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 Conservative Central Council Speech – 30 March 1996

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech made to Conservative Central Council on Saturday 30th March 1996.


Within a year or so we’ll fight a general election.

At stake will be not just who forms the government, but what that means.

In the Tory years, the quality of life has changed immeasurably for the better and now it’s moving up again.

We are poised for a step change in prosperity.

The world knows it and says it. The Opposition knows it – but denies it. Because Conservative success means Labour failure. But I can live with that. And so, I think, can you.

We must tell people about the opportunities ahead.

Tell them what’s at risk.

Never mind the opinion polls. Bucking the trend is the story of my life.

So, it’s time to stop underselling what we’ve done, what we stand for, and time to start selling what we care about and what we’re going to do.

Mr Chairman, as you know we have been holding hundreds of meetings up and down the country. It has been the biggest consultation exercise the party has ever had.

It’s shown our gut instincts haven’t changed: we still back the traditional values that brought us into the Party in the first place.

But we’ve always been able to move with the times.

So, we’ve been turning our beliefs into practical political action.


Now to business. First, some facts.

We’re enjoying the longest period of low inflation for nearly 50 years.

The lowest mortgage rates for 30 years.

Fewer days lost to strikes since records began.

More of our people in jobs, more investment.

And the lowest tax burden of any major European economy.

And yet it is fact, fact, fact. When – in all the long history of our country – could any Government have said as much?

This is the result of a government getting the important things right. It didn’t happen by magic. That’s the prize tough decisions have won for us.

Britain can be proud of what Britain is achieving. But we must go on. We must build on what we’ve done and make Britain the unrivalled Enterprise Centre of Europe.

There can be no future for high taxing, high spending governments. That’s a nightmare from the past. A socialist vision – let it go. We don’t want it back.

Our aim is to get taxes down.

And not only income tax. I want to cut and, when possible, abolish inheritance tax. Labour wince when I say that.

But I can’t defend a tax that stops children inheriting what their parents have worked to earn and save.

It’s a tax on the family. And helping the family is what we’re about.

So I don’t want our children to see the fruits of their parent’s life time work disappear forever into the Government’s coffers. I just believe it’s wrong.

Taxes should come from a growing economy. And a growing economy comes from competition – the drive of the market.

Competition works.

The state once ran industries into the ground, often. But look at them now.

Telephones – now amongst the cheapest in Europe.

Electricity – where prices have fallen and are set to fall further.

Gas – where prices have fallen by 20% and are set to fall further still.

This hasn’t happened in the water industry – yet. But it will. And I’ll tell you why.

Because we’re going to introduce competition into the water industry. It’s worked wonders in gas, phones and electricity. And it should do the same for water.

How Labour hate all this. They know none of it would have happened if they’d been in power. They mouth the words of the market – but they don’t believe a syllable.

They loathe the thought of the private ownership of British Rail.

They can’t stomach the fact that enterprise and competition will improve the service and bring down the price.

They’re positively mortified that new private investment will build in a new railway system for a new millennium.

They’d rather defend a public sector monopoly that’s become a music hall joke.

Perhaps you think I’m being unfair.

But am I?

These are the same people who said that privatising British Airways would turn it into the pantomime horse of capitalism.

Well, some pantomime. Some horse.

British Airways is now one of the most successful airlines in the world.

Don’t ask me. Just ask the champagne socialists. Would they rather travel on British Airways or good old state run Aeroflot?

Privatisation has given millions of people the chance to own shares. There are now more shareholders than trade unionists. And there are many Trade Unionists who are shareholders.

Take the rail union, RMT.

They own shares in privatised companies. They want the profits of the market. But that doesn’t stop them attacking the privatisation of British Rail.

Don’t do as I do. Do as I say. That’s the theme that runs right through the Labour movement.

Once Labour promised common ownership. Now they call it stakeholding. But – as usual – it’s common deception.

We mean ownership by individuals for themselves and their families. They don’t.

We want to make the capital owning democracy a living reality. They don’t.

They want people’s wealth. We want wealth for the people.

More ownership.

More people owning a share of the company they work for.

Let’s be clear. I’m not just talking about directors or managers on the executive floor. I’m talking about staff on the factory floor and at the supermarket checkout. They can be owners too.

In the last Budget, Ken Clarke made it even more attractive for employees to own shares in their company. Now it’s up to industry to spread employee share ownership.

Here’s a challenge for them. Let’s have the majority of workers in Britain’s large companies holding shares in those companies by the end of this decade.

That will be an important part of making Britain an enterprise culture to its core.

We must make change work for us. That’s what enterprise is about.

Twenty years ago, pocket calculators were an oddity. Portable phones were hardly heard of. The information superhighway was somewhere off the M6. A lap top was something you sat on, not worked on.

We’re having to learn a whole new vocabulary.

New technology is going to affect all our lives.

We’ll be able to work or shop from home, to send messages to anyone, anywhere, any time. These opportunities are on our doorstep, but for many people it’s still difficult to imagine. We need to open the Nation’s mind to the opportunities ahead.

So we’re getting together with industry on a project for the millennium. To let as many people as possible try out computers – in schools, libraries and shops in the high street. These skills will equip us for the new century. They offer tremendous and exciting opportunities. We need to know about them.

We’re not just creating jobs and prosperity, this year and next year. We’re out to build the enterprise and skills to secure jobs and prosperity that lasts.


I tell you who does love these new things: children.

Tomorrow’s their world. But they won’t stand a chance of making the most of it unless we deliver world class education.

