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 Walpole Committee Conference – 3 March 1993

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech to the Walpole Committee Conference, held on Wednesday 3rd March 1993.


Lord Chairman, thank you very much indeed. I must say I can’t think of anywhere more splendid to start the day and I congratulate you on choosing this magnificent venue for today’s occasion.

It does seem to me in a number of ways to be a very appropriate venue when one considers what you’re doing. The Royal Society, perhaps I think for something over 200 years has represented the very best of British creativity, represented the very best of British quality and that as I understand it is precisely the objective that you have set yourselves and your Committee and of course it was the Royal Society in 1851 that organised the Great Exhibition. But what was essentially the purpose of the Great Exhibition. It was to show the world the excellence of the products that we had in Britain and in what then we knew as the British Empire. So in every sense it’s an appropriate place for you to meet and I think if I may say it’s an appropriate time for this particular Committee to be formed. I hope you won’t consider it too inappropriate that you’ve invited me to be your first and brief, you may be pleased know, first and brief speaker at this Conference.

Your Committee’s named after Britain’s first Prime Minister. It is perhaps a first I think for the private sector to get together in quite this fashion in order to seek quite the promotional attributes that you have set yourself. Walpole of course is an interesting person to be the title of your Committee. You may not perhaps know that, but in the Cabinet Room, immediately behind my chair, sits a large portrait of Sir Robert Walpole, the first occupant of Downing Street. I must confess occasionally seeing him sitting there surveying what we do and no doubt noting all that we say, one does occasionally wonder what he might think about the changes in politics in the couple of hundred years and heaven alone knows what he would have made of Prime Minister’s Questions. He may perhaps be grateful that in his day they didn’t exist.

But it is a pleasure to be here and I say that not simply as a matter of routine, I say that because of the central purpose of the Walpole Committee. It is a purpose to which I profoundly subscribe, that British products are among the best in the world and can compete with the best in the world. Not only can compete, the fact of the matter is we have no choice but to make sure they compete and compete successfully in what is going to be the most competitive decade for business that any of us have ever seen.

So that attitude that we can compete and we must compete, it is undoubtedly an attitude that each and every British firm and each and every British worker will need to take to heart if they are to play their own particular part in securing Britain’s economic recovery. Producing quality is not an optional extra in the 1990s. It is absolutely central to our success and the sooner that is sunk deep into the sub-conscious of everybody involved with British industry and British politics the better it will be for all of us. So there are a raft of reasons why I particularly welcome the foundation of this particular Committee. It is a very welcome recognition, a timely recognition, that we can’t rely on the excellence of British products to speak for themselves. We need to speak for them, we need to stress how good they are, we should miss no opportunity to do so. We now face an intensity of competition from abroad, far greater than anything we’ve experienced before. There was a time when we could look round at the Commonwealth, the Empire, other countries and we’d see very soft markets for British exports. Don’t believe for a second that those markets exist in the same fashion these days. Countries to which we would readily sell, now manufacture themselves and challenge our markets. Right the way across the Pacific rim there are now extremely competitive manufacturers that didn’t exist just a few years ago. The acute competitive dilemmas forced by the growth of Japan’s trade in the last 20 years and the almost certain growth of China’s influence in manufacturing in the world in the next 20 years are just an indication of the fact that we cannot take export markets for granted and for many British firms success at home simply will not be possible if they ignore the competition from abroad.

There is a problem that we have seen time and time again as we have gone through an economic downturn. We have an economic downturn, British firms see a depressed domestic market, they sell abroad and they sell abroad quite successfully. We move back into the upturn and on too many occasions too many firms have then gone back to the domestic easy British market and ignored the possibilities abroad. Now one of our central objectives as we move out of this recession is to make sure that on this occasion we do not lose the impetus to export simply because the British domestic market revives. We need both, we need to supply the domestic market, not least as import substitution but also for companies individual profitability, but we also need to continue our penetration of export markets. With interest rates at their present level, with inflation at their present level, with a hugely competitive exchange rate we have a remarkable opportunity to penetrate deep into world markets in a way we have not seen for very many years. Our job collectively, yours, mine, is to make sure that we actually take the advantage that is there and penetrate in those markets and keep those markets and we frankly will not do so nor will we deserve to do so unless we produce the quality products that increasingly people demand around the world. We have them, we should trumpet the fact that we have them and we should go on exporting.

The second reason perhaps for welcoming the launch of this Committee is because you’ve pulled together in it a very remarkable and powerful group representing the best of Britain. The list of your members, the members of the Walpole Committee, makes very impressive reading indeed. There are names representing a broad cross-section of British industry. Representing the quality of British goods and services. I think therefore that what you have is a very remarkable example of a private industry initiative. I’ve no wish in saying that to excuse Government from its responsibility to industry but like you I believe, I recognise that nothing the Government can do, however benevolent, however well-intentioned, can match the potential of the whole of private industry working together. It is therefore vital you do work together and I hope this Committee will be a catalyst to extend the work that you have commenced.

