The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1993Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Speech to the Carlton Club – 3 February 1993

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech made to the Carlton Club in London on 3rd February 1993.



When I became Leader of our Party, I spoke of ‘carrying forward the Conservative tradition’. I spoke of Conservatism as ‘a commonsense view of life from a tolerant perspective’. I set out my aim to create ‘a classless society’ – and ‘a nation at ease with itself’.

In every speech I made in the general election campaign I talked about those aims again. I spoke of the Britain I wanted to see. A Britain in which effort is rewarded; and everyone has a stake in our country’s future. A Britain where every youngster can aim high; every family can build for its own future.

Dignity, security, independence, self-respect – these are the human aspirations we understand and we endorse. Conservatism in the 1990s has the ambition to bring them within the grasp of every citizen.

The instincts of the British people

In every city, in every town, in every village we found a ready response to our message. That was – I believe – because our message was rooted deep in the instincts of the British people.

These are the instincts of a free people; an enterprising people; a generous people; a tolerant people.

Of course these instincts can be suppressed, or twisted, or simply lost. We should not claim too much for ourselves! Of all political philosophies, Conservatism has been perhaps least prone to foolish optimism about human nature. But our defining characteristic is to have greater faith in the individual than in the State.

We believe in fostering freedom by giving people more power to choose for themselves; by leaving people more of their own money to spend.

We believe in fostering enterprise by keeping personal and business taxes low; by cutting down the jungle of regulation; by creating a level playing-field on which businesses can compete freely and fairly.

We believe in fostering generosity by respecting and reinforcing the independence of local communities, in which neighbours willingly help each other.

We believe in fostering tolerance by respecting the individual; by recognising every citizen’s power to choose and right to own.

It is on those instincts of the individual that Conservatism is founded; and that Conservatism trusts.

Carrying Conservatism forward

The policies and language of our Party may evolve, but the principles remain the same. Our political strength has always rested on our ability to keep a finger on the pulse of the British people.

We have no repository of doctrine which we set on an altar above commonsense and instinct. There is no Clause Four in the Conservative Party – and there must never be one. But what we do have are four cardinal principles: the principles of choice, ownership, responsibility and opportunity for all. These were the core of our Manifesto – and they guide us in Government, as we put that Manifesto into effect.

As a party, we have always worked to meet people’s aspirations to own their own homes; to have greater opportunities for themselves and their children; to enjoy the respect that follows from the exercise of choice; to build up wealth and then to be free to pass it on.

This has always been a great Tory tradition – a continuous thread in our thinking. When Disraeli spoke of the ‘elevation of the condition of the people’ he made it clear, even then, that he meant all people: ‘all the numerous classes in the realm, classes alike and equal before the law’. If this was not exactly ‘a classless society’, it already expressed many of the aspirations of one: the equal treatment of all citizens by the state, and the chance of advancement for all.

The second continuous thread of Conservative thought, from the time of Burke onwards, has been a wariness of the danger of over-government. We don’t like big government. We know the State can destroy, as surely as it can preserve – and more conclusively than it can create. We know the danger that unless it is reined back by constant and vigorous effort, it will grow inexorably, It is a parasite that can destroy its host.

We reject utterly the idea that the state can manage economic and personal relations between people better than businesses or families.

And the third great thread of thought is our understanding of what binds a stable and healthy democracy together. It is a sense of continuity that permits change without instability. Above all, perhaps, it is the local networks and small communities – Burke’s ‘little platoons’, if you like – that are the tent-pegs securing our wind-blown society to the ground.

The modern Conservative Party is heir to both the great nineteenth-century political traditions: to the Whigs, in our free market radicalism; to the Tories, in our belief in community and tradition. Unlike Socialists, we do not see the free market as a threat to communities; quite the reverse. Take a homely example. When you go to your local baker, what you expect and usually get – is a helpful, friendly service. What the baker expects – and usually gets – is a satisfied customer and a fair price. No one is demeaned by this transaction. Where there is choice, there is freedom and dignity between buyer and seller.

Look around you. It is not where the free market pervades that ties of community are under threat, but where the State owns and controls to the greatest extent.

