The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1994Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Speech to Scottish Conservative Party Conference – 13 May 1994

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech to the Scottish Conservative Party Conference in Inverness on 13th May 1994.


Today of all days I want to talk not of partisan politics, but of our country and its prospects.

There are occasions when it is right to turn aside from the clamour of political differences.

Yesterday, this conference adjourned to mark its respect for one of our country’s political leaders. An opponent, yes. A gifted and an honourable opponent. Undoubtedly. But a partner, too. A partner in that mission which is central to politics. The guest to build a stronger democracy, a better country, a richer life for all.

All of us here are people to whom our families matter deeply. John Smith was a family man. And our thoughts and prayers go out, above all, to his family in their grief – in a time of loss for which no words suffice, and into which no-one should seek to intrude.

The reaction to John’s death tells us much about our country. It showed the priceless asset of the essential decency of the British. We can weep for a good man – even an opponent – because we recognise his qualities.

This reminds us that there are things higher than politics and, across all divisions, common bonds of humanity that unite us all.

I liked John Smith. The nation saw us set up in artificial confrontation twice a week in the House of Commons. That was part of our political process – and I make no complaint of that.

But people did not see behind the scenes. There is friendship in politics, there is decency, there are private relationships across all Parties, there is principle and there is respect and understanding for the beliefs and the convictions of others. What a shame it is that that becomes apparent so rarely.

Mr President, I must confess to you that I often have little taste for the politics of point-scoring or for the belittling of others. I have none today. I care passionately for what I believe in. But I don’t care passionately for damning what other people believe in. If we could attack the policies of others, but respect their motives, then politics would have a fresher feel than it does today.

Let us be truthful with ourselves. Across all Europe there is a lower regard for politics than I can ever remember. And, as democrats, we should worry about that.

Politics isn’t just about power. As you grow more experienced you see the limits on the power of action, limits set by the need to persuade others and carry them with you. Limits set by the capacity of our country to create the wealth and resources needed to fulfil our ambitions.

No, it isn’t just about power. It’s about ideals. Hopes. Ambitions.

In politics you never lose the ideals of youth. You always travel in hope. And you never forget your long-term principles.

There are twists and turns, moments of exhilaration and achievement, and times, too, of disappointment and despair. But you pick yourself up, take on the next task, and go on forward. Because you always have a long-term aim in view.

Mr President, I sometimes wish that side of politics was more evident. I know politicians of all Parties. And they are not the cynical, power-hungry, self-servers that fiction so often portrays. There is such a thing as public service in this country. And our politicians generally subscribe to it.

Too often our politics is rooted in old battles, not new opportunities.

Of course we differ greatly in our philosophy; in our beliefs as to how to do the best for Britain. But sometimes, too, we share a common purpose.

The War-time coalition and the Labour and Conservative Governments that followed all worked to strengthen the welfare state, develop the Health Service, put in place the modern system of education that Rab Butler had worked to create, and which culminated in his great Education Act of 1944.

The achievement of Conservatism in the present generation has been to redress the balance between the state and the individual. To extend choice and ownership, to build the right climate for industrial growth and expansion, to set the ambitions, the hopes, and the capacity of every family free.

I don’t believe those achievements either will ever be challenged or changed. We have created a special British cocktail of free enterprise, tempered with social justice. A wider ownership of homes, shares and pensions than almost any nation in Europe, but a free health service which those overseas envy and admire.

That will never change. When my parents were old and unwell and without any money, they were well treated. It made an abiding impression on me that they had the security and comfort of mind to know that. While I am Prime Minister, that will never change.

All of us in politics – national or local – have our role to play. Whether we are players on the stage, or supporters in the wings, or commentators in the front of house, we all have our responsibilities.

Sometimes I feel – and I don’t only mean in the reporting of politics – that there is too much knocking, too much carping, too much sneering. Too much setting up of Aunt Sally against Aunt Sally.

Being negative can be an addictive drug. It’s easy. Because we all know how easy it is to do something, if you don’t have to do it yourself. But like any drug it corrodes and destroys the body in which it exists. And one body it runs the risk of corrupting is the body politic of the nation itself.

If politicians fight – in Party and across Party – like ferrets in a sack on every issue, is it surprising if the public turns away?

Let’s not be negative here today. Let’s be positive. And look at what’s happened in Britain in the last two years alone, and at our prospects for the future.