But there is I think perhaps, a third and even more important reason why I welcome the launch of the Walpole Committee. It’s because, it is I believe, potentially a very important counter to that very curious British disease of talking down our own prospects and talking down our own country. I’ve said it before and I will go on saying it. I am constantly amazed at how many pessimists attempt to paint a picture of a nation in decline when it is an utterly false and unrealistic picture. Messages of gloom by themselves don’t matter. But when those messages of gloom knock Britain and then damage our prospects as a trading nation, then they do matter and that is a matter of great importance to me and a matter of great importance to British industry and the fact of the matter is, that what the pessimists say is not true and ought not to go unchallenged. We shouldn’t accept it, we should not allow the British instinct for self-deprecation to undermine our confidence, undermine our prospects, when it’s utterly clear that our success depends at least in part, in building up our own confidence and our own self-confidence. It is utterly the wrong thing to do in the interests of British industry and commerce.

Though I believe your Committee will play an important role in seeking to promote the best of Britain. I hope you will be aggressive in doing that. Be gentlemanly by all means, but not too gentlemanly. Don’t miss the opportunity to remind people when we’re the best, when our products are the best. No other country, no other salesmen, no other groups in other nations will neglect the opportunity to push their country’s interests time after time after time and neither should we. Perhaps we played at being gentlemen in industry and commerce perhaps a little too long. We need to join the players and we need to make sure that we take every opportunity to promote our own interests fairly, not unfairly, not through unfair subsidies, but fairly in terms of international trade. I certainly will do that. I certainly propose to follow the pilot of taking businessmen abroad with me when I visit appropriate countries in the hope that it will help to open doors to contracts and opportunities for British business and I hope you will be equally aggressive in selling the best of Britain abroad as well.

We have a lot to sell. Don’t let anyone pretend otherwise for a second. We can promote the fact for example that manufacturing productivity last year grew by almost 6 per cent amongst the fastest in Europe. We can promote the fact that exports are now at a record level and have been rising for some months. We can promote the fact that our inflation rate is at its lowest level since 1967, our interest rates at their lowest level since 1977 and equally important our interest rate level is now the lowest in the European Community where we see so many of our markets and so much of our competition.

Those are opportunities to be taken. I know that this morning I don’t need to preach to you about the success of Britain. You’re here to contribute to that success. Amongst your membership are a large number of success stories. It’s invidious always to single out some. But I think if I may be forgiven for doing so, it does tend to illustrate how wrong the pessimists are. Let me take two or three examples, though I could have stretched that list far further and those I don’t mention I hope will forgive me over time, if not perhaps immediately.

– The Financial Times has increased its circulation in the last five years by 67 per cent and since printing began in Japan two years ago sales there have grown by 135 per cent;

– William Grant continues to expand in their export markets and they’ve now made Glenfiddich famous worldwide, at home, my home to, as a symbol of quality and if I dare say so, of enjoyment from time to time as well;

– Dawson International, owners of Pringle and Ballantynes, are competing and succeeding in Germany and in Japan.

And we really should recognise that increasingly we are penetrating those German and Japanese markets. It isn’t a one way trading arrangement that we have with those countries. We are selling for example, large numbers of cars now to Japan. When it wasn’t all that many years ago when all we saw when we looked at the car industry was a wreckage of subsidy and industrial disruption. Now we have a growing car industry increasingly exporting, soon to be a net exporter as an industry as a whole and now exporting into Japan.

Now I could stretch those examples across very wide areas of British industry and endeavour and we need to fix those success stories in our national psyche if we are to maximise our opportunities of success in the future. Because what those examples illustrate is that British goods are capable of beating the best in the world. Not just being as good as them, but of beating them. They illustrate the importance to British firms of style, quality and innovation and that undoubtedly is the way ahead for British business.

But there are other things that we certainly need to do as well. For far too long we have been the innovators and other people have then developed and produced the product of that particular innovation. We do need to accelerate the growing marriage between British brains and British production. There are a whole range of innovations that in the 1990s can turn us from being a great trading nation into a greater trading nation.

And I return, if I may in conclusion, to a theme I touched on just a few moments ago. These changes, these opportunities, this effort, this promotion, is not an optional extra. We cannot sit out this decade letting other people become more competitive, more forceful, more thrusting and pretend that we don’t have to do the same thing, we do. There will be more change in this decade in industry and commerce and perhaps every other part of our life than we have seen in any peacetime decade in this century. The winners will be the people who perceive that first and who act upon that perception. That I believe is what this Committee is doing. It has my wholehearted support and I shall watch with the most enormous interest how you get on in future. If I can help I will, if you wish to help do what you’re promising to do and it will be of the most enormous benefit.