The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1996Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Speech on Opportunity – 19 March 1996

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech on opportunity, given on 19th March 1996.



Building a nation of opportunity is one of the five themes I set out last year. Opportunity is at the heart of my philosophy. And it marks a great divide in British politics.

The word ‘opportunity’ has particular meaning for me. The same opportunity – for everyone, whoever they are, wherever they come from. I want people to get on. I want them to want to get on. I want them to believe that, if they have the talent and the application, there’s nothing they can’t achieve.

To do that, people need freedom and encouragement to take responsibility for their own lives. To know the pride and security of independence.

That’s the political divide. Politically correct and fashionable views often pull us in the opposite direction. Undermining opportunity by destroying choice and independence in favour of a patronising ‘we know best’ attitude.

But I don’t view people without position or money from some lofty pedestal. I was one of them. I remember their hopes and the obstacles in their way.

Those hopes are as varied as the leaves on the trees. For every family that wants to save there’s another that wants to spend. For every family that wants to decorate their living room, there’s another whose greatest dream is to own their home. For every child with the ambition to bat for England, there’s another thinking only of conquering disease.

You can’t lay out a common high road – and say to everyone “This and this and this is right for you”. You give each family the tools to make their own choices and find their own way forward. It’s called opportunity. Choice. Freedom.


Education is the first vital step on that road.

Every child deserves the best possible start in life, no matter where they live, who their parents are, what school they go to.

That’s why standards are crucial. The National Curriculum, testing, regular inspection, performance tables, action on failing schools and improving teacher training will all help raise standards.

Little by little, we’re doing away with the fads and fashions that short-changed a generation of children.

They called it progressive education. But it took us backwards, not forwards. Educational theorists said that to stretch minds and push talent was narrowing. Salting away facts and knowledge would kill self-expression. Testing children and telling them if they weren’t doing well enough would lower their morale. That was such folly, such crippling folly.

Because facts give you armour and argument and self-esteem. Tests tell a teacher how much a child has learnt. And competition at school is preparation for life beyond school.

But facts were out. Tests were out. Competition was out. And – of course – selection was out.

So the public schools weren’t abolished, but grammar schools were. Progressive education was a tragi-comedy. It betrayed the very children it meant to help – those from low and middle income backgrounds.

In an opportunity society, every parent should be able to choose a good school for their child. If they wish to choose private education, they should be free to do so without political hectoring. That choice is part of freedom as well. But they shouldn’t have to pay for good education. They shouldn’t have to pay for choice. And they shouldn’t have to pay for their views as parents to count. They shouldn’t have to pay to ensure they receive good information about how their child is doing. And they shouldn’t have to pay for the sort of school that is right for their child.

So we’ve created a spectrum of schools. A spectrum that reflects the fact that every child is different. Grant-maintained schools, specialist schools, church schools, city technology colleges, and grammar schools.

We are currently considering how to increase that rich variety with more selective schools. We’re consulting on raising the percentage of pupils that schools can select without seeking prior approval from government.

Selective schools represent an important part of the rich spectrum of schools which has become one of the great legacies of the Government’s education policies.

In addition, we have expanded the Assisted Places Scheme and are currently doubling the number of places available.

Some people would like to abolish selective schools and the Assisted Places Scheme.

That’s like saying “We don’t want you getting above yourself’. It’s towering humbug.

Well, I do want children to get above themselves. I want our youngsters to follow their own skills and ambitions, and not be confined by artificial barriers and outdated social conventions.

Some children will choose to learn vocational skills. I’ve had enough of people who look down on those children and treat them as second best. Society depends on the men and women who have practical skills to do practical jobs.

So practical skills are being put on an equal footing with academic subjects. We have a framework of vocational qualifications, with status and rigour. The old divide between universities and polytechnics has gone. Little by little, we’re chipping away at the prejudice that has turned too many of our young people away from vocational education.

One epic change, though, has already happened. Barely seventeen years ago, one in eight of our young people went on to higher education. Now, it’s one in three.

That’s more than a statistic: for countless families it’s something they never thought they’d see. I never had the chance to go to university, and neither did many of my generation. I’m glad, and I’m proud, that today’s young people aren’t shut out of these opportunities.

In our schools and colleges, I want the gates thrown open and ladders let down. Good education should be for the many, not just the few.

We have made many reforms in education. There are more to come. Evolution, not revolution, is our watchword. And our objective is an ever rising quality of education – in the interests of our children and in the interests of our country.

Politicians over-use the word ‘passionately’. But if I ever wanted something passionately in my life, I want that.


I’ve welcomed the chance to take on the forces of political correctness to get our young people a decent education. And I don’t intend to let political correctness destroy their chances of getting a job after school.

18 million people are unemployed in the European Union. The unemployed are a nation in their own right: one that exceeds the combined populations of Sweden, Denmark and Ireland.

Unemployment in Europe has been getting worse for about 30 years. In the last 20 years for every job created in Europe the USA has created 4.

We should ask why. And the uncomfortable answer is that Europe’s politicians have quite simply priced their workers out of jobs.

To be popular, politicians have imposed obligations on employers and benefits on employees. And, although they were well meaning, they have overdone it. So fewer people have jobs. It’s affecting young people most of all.