We have achieved an impressive revival from recession – well ahead of the rest of Europe.

We have the lowest inflation and interest rates for a generation.

We have growth in the UK – twice as high as anywhere in Europe, and set to continue next year.

We have public services forced by the Citizen’s Charter to tailor their performance to the needs of the public and to raise their standards year by year.

We have a National Health Service, in which local doctors have more say than ever, and in which we are treating more patients than ever before – and treating them better.

We have set reforms in place to raise standards in our schools and to improve the quality of training for young people.

One third of our young people are now going on to university.

And crime is now falling in Scotland and throughout the UK.

That is the reality of what’s happening.

Mr President, I have not come here to hide the challenges we still face. On the back of a world-wide recession Government is a tough business everywhere. We often have to do things that seem perverse today because we believe they will be right tomorrow.

Our job is to look long-term, plan long-term, achieve long- term. Set a framework for lasting prosperity. To ensure we don’t go through such difficulties again.

Some people may not like some of the action we’ve had to take – but our duty is to make the right choices for Britain’s future. It isn’t our job to do things to court short-term popularity, if they have a long-term cost.

Obligations are painful things. So are difficult decisions. But often they are necessary for the sake of future generations. So that their prospects are not just as good, but better than ours.

But that is what we’re in Government for.

“The elevation of the condition of the people”. That’s how Disraeli once put it.

“The elevation of the condition of the people” – Mr President, that is why I am a Conservative – why we are all Conservatives. And why this party must always frame its policies, not by the yardstick of ideology, but by how closely they touch the everyday lives of the people.

We mustn’t live in a world of theory. Our theatre must not be the academic clique or the Party caucus. Our theatre is the home, the family, the business, the voluntary group. That is the world from which Conservatism grows.

Our Party is at its strongest wherever it strikes a chord with the commonsense of the British people. When Conservative canvassers came to my door in Lambeth all those years ago they spoke a language I and the people I knew could readily understand.

The things they cared about were the things we all care about – how to get on in life, how to take our own decisions, how to acquire new skills, save money, own a home and leave a better start for our children and grandchildren than we ever had ourselves.

Even to the dependent Conservatism spoke the language of independence. Even to the insecure it offered security.

It did then. And it must today. Somehow we must break through the artificial frenzy that so often masquerades as political debate and focus attention once more on the essential concerns of the people we represent. That, I believe, is what people want and what our political system needs.

The Conservative agenda

Last autumn I spoke of a malaise that I saw creeping across our country. A cloud of unease and uncertainty in the face of constant challenges to the standards that people hold dear.

I said that our first duty was to dispel that anxiety, answer the worries people have, and draw deep at the well of commonsense instinct as we did.

I set out there my programme for the rest of this Parliament.

First, to see through – come what may – our policies for a strong stable economy. That we are doing – through low inflation, low interest rates and falling unemployment.

It is easy to write off now the importance of the fight against inflation. That is a mistake that I will never allow this Government to make.

I know from experience what inflation does. What it is like at the end of the week if you’re not sure you’re going to have enough money left over to pay the bills. I grew up in a hard part of London. We shared the house with all sorts of odd characters. Inflation wasn’t our only problem – but it was one of the worst. I know what it is like at the sharp end, what it’s like to struggle on fixed incomes. And so long as I am Prime Minister containing inflation will continue to be a cornerstone of our policy and a touchstone of its success.

The second goal I set in Blackpool was to bring about a seachange in our approach to crime. Shift the balance in criminal policy decisively against the villain after a generation of liberal ideas. Put punishment back on the agenda. Reject forever the fatal idea that crime can ever be excused.

If you don’t give young people guidelines and rules you are not helping them. Children who start with a small offence and are not brought up short will commit a bigger offence and then a bigger one, and, before you know it, they’re into serious crime. It is no good if when a young criminal gets caught all he gets is a slap on the wrist and sent on his way.

We have embarked on a shift in policy on crime, not to turn back the clock – of course not, Dickensian attitudes have no relevance today – but to turn up the heat on the criminal. I make not a shred of apology for that. The British people are heartily sick of the apologists for crime. And the crackdown that’s needed has only begun.

The third target I have set for the ‘90s is to raise standards in our schools. Without that Britain will not be able to compete in the world. We need to sweep aside the progressive dogma that has done so much damage. Extend parents’ choice. Insist on the basics. Make sure we get the best results for every child. And see that those results are reported, and, what is equally essential, tested.