Education is the door to opportunity.

Every parent wants the best for their children. Especially parents in the Shadow Cabinet.

There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s every parent’s right.

But there’s the little matter of other people’s children too.

We believe it’s right to offer them the best as well.

We do. Labour don’t. And that’s the difference.

Labour can’t decide its policy on education.

For GM schools, against GM schools: for selection, against selection.

Every time they settle the line, some Labour frontbencher breaks it.

While they divide, we deliver.

Under the Conservatives, education has changed a lot.

Year by year, we’ve been clawing back from the worst excesses of the comprehensive system. Choice is expanding. Standards are rising.

The National Curriculum, tests, performance tables, regular inspection, a whole range of schools.

All this is new.

But there’s more to be done.

Gillian Shephard has put standards and discipline firmly back on the agenda – and she’ll have more to say about them soon.

Teachers deserve our support on this and I promise you, they’ll get it.

Every parent is concerned about those crucial years at the start of schooling. So we’re turning nursery education over time from a nice dream to a reality for every four year old whose parents want it.

But that’s not all. We have ambitions to ensure that by the time children are seven, they can master the basic skills that underpin all learning.

Teaching children basic skills is just the bare minimum. Children need to use today’s technology with confidence. They can access a huge library of information in seconds. The computer can be their personal tutor to help them learn arithmetic or a foreign language.

So we’re working on training teachers and staff, putting the latest kit in our schools and linking schools up to the new world of information.

Britain already has a head start.

We’re now developing substantial and practical plans to build on that progress. To engage industry and private finance in our ambitions to transform technology in schools for the next century. Giving our nation’s children the skills they’ll need for our nation’s future.

Not just pipe dreams – we’re delivering practical action.

The education system we’re building reflects a simple truth every child is different. And every child is special.

Let me turn to a controversial matter.

I believe choice and selection does have a place in education. And so do you.

Not the old 11 plus – that’s gone – but more selection in schools. And if parents want them, that could mean more schools like the old grammar schools.

It’s time to say goodbye to the political correctness of the levellers-down. We’re going to give all schools more control over their own affairs.

Earlier this week, Gillian Shephard set out our aim: to give all schools as much power as possible to take their decisions about as much as possible of their budgets.

More of the money delivered straight into the hands of teachers and governors, bypassing bureaucracy.

We want to free our schools from the straitjacket of uniformity.

Freedom to demand the best from our brightest pupils.

Freedom to help the weaker pupil.

Freedom to give opportunity to every pupil.

Conservatism instinctively knows that freedom works.

Mr Chairman, there’s another point: there’s no place for intellectual snobbery in the classroom.

Practical skills must be respected.

We’re planning a single clear national framework of qualifications with common certificates that all children can aim for. And with that will come new opportunities to combine academic work with learning at work. New modem apprenticeships are a success. We intend to open that opportunity to more and more of our young people.


Mr. Chairman, fate does not equip everyone with the same gifts or the same good fortune. We are a generous hearted nation. We’re more than willing to help those who genuinely need it.

I believe we must encourage the successful so that we can protect those who need help.

To do that, we must build a welfare system we can afford: one that reflects Conservative values – self-sufficiency. Responsibility. Independence.

That means doing three things.

First, cracking down on fraud and abuse. On Monday, Peter Lilley will launch another step in our campaign – an area by area focus to put the spotlight on benefit cheats. We’re going to protect the taxpayer and close down the welfare rackets.

Second, we’re going to direct money to those who genuinely need it to help them back on their feet.

People out of work and looking for a job deserve help. They’ll get it.

The long term unemployed need special help. They too will get it. We’re piloting schemes to help get them back to work. But after that, if they refuse to accept work on offer, their benefit will be reduced. I believe that’s fair and right.

Third, we must help people secure independence for themselves and their families.

More people are living longer. We need to help families support relatives who can no longer be cared for at home. Our Party feels strongly about this.

So, next month we’ll set out our proposals to deal with this challenge – to help protect the family home and lifetime’s savings.

Our starting point is the classic Conservative theme of partnership.

Very simply, if people take out insurance to help pay for their care, the state will reward their contribution by safeguarding more of their assets when that insurance runs out.

And we’re looking at ideas to help people in the near future, not just in the far distance. There is no perfect solution to this. But our ideas are fresh and far- reaching.

Responsibility will be rewarded. Prudence will be recognised. And the elderly will have the chance to protect the savings they’ve worked for all their lives.

Public services

Mr. Chairman, the usual dismal voices say Britain won’t be able to afford high quality public services in the future. I think that’s nonsense.

We taxpayers pay for public services. We pay with taxes compulsorily taken from our income. I’ll tell you what I think.

We taxpayers have a right to expect the best as if we’re paying cash on the nail. In fact, we’ve done better; we’ve paid in advance. And when we deal with the public sector, we shouldn’t be shunted from file to file.

To make sure they’re not, we’re breaking down the large bureaucracies.

Wherever possible, less bureaucracy at the centre, more choice at the grassroots.

In this, we are the polar opposite to Labour.

They’re wedded to control by anyone except the people. Bureaucracy, not taxpayers. Trade unions, not consumers. Politicians, not people. Labour don’t trust people. Unless they’re people in authority – lots of them – calling the shots.

I’m not prepared to let public services remain an outcrop of socialist planning, a kind of prescriptive service, oblivious to the needs and wishes of the people who pay for it.

So, let’s have an end to the faceless institutions, the bureaucratic assault courses, the unanswered telephones, all run from the