In France, over a quarter of young people are unemployed. In Spain, almost a third are.

But here, in the United Kingdom, youth unemployment is below the European average. We’ve more of our people in work, and fewer out of it, than any major European country.

It costs less to employ someone here in Britain than in Germany, France, Spain and Italy.

And I don’t mean in low wages. The OECD survey suggests that the average British family enjoys higher take home pay than their counterparts in Italy, France and Spain.

I mean costs on business. For every £100 spent on wages, a British employer has to add an extra £18 for non-wage costs. But that same employer would have to add £32 in Germany, £34 in Spain, £41 in France and £44 in Italy.

So why on earth should we sign the Social Chapter and put more burdens on business?

The employer made to pay above what he can afford employs fewer people. More – literally – means less. It hurts the young most of all, because they’re at the bottom of the ladder. So why have a minimum wage?

The Social Chapter and minimum wage are not only a threat to jobs. They’re economic handcuffs. They are a guarantee of higher unemployment when our main task must be to bring unemployment down.

The people who advocate these policies say they want to create jobs. And so they do – sincerely. But wanting isn’t doing. It’s a sort of wrongheaded piety. It’s a mistake the young people of Britain cannot afford – because it’s their future it would destroy.

So I won’t sign the Social Chapter. I won’t have a minimum wage. My aim is to build a dynamic, enterprise economy, in which people can build up a business free from the heavy hand of government.

An enterprise economy in which small businesses are encouraged. 95 per cent of firms employ fewer than 20 people. Those small firms are the power house of our economy. And I’m not going to throw a spanner in their works by foisting new burdens on them.

An enterprise economy is not negotiable.

Enterprise needs low taxes, which fire the incentive to work hard and invest. We’re now back on our tax-cutting agenda, giving people the opportunity to spend or save more of what they earn.

We want to cut taxes further and that means controlling public spending. When we spend public money – your money – we must spend it well. When we spend money on the benefit system, it must give protection to the needy but foster independence. And it must be a system we can afford.

Here too there’s plenty of political correctness to battle with. It’s easy to be warm hearted with other people’s money. Too many still argue that the way to entrench opportunities and security is to increase constantly the size of the welfare state.

But that’s not only unaffordable – it’s counterproductive. It perpetuates the myth that the State can satisfy the dreams of its people, individually and collectively. It ignores the fact that people have a desire and a responsibility to provide for themselves and their families. Our reforms of the benefit system have been designed to underpin incentives and offer a route to independence. Look at what we’ve done.

Extra help to get back to work. New programmes to stop people sliding into the misery of long-term unemployment. New ‘Project Work’ pilots, that recognise that people receiving unemployment benefit ultimately have an obligation to accept reasonable work on offer.

A whole new system of benefits for the disabled to help with their problems and make it easier for them to work.

Making family credit more generous and helping parents who need childcare when they’re out at work.

Finding practical solutions to the problems of single parents.

I have no patience with people whose only response to our reforms is to snipe and criticise. I don’t accept that the only good benefit system is a bigger benefit system.

Which would people most prefer? Income that comes from the state in the form of benefit? Or money they know they’ve earned and can spend as they please?

Which brings us to the fundamental freedom of choosing and owning.

Opportunity and ownership belong together. People naturally want to build to last.

Some call this materialism, and criticise the Government for putting such selfish ideas into people’s heads.

That’s patronising rubbish. The aspiration to choose and own was always there. People who had nothing always wanted to have something. All we did was make it possible.

Take pensions. Private investment for retirement now stands at nearly £600 billion. It rose by £100 billion last year, more than the sum total the state spent – £90 billion – on social security. Year by year the value of what people save privately for retirement increases.

The same goes for other savings. I’ve always believed that people should be encouraged to save for the long term. So when I was Chancellor, I launched TESSAs – tax free savings accounts. 4.5 million accounts were opened, and £30 billion was invested in them.

We gave people another choice. Did they want the state to own and run industries, or did they want a piece of it for themselves? The privatisations of the 1980s and the introduction of PEPs brought share-ownership to the people. Share-ownership is no longer confined to the leafy stockbroker belt in the Home Counties. Today, there are more shareholders than trade unionists. And, thanks to the last Budget, more people will be able to have a share in their own business.

But the most tangible way to take control of your life is to own your own home. Home ownership has risen dramatically over the last fifteen years of Conservative Government. I’m proud of that. I’m tired of hearing the people who became home-owners for the first time parodied as if they were only interested in making a fast buck.

The desire to own your own home is the most natural thing in the world. Ask anyone who has grown up being buffeted from one rented place to another, with little security and no chance to put down roots. Where’s the independence when you’re in the council’s hands to get the leaking roof mended? I understand only too well how people in that trap dream of a place they can call their own.

Yes, too many people who bought homes during the past few years have been hit by negative equity. But there are no quick fixes to put this right. Nor does the problem – which time will correct – negate the argument for home ownership. The best way to help the housing market is to keep interest rates – and thereby mortgage costs – down. They’ve now fallen by 8% since 1990 – which saves the average mortgage holder £160 pounds a month. Mortgage rates are at their lowest for 30 years.