Mr President, I simply do not understand opposition to testing. I sent my children to school to learn – so do all parents. You can’t just wrap children in cottonwool. Life itself is a test – and you have to prepare them for it. Compete is what children do naturally. Just put four small children together and see what they do. They see who can run fastest or jump highest. So we will be introducing more competitive games and we will stick to our guns on testing.

Mr President, in the last six months we have taken huge strides in carrying forward the agenda I set out in Blackpool. Inflation is right down. We have the biggest crime-fighting bill for years before Parliament. And, through teacher training reform, we are putting the last pieces into the mosaic of education reform.

That is the road this country must follow – and that is the road down which I and this Party will lead.

Mr President, the mandate we won from over 14 million people was a mandate which runs for 5 years. We are not yet half way through – and I intend to complete it. And then I shall say:

“Judge me on my whole term of office. All of it. You can’t judge a house when only the foundations are laid”.

A changing world

If we are to achieve our social objectives we must have strong economic foundations on which to build.

There are new and ever greater demands on our resources. But there’s only one way to create the wealth that we need. Through business success.

We have to lift our eyes from the short-term headlines. Look to the long-term. The world is changing faster than ever before. Just look at the changes there have been.

Operations that 15 years ago were unheard of now happen almost every day. Young people today have opportunities that our parents’ generation wouldn’t have dreamed of. In future it will not be enough to learn just one skill at 16 and do the same thing all through a lifetime.

People are living longer than ever before. More people are going into higher education than ever before. Those are all good changes, changes we’ve worked for, changes we want, changes that are making people’s lives better.

But they all have a cost. We need to pay for them. But we don’t want high taxation. So the challenge for us is to make our economy as competitive as possible, so that we can generate the wealth that we need for the improvements we wish to bring about.

For today we face a world more competitive than ever before. Not just from America and Japan but from new countries in the Far East, once our captive markets, now our active competitors.

We must look forward to the world in which our children will live. In the 21st century we’re going to have a world dominated by Japan, the United States and China. The European Community has a choice to make – will it be with those players or will it not?

The importance of Europe

I hope it will be, but it is not certain unless Europe follows the right policies. I would give Europe this warning. Unless it makes the right choices about policy today – unless it adopts free market policies – and believes in them – Europe won’t be up there in the next century with the US, Japan and China. It will slide behind.

That is why Britain must play its full part in Europe. Not just for our own sake, but for Europe’s too.

Nearly 200 years ago William Pitt said Britain “has saved herself by her exertions, and will, as I trust, save Europe by her example.”

I know that the issue of Europe runs deep in British politics. It touches emotions more profoundly than routine political differences. It raises concerns and fears that are too often played on too readily. For too long Europe has been the poison in the well of British politics.

Here, too, far too many people present the European debate in fundamentalist terms.

People are “for it” or “against it”.

We “must do this” or “mustn’t do that”.

Everyone, to paraphrase Gilbert & Sullivan, is either “a little Eurosceptic” or “a little Europhile”.

This approach misses the real debate. The real debate must be about how we make Europe a success; how to make sure it raises enthusiasm, not resentment; how to make sure it raises the quality of our life and is not seen as threatening the nature of our life.

What we are talking about in the debate on Europe is our national interest. Our jobs. Our future. And yet far too many people on both sides of the argument miss this wider point. They focus on narrow arguments as though we were fighting a holy war.

So let us remember the fundamental economic realities.

British business depends on Europe. Well over half of what we export, we export to Europe.

We need a place in European Community if we are to continue to attract inward investors to Britain.

And we need influence in Europe, if we are to make sure that our businesses have the right conditions in which to trade.

Europe is absolutely fundamental to this country’s national interest. We cannot turn our backs on that. It would be the ultimate abdication, a supreme folly. Limit our horizons and we limit our future. A little country in a lost world.

I am a Euro realist. I look at Britain’s interests with a cold and clear eye. Britain has a special place in the world. Alone of all nations we live and move in three distinct circles – NATO, the Commonwealth, and the European Community. Each and everyone is a shaping factor in our long-term foreign policy and our own national interest.

