this country would wish – for themselves and their children.

For the Right to Own carries with it a further right: to hand on to the next generation a proper proportion of the fruits of a lifetime of work.

Madam Chairman, I know the Labour Party. I grew up with it. It thinks differently from us. It has a vested interest in promoting class division. In keeping people dependent. And, all too often, despondent as well.

You don’t have to look back to the 1970s to know what a disaster Labour would be. Listen to what the Labour Co-ordinating Committee said about Labour Councils. And I quote: “They demonstrate as far as the public is concerned what a Labour Government would be like, how it would treat people.”

That’s what they said. Well, let’s take them at their word. Just look, for example, at Liverpool. See how a Labour Council has treated people. How they are suffering. Their own miserable, summer repeat of Labour’s nationwide “winter of discontent”.

Liverpool is the product of unbroken Labour and Liberal rule. They talk rubbish in the council chamber. And they leave rubbish on the streets.

Or look at Lambeth – where head-teachers have appealed to the government to save them from a Labour council.

All of you know the effect of Labour government, both national and local. But we have to ask ourselves: why does Labour so often go wrong? What are they doing, those left-wing councillors who should be raising standards in schools and housing and social services?

We don’t always know. But sometimes we find out.

We find a committee laced with the problem of £130 million of debt. And what is their priority? A decision taken in secret to paint the lamp-posts red.

And you’ll remember, of course, those absurd campaigns to purge children’s literature of childhood favourites, like Enid Blyton.

What a contest!

Big Brother versus Big Ears!!

Or perhaps more aptly. Little minds versus little Noddy!!

And, no doubt even poor old Mr Plod will be caught by a left-wing ban on policemen in schools.

Somehow, under Labour, it’s always the man and woman in the street who get hurt.

In Liverpool, the better-off can put their rubbish sacks in their cars and drive them to a dump.

In Lambeth the better-off can take their children across the river to schools in Conservative Westminster. Just like Jack Straw, who wants to exercise parental choice himself, while denying it to others. All too often, it is the least well off who suffer from Labour misrule.

Our approach is different. Because these people matter to us.

So, for the 1990s, we need Conservative policies that will turn more of Britain’s “Have Nots” into “Haves”.

To do so, we need a strong economy. And it is all too easy, when I know times are difficult, to lose sight of our achievements. But current problems are not unique to this country.

This is the worst year for the world economy since 1982. Yet our exporters are entering new markets and setting new records. And while the number of jobless has been rising, our unemployment rate is still far lower than in many European countries, such as France, Italy and Spain.

But I know that is little comfort to those in this country who have been made redundant. To those here who are looking for their first job.

I know what it is like when the family business runs into trouble. I remember what it felt like to be a teenager without a job.

And that is why – whatever it takes – I am determined to secure a stable framework for this economy in the years ahead.

We need to drive inflation so far into retreat that none of us will have to worry about it, when we take our decisions for the future.

Decisions about our savings, as individuals. About investment, as businesses. And about exchange rates, when we sell British products into Europe – where our economic future lies. Our opponents simply do not understand the consequences of inflation.

How inflation destroys profits – and jobs.

How hard inflation makes it to manage a budget, in industry or in the home.

How it destroys confidence – and peace of mind.

But that is hardly surprising. Because there is so much else Labour does not understand.

How a minimum wage forces people on to the dole queue.

How public spending promises – a cool thirty five billion pounds of Labour promises – would have to come out of taxpayers pockets, today – or tomorrow.

You’ve seen it – I’ll say it.

Labour’s going for broken again.

We all know what Labour threatens. Interference. Incompetence. Overspending.

Red roses may grow on trees; but money does not.

We all want good public services.

But it is never sensible to judge them simply by what they cost. We focus on what those services provide.

No one should defend waste and incompetence.

That attitude shows contempt for the citizens who depend on public service. It also demeans those who give that service. That is why those who work in public services, as well as those who use them, will support and gain from our plans for a Citizen’s Charter.

The Charter will be comprehensive and effective. It will give the customer more clout and the manager more responsibility.