Look at our suburbs and small towns and villages – where people, by and large, own their own homes. Here you will find networks of the voluntary associations which tie people into their neighbourhood, from Rotary Clubs to the active PTA to fundraising and Meals on Wheels.

The big problem lies elsewhere. It is from the inner cities, where the state is dominant, that businesses have fled. It is in the inner cities that vandalism is rife and property uncared for. It is here that fear of violent crime makes a misery of old people’s lives.

Socialists seek to explain the difference in terms of affluence. But that simply won’t wash. That explanation is demeaning to people of modest means who contribute much to their communities. It is insulting to those families who may face all the problems of unemployment and yet do not resort to crime.

Socialism must face up to its failures. It must recognise the harsh truth that it is where, over many years, the State has intervened most heavily, that local communities have been most effectively destroyed. It is where people feel no pride in ownership; where they are stripped of responsibility for the conditions in which they live. And it is in the inner cities that schools – which should be beacons of opportunity – have slipped into a downward spiral of low expectations, politicisation and poor results. Socialism has been discredited by experience. Conservatism has been validated by history.

The paradox of change

So far, I have been speaking mainly of the continuity in our philosophy. But I need hardly remind this audience that Conservatism has been a powerful force for change in Britain, too.

Willingness to face up to change is vital if we are to develop as a society. Each generation must make its own decision: what to preserve, and what to change. But change must run with the grain of a nation. That was true when our Party was founded; and it is true, still, today.

But the paradox is this. On the one hand, we need to change in order to preserve: if we cling to outdated habits, rules and restrictions, we risk the collapse of our economy and society. On the other hand, change is itself destabilising. It brings its own risks. Sometimes it seems that by removing just one brick, we may risk bringing the whole house down. The careless or the ill-intentioned will always be around to give the extra push.

There will always be those who seek to sever our links with the past. Even in Britain, we have for years been bombarded by the arrogant claims of those who believe there can be no point of contact between the present and the past. Some say that the glories of British history, the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare, the works of Dickens and Trollope – even poor old Winnie the Pooh – are irrelevant to the modern child. 1984 and all that involves the obliteration of 1066 And All That.

Others claim that the figurative tradition in art, and the lessons of classical architecture, have no relevance to the present day. The destruction they have wrought has been physical as well as emotional. We have seen the arrogance with which their disciples, up and down the country, have made their names by destroying urban villages. We see academics make their names by destroying our heroes. More recently, the institutions that embodied our nationhood have come under attack: institutions in whose name our countrymen and women have been ready to make the ultimate sacrifice of their lives.

I sense a growing fear that we may lose so much that is precious to this country; a feeling amongst people that our deepest values as a civilised nation are being threatened. That anxiety feeds on the daily tales of selfishness and brutality that make the headlines in our newspapers. Is it the newspapers that are changing, or the world we live in? People are not certain. They feel uneasy; they feel threatened; they lose their bearings.

So let me say a word or two tonight about the balance between change and continuity in our national life. Yes, we are changing, and in many ways for the better. The days when people could be considered somehow superior because of who they were, and not what they were, are finally fading into history. We see them pass without regret. A view of society based on deference is out of date, damaging and divisive in today’s Britain.

The barriers are not yet all gone – nor will they be, until every child confidently believes he or she can aim high, without bumping into invisible obstacles of prejudice. Expectations are encouraged by example: by the handful of women running substantial businesses, by people from our ethnic minorities entering public life, by enterprise and achievement from all backgrounds.

But our task in the 1990s is to widen the road to success, so that such achievers are no longer remarkable exceptions, but a natural part of the rich diversity of our nation. To achieve this, we need to break down the barriers between blue collar and white collar in industry; to raise the esteem in which vocational qualifications are held; to make them a real choice for the youngsters in our schools. The stirring examples amongst today’s National Training Awards show how we can help to make people believe in their future.

But in burying deference, we must take care not to destroy respect. Respect for what people achieve – at school and university, in business, in sport, the arts and in public life. It is no answer to prejudice or disadvantage to drop standards, to invent exams no one can fail, to reject or deride success. If we destroy pride in achievement, we will end by destroying achievement too.