We have a special feeling about America. We are intimately bound up with its history, language and culture. I am one- quarter American. My father lived in America for a number of years. But Americans are realists, too. They want a good relationship with Britain. But, today, one of the main reasons they do is because Britain is in Europe. If Britain’s commitment to Europe was in question, have no doubt – the Americans would look elsewhere for their closest allies – to Germany or to France. They are no more dreamy-eyed about international relations than we are.

Diplomacy is a calculation of where long-term advantage lies. And, for Britain, that advantage is in Europe.

Mr President, I don’t accept the argument that a British government, fully involved in Europe, cannot win the battle to shape and mould the future of Europe.

Who says we can’t win the argument against centralism in Europe? We can and we must.

Conservative Governments won on the rebate.

Won on the Single Market.

Won on subsidiarity.

And we are winning on deregulation.

Britain should be confident in Europe.

One final point. I don’t believe the prevailing orthodoxy that if you disagree with current fashionable opinions in Europe that you are anti-European.

That is not true. The good European does not rush like Pavlov’s dog to every European fancy.

He judges what is right for Europe. What will attract the support of the people of Europe. What will retain their liberties – their traditions. And then he fights for it – and that is what we will do.

Why Conservative?

Mr President, for the moment the world of politics pauses.

But in a short while the people of this country will be called, with the rest of Europe, to take up the work of democracy again. And in the European elections we shall put our case to the country on the kind of Europe we want to build.

You know what I believe in.

I want to see a wider Europe, which spreads the protective mantle of peace, security and prosperity to the troubled countries of the East.

I want to see an open Europe in which the weight of bureaucracy and regulation is reduced, and we embrace wholeheartedly the goal of a great single market open for business, competition and trade.

And I want to see a people’s Europe. One that is not the remote preserve of a circle of planners. But a Community that addresses the concerns of ordinary people – and never seeks to interfere where it does not need.

Our guiding lights are the principles of free trade, free enterprise and free association.

Our aim is still to build closer co-operation between a growing number of nations.

But we shall stand always for individual choice.

Cherish always national diversity.

And never deviate for one instant from defence of Britain’s own national interest.

Our vision remains as it ever has been – a strong Britain in a strong Europe. That vision is supported by all but a handful of the people in these islands.


Mr President, I am proud of what Conservative Governments have achieved for our country. And I am full of hope and confidence in what this country still can and will achieve.

Over the last 15 years we have helped change Britain.

When I entered Parliament Britain faced real and visible threats.

Our economy was ravaged by inflation.

Our industrial strength was sapped by trade union power.

Our country was threatened by the armed might of the Communist bloc.

Together we have seen that great external threat dissolve.

And we have seen many of our internal problems so successfully resolved that many have forgotten the dragons that once stalked the land.

Of course, in the modern world, new challenges constantly arise. And the pace of invention lays new opportunities and new ambitions in our path.

But it is all too easy to forget how remarkably the face of our country has changed for the better.

Today, a child growing up in Scotland is twice as likely to go to university, twice as likely to become a homeowner, and has far better job prospects. Not jobs in declining state owned industries, but jobs in growing industries – profitable businesses with better pay and better working conditions than we’ve ever known before.

So whenever the storm blows, remember the successes we’ve had – and why we had them.

We had them because, even when the going was toughest, we stuck to our last, stuck to our guns; we kept cool and we kept faith.

Throughout all the ups and downs of the last 15 years – and together we’ve seen a few of them both – fashionable opinion has carped and criticised.

I know many of you were with me in Edinburgh two years ago at that great rally in our General election campaign.

We didn’t bow then to fashionable opinion. We took it on, shook it by the scruff of the neck, and turned it on its head.

That Election was about something more profound than many before it. About the very structure and fabric of the nation state our ancestors fought to create. People saw clearly two great threats to our Kingdom – the siren songs of separation at home and surrender abroad.

It was here in Scotland that we drew the line in the sand. We declared that we could not – we would not – whatever the cost, whatever the risk – compromise our deepest core beliefs, and put our nation at risk.

We stand – by gut instinct – in defence of the ancient Union between four great nations. For one strong, united country whose voice is heard and respected abroad, as four small nations – however proud – could never be.

The values we care about are the values that generation after generation in this country have lived for and lived by. I believe that Britain needs those values now, more than ever before.

So, when the work of politics begins again, let us go out and campaign positively for what we believe in – with pride in our principles, confidence in our future, and faith in our country, the United Kingdom – that unique and special country – that means so much to us all.