And I intend, once and for all, to remove the sense of inferiority and apprehension that too many people still have when they face officialdom across a desk.

Of course this upsets people who are comfortable with low standards. They would like to dismiss this new idea as an “irrelevance”.

Tell that to the Parents seeking information from which to choose a school for their children.

Tell that to the pregnant mother given a so-called hospital “appointment” at the same time as half a dozen others.

Tell that to the grandmother queuing for her pension.

Tell that to the midwife who has had to take most of the day off waiting for the gas man to come.

What these people ask for is simple.

A service that puts them first.

They ask for clear information about their services and how they perform.

They ask for phones that are answered.

Individuals they can identify to deal with their case.

And an easily accessible avenue for complaints when things go wrong.

They ask for explanations and advice that they can understand, and sometimes – just sometimes – an apology.

So our Charter will do several simple but necessary things.

First, it will ensure that people know where they stand in dealing with public services.

We will see that clear performance targets are published, together with full information about what services actually deliver. Why should parents have to battle to find out school results?

Second, it will give citizens support in exercising their choice – and seeing that higher standards are achieved.

We are going to toughen up inspection and audit so that sloppy service cannot be swept under the carpet. And we are going to introduce more widely pay that relates to performance.

Third, we are going to insist on proper courtesy and attention to public needs. We will ensure that the way to complain is no longer shrouded in mystery. And that redress is available for some of the worst levels of service.

We will publish a White Paper on the Citizen’s Charter shortly. But that will be only the start. It will display the tool kit of ideas for raising standards. We must go on to apply them to each and every service. There will be a series of initiatives – and where necessary we will legislate to put them into effect.

But in addition we will face a busy parliamentary schedule next year. Leaving aside our European negotiations, we have a full domestic agenda before us.

We will be putting to Parliament an Education Bill that will transform further and higher education.

We will be bringing in our new, fairer system of council finance – our vital reform of local taxation.

We will take action in other fields as well.

To take forward our successful industrial relations reforms.

To strengthen the position of charities.

To improve the training of nurses.

And to act on safety following the Piper Alpha disaster.

Through this essential business of government, we will never lose sight of the unifying principles behind both our Citizen’s Charter and our policies on the economy. Their impulse is always to seek to redress the balance between the State and the individual.

For our Conservatism is about developing personal independence. It is designed to give people a hand up, not a hand out. And it is about placing a restraining hand on the power of the State.

I believe in simpler Government. More approachable Government. That is the best guarantee that the citizen has against highhandedness. expropriation, and the abuse of power.

I want Government to leave people with room to breathe. Free to display the best characteristics of the British character.

Our sense of fairness. Our friendliness. And good neighbourliness.

I believe we are now seeing a “quiet revolution” in Britain, involving people more in their communities, helping them have a far greater say in the way they are run.

Since 1979, we have opened up new ways for people to demonstrate the care they have for their families and friends

The pride they have in their homes and neighbourhoods. From Tenants’ Associations to the Local Management of Schools.

From Neighbourhood Watch Schemes to Training and Enterprise Councils. People are gaining more involvement in the decisions that affect their everyday lives.

They are winning back from the bureaucrats control over their own communities and how their future is shaped.

When I talk about voluntary organisations to a Conservative audience, I know that I am talking to a large extent about you and the work that each of you do. For our belief in personal action and in concern for others is central to our philosophy.

And a party in which they are honoured can have purpose, pride and confidence for the future.

For Conservatism is grounded in fairmindedness, a sense of what is right: in shared aspirations and mutual respect. It builds on self-respect, not envy. It seeks to unite, and not to divide. To create, as this Conference asks, a Britain without barriers.

We must be outward-looking. Open-minded. Ready to embrace new challenges. And in the 1990s we will have many to meet.

But our first task is to be true to ourselves. To our ideals. And to our country. I have no doubt that Conservatism will be equal to that challenge. That we will go on giving the people of Britain the lead that they look for.

And the hope they ask for, throughout the decade to come.