There is a concern that respect for other people is disappearing: respect for what they achieve; respect for their property – yes, and their privacy, too. Certainly, crime has increased steadily over many decades. The standard political wisdom has been that Prime Ministers should keep off the subject, because it is so difficult to score a success in turning the tide of crime. In a more secular society, it is argued, it is harder to take up a moral stance. It is inevitable that the old assumptions about order and cohesion, which our forefathers took for granted, should be breaking down.

Well, I don’t accept that. I believe we must tackle the problem of rising crime, openly and directly. And just because we can no longer hope to enforce good behaviour by simple threats of hell-fire, I do not think we are debarred from talking of right and wrong. The definition of what is criminal changes from generation to generation. But our attitude to crime should not change. We must make that clear, in particular, to those youngsters in danger of settling into a life of persistent crime and intermittent punishment.

Nor do I believe that idealism, concern for others, commitment and self-sacrifice have been bred out of us. For every young thug whose brutal behaviour hits the headlines, there are thousands of young people up and down the country who commit themselves in their jobs, in their family or through voluntary work, to other people.

There are, indeed, thousands of young British people, straight out of school, working in difficult conditions throughout the third world for the young, the old, the poor, the oppressed. There are thousands of businesses who accept, with enthusiasm, the need to involve themselves in the communities around them. And there are hundreds of thousands – no, millions – of people who quietly, generously, regularly give up their free time to help others. These are the stories that don’t – so often – hit the headlines. I believe we must do more to recognise, support and encourage the habit of volunteering, which cements together our society and is one of the great glories of our national life.

Towards the year 2000

We are coming up fast to the Millennium: one of those milestones that have no intrinsic importance, but yet act as a catalyst for thought and action. This will be a highly competitive decade, in which the race will go to the swift. It will bewilder many and frighten some. It will test our national confidence – a test, I believe, that we can pass with honours.

At such a time, the cohesion of society is particularly important. When people have to find strength and direction within themselves, we need more than ever that anchor of past experience and those institutions which give continuity and a framework to our national life. The monarchy. Parliament. Our churches and voluntary organisations.

Disraeli – and that shrewd if now much-criticised observer, Walter Bagehot – both understood how our “constitution”, in the widest sense, gave the individual stability. They understood how it gave links with the past, with locality, with others and with the nation.

They saw much more clearly than many do today the unbroken chain of community linking the monarchy to the humblest household: linking our Parliamentary institutions to the most local parish council, linking the Union of the United Kingdom with the little unions of families and local communities.

So as we change and modernise – and we must do both – we must have an ear for history and an eye for place. In reforming local government, we will be looking to restore cherished names, draw strength from old loyalties and nurture established communities. Not for us a technician’s blueprint, all logic and no heart. Rather a search for the genius and identity of different towns, districts and counties across our country.

As we modernise the honours system – as, again, I believe we should – we must develop, not destroy. It is time to get rid of old, class-based distinctions; to make the system a little less automatic; to use it, in particular, to reward voluntary effort – but at the same time to maintain its historic value as a system of recognition and reward for achievement.

As we reform the civil service, we must cherish its traditions of impartial service – while at the same time opening it up to outsiders and to private-sector competition.

And as we work to improve our public services, we must remember one cardinal rule: change must be driven by the users, not the providers.

Civilising the welfare state

For too long we failed to ask the right questions. For too long we allowed the State to over-ride choice and personal responsibility. And all the time, the influence of public services was growing. At the beginning of the century, public services had only a marginal impact on people’s lives. Now they employ more than two out of every ten people in the workforce.

Well, attitudes are changing, radically and dramatically, under our Citizen’s Charter. The Charter is about convenience and choice for the user, not an easy life for the provider. It’s about replacing the impatient shrug of bureaucracy with helpful and courteous service. It’s about changing the system to deliver simple, practical things that improve people’s lives.

The traditional structure of public services has not provided the kind of incentives that competition in the market delivers automatically. We are creating these incentives. We are privatising choice. We are transferring power to the user of public services by providing them with real information about the performance of providers. We are opening up the old, cosy systems of inspection. We are introducing new systems of redress for the individual.

There are those who see accountability for public services only in terms of the occasional election at the focal and national level. I want a new accountability. I prefer a much broader and deeper concept: of accountability to the individual. That is why the aims of this programme run very deep. They concern the sort of society we want to see.