Combine rising earnings, today’s level of house prices, low inflation and low mortgages, and you have one of the most favourable times ever to buy a home. It provides the right conditions for a sustainable recovery in the housing market. House prices are already starting to edge upwards. Most housing commentators expect this recovery to continue in the year ahead.

But let’s not forget: most people want to own their home not because it’s a financial speculation, but because of the independence and security home ownership brings. Ownership and independence that lie at the heart of an opportunity society.


Of course, the Labour Party also talks about opportunity. I don’t want to be unfair in analysing them, but there’s a world of difference between opportunity and opportunism.

The first is what I stand for: the other I concede to Labour. Labour have always opposed our opportunity policies.

They wouldn’t have given workers the chance to own shares in the once crumbling nationalised industries – although they’re the party that supported common ownership.

They wouldn’t have given tenants – suffering under Labour councils – the chance to buy their homes.

They wouldn’t give those parents, who face the appalling prospect of sending their children to failing schools run by Labour councils, the choice of schools in other areas – unless, of course, they sit in the Shadow Cabinet.

They wouldn’t give bright children from disadvantaged backgrounds the chance to go to private schools – denying them the education some Labour politicians enjoyed.

And to people who want to take home more of what they earn, to save or spend it as they wish, what do Labour say? “We’ll save you the trouble. We’ll spend the money for you.”

Labour think most people can’t do anything for themselves, and good people like Labour politicians should do it for them. In other words, “Leave it to Labour. Labour will tell you what to do”.

That’s an appalling mindset. Yet it’s how Labour think.

And it’s what they say to people they claim to represent. People often dependent on the state, but who want more independence from it. “Onwards and upwards” offends Labour’s sense of planning. In Labour’s eyes, they have to know their place – in Labour’s hands, state-controlled and dependent on it.

Of course there must always be a helping hand for those in need. But the state isn’t the panacea for all our ills. There is a limit to what the state can do and we politicians should admit it.

We should also tell people that the world is a complicated place and so are the problems we face. Complex problems cannot be resolved easily with the stroke of a pen on a cheque book or the flourish of a sound bite on the media.

But they can be solved if the state knows its place and keeps to it. And if it elevates to its proper role the freedom of choice and opportunity, the rights of reward and enterprise, and people’s obligations to themselves and their families.

Many worry these days about the role of the family. They have some reason to do so. Yet I remain an optimist. The family is the rock of security and personal freedom.

In a fast changing world, we need to do all we can to strengthen families, to bolster their freedom and independence to take responsibility for themselves.

I believe we should ensure that the tax and benefit system helps people who take their family responsibilities seriously. I believe that people should keep more of their own money to spend on themselves and their families.

One way of strengthening families’ independence is to allow parents to pass on more of their wealth and savings to the next generation.

Families continue to be, as they always have been, the main way in which we care for the old and sick in our society. That’s how it should be – and should remain. But as more people live longer, the demand for long term care can drain a family’s assets. So we’re looking closely at how we can help them meet those costs, and I hope we’ll have announcements to make shortly.

For the same reason, I have always harboured an aim to cut inheritance tax. Inheritance tax robs people of the chance to pass on to their children and grandchildren the rewards of their life’s work. Every parent would like their children to enjoy opportunities they didn’t have. That’s why I plan – as a long-term goal – to cut and then abolish inheritance tax.

But parents want to pass on to their children more than just the fruits of their life’s work. That’s why most parents care about their children’s education – and why education is the bedrock of opportunity. Yet they also want to know that their children are going to inherit a better world, with a richer quality of life.

Enriching Britain’s quality of life is central to the National Lottery. Across the country, hundreds of small sports clubs, amateur dramatic societies and local museums have been able to realise their dreams thanks to Lottery funds. In the past year, nearly £1,500 million has been raised for over 5,000 projects. Soon those awards will go wider still – to skilled athletes, artists, young people and others, so that British talent can flower and blossom as we enter the Millennium.

These projects are giving all young people the chance to take part in sport, the arts, music. They give new opportunities to the disabled, those in the inner cities and the disadvantaged. They help nurture a talent for life.


Decent homes, rewarding jobs, a good education, shares, quality of life. Giving more people those opportunities is what One Nation Conservatism is all about.

Do-gooders with schemes, plans, and grand designs won’t achieve that. Their sort of help rarely works, but simply reinforces divisions, destroys dignity and ambition. It conditions people – in that appalling phrase – to “know their place”.

I don’t want people to “know their place”. I never want to hear people saying “That isn’t for us” or “I could never do that”. I don’t want people to suffer from a poverty of aspiration. I want them to have high ambitions and the chance to achieve them.

We are now well beyond the recession that so inhibited our hopes and ambitions for the country. We will soon be setting out our future policies in detail. They will be centred on trusting the people, building enterprise, giving people freedom, extending further opportunity and choice, and setting the framework in which people can make the best of their lives as a result of their own efforts and their own decisions.

That is what the ancient Conservative adage – of trusting the people – really means.

It is the heart of what we are building. Some of the structure is in place. But more needs to be built and I am determined to do it.