Through our reforms, we are encouraging local providers of services to run their own affairs. We are creating new vehicles for involvement, in grant-maintained schools, in TECs, in hospital trusts.

Giving people more freedom of course means giving people the opportunity to make mistakes. No one ever climbed a mountain without facing the risk of falling off. We must expect some disagreements between teachers and governors, even in grant-maintained schools. We cannot expect every Trust hospital to manage its financial affairs without a single hiccup. What is clear, however, is that people want to take on these responsibilities, because they see the transformation in attitudes and ambitions that follows.

We must allow people the maximum freedom to discharge these new responsibilities. Of course the State has an important role as regulator – particularly where, in public services or private enterprise, we are confronted with monopolies. But we must resist the temptation to intervene too much.

We must resist the temptation to respond to every mistake, every tragedy, by introducing another burdensome raft of regulations. Sometimes, of course, these have emanated from Brussels. But sometimes, I am sorry to say, the guilty are closer to home. That is why the Government has launched its deregulation initiative – and why I invited ministers to join me in Downing Street for a bout of spring-cleaning this week.

A radical programme

I rather think that some are forgetting, a little too easily, how we are moving to put our principles into action. We have a radical programme which is transforming Britain for the better, and which is being imitated across the world.

Take, for a start, those step-by-step changes that are already under way, but have much further to go.

In the health service, we have seen the spectacular growth of Trusts, far more rapid than originally imagined, and the extension of GP fundholding. By the middle of this decade, we will have transformed the NHS, made it much more responsive to patients and their doctors. And we will have exposed the short-sighted folly of Labour’s obstruction of reform.

In education, we are seeing the emancipation of governing bodies and head teachers, taking the local authority straitjacket off their back. With testing, we are giving back to parents the right to know what, and how well, their children are being taught – and what they are being taught. Another issue on which Labour is being driven into embarrassed retreat.

Through the Citizen’s Charter, we are carrying through a revolution in choice, in information, in accountability and individual power that no other political party will ever be able to reverse. We are extending performance pay, and launching the biggest programme of market testing of central government activities ever seen.

But that is not all. In Parliament this Session, we are creating:

– new powers to regenerate the schools whose poor performance has for too long trapped inner city youngsters into a cycle of failure, unemployment and poverty.

– new freedoms for members of trade unions, and new powers for the individual to prevent wildcat strikes.

– new encouragement to the arts, to charities, to sport and to celebrate our great heritage, through a National Lottery that may deliver literally billions for good causes over the years ahead.

– new opportunities for private-sector skills and enterprise to improve services for the railway passenger.

These are crucial measures – but, as I have already indicated there are others, too, pressing hard behind them.

In education, we have further to go in reforming primary schools, to sweep away the failed nostrums of the 1960s and 1970s. And we need parallel reforms in teacher training, to help good teachers do the job the country needs.

For our teenagers, I want to create a better map of opportunity. I am determined – this year – to start opening up a wider and clearer choice of ways to study and train for a career. This has to begin with schools. We need vocational qualifications which carry esteem, are worthwhile in themselves and challenge the monopoly of the academic route to further and higher education. And we need modern and effective careers education. But this drive has to be followed through in colleges and the workplace. I believe, with close co-operation between the Departments of Employment and Education, we can evolve a system which offers our youngsters more for their time, and the taxpayers more for their money.

In our cities – yes, and in our countryside too – we need to counter-attack the twin problems of crime and the fear of crime. The crucial test of our police forces is their ability to deliver what the citizen wants: safety on our streets and security in their homes. Change is needed, and the best of our policemen know it. But they also need co-operation from the citizen, industry, local government. And the courts must have the powers they need. In particular, I believe, we need new powers to take persistent young offenders off the streets and into secure accommodation where they can be taught and trained for a useful future. On the future of our police, and on young offenders, the Home Secretary will be announcing proposals soon.

In housing, I want those who prefer to rent to have a choice of modern decent homes. That means we need to encourage good private landlords, so that tenants have a real choice. But most young people still want to own their own home, and Conservatives believe strongly in helping them fulfil that ambition. I want more of them to have that choice. We must step up our drive to help all those who seek to escape from the prison of bad Council provision.

We want to give our exporters confidence they have the Government behind them. Manufacturing industry has a great opportunity to win new markets. It is not for Government to say where, or what, or how. We are not going to return to the bad old days of interventionism. But where Government can help to open doors and free up markets, it will do so.

I have already set up a scrutiny of why European regulations seem to gain extra frills when they reach the United Kingdom. Now we will be overhauling our horrendous total of over 7,000 regulations – many of them domestic – with the aid of the businessmen who bear the brunt. We will be looking for opportunities to legislate – perhaps I should say ‘legislate’ – to ease the burden on industry’s back.

By forcing Whitehall to publish estimates of what it will cost business to comply with every new regulation, we should both deter the busybodies and contribute to my campaign to make government more open. But I do not believe the steps we have taken towards openness go far enough. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will be bringing proposals forward in the coming months.

In his Autumn Statement, the Chancellor opened the way to privately-financed schemes to improve our infrastructure. Now I want to investigate still more radical ways of financing a better road network, between our cities. I hope the Transport Secretary will be able to bring forward proposals soon.

I increasingly wonder whether paying unemployment benefit, without offering or requiring any activity in return, serves unemployed people or society well. Of course, we have to make sure that any conditions imposed improve the job prospects of unemployed people and give good value to the country. But we have already introduced this principle, for example through Restart, in a limited sense for the long-term unemployed. I believe we should explore ways of extending it further.

You would not expect me, so close to the Chancellor’s Budget, to say more tonight about economic affairs. But I would just say this about the longer term: that if we are to sustain sound public finance and make progress towards our goals of lower personal taxation we must keep firm control of inflation and take a rigorous approach to public spending. It is always dangerously easy for the State to settle into habits of spending which outlast their purpose and outrun their budgets. And to avoid that happening, it is necessary from time to time to re-examine long-term trends in expenditure.

We need, through the honours system and other networks of recognition and encouragement, to give the volunteering movement extra support. I want to develop a new initiative, this year, to help local communities make the best use of the goodwill and energy of businesses and individuals in their areas.

We must build on the faith in our United Kingdom that was demonstrated at the general election. As we have been “taking stock” in Scotland, we have been listening for ideas to reinforce a Union that has served all concerned for centuries. We are not hostile to change; but we are adamant against destruction.

Let me draw together some of the themes of this agenda. Increasingly, I believe, we must develop policies that sound a common chord across all programmes. The Citizen’s Charter, deregulation, privatisation, private finance, market-testing, openness, all follow this approach. Others – such as the focus on 16-19 year olds – require close co-operation between Departments. Still others – such as the ‘challenge’ approach to the funding of local projects – are introduced by one Department then developed by another. I believe this breaking-down of rigid Whitehall divisions is essential to the delivery of a radical Tory agenda.

The Conservative message

So if people suppose – or even, perhaps, hope! – we have come to the end of our reforming energies, I am afraid they had better think again. I do not underestimate the difficulties. Of course, there are challenges ahead. But that is an invitation to press on with more vigour, not to step aside. We will carry forward the pursuit of economic liberalism, and the reinforcement of the social cement that binds us together.

These are beliefs that would, in the different language of their time, have been familiar to Burke, Disraeli, Salisbury. They link the ambitions of the child to be born in the year 2000 with the aspirations of previous centuries, it is the genius of our party that we fashion change in the image of our long traditions.

I have tried to show how I believe these aims are served today by fostering a national life in which merit is rewarded, achievement respected, opportunity opened up and the individual given power and choice. That is what I mean by “a classless society”.

I have tried to show how I believe we can rebuild confidence and nurture the best instincts of the British people. That is what I understand by a decent society; by “a nation at ease with itself”.

And I have tried to show how I believe the need for change can be reconciled with the deep need for continuity, for calm, for commonsense and steadiness in our affairs. In the words of the newest addition to that distinguished list of Conservatism’s historians and philosophers, our party ‘has long been the party of the silent majority’. And I am indebted to that author – David Willetts – for my final quotation from Burke, which perhaps has some relevance today:

‘Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine, that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field, that of course, they are many in number; or that, after all, they are other than the little, shrivelled, meagre, hopping, though loud and troublesome insects of the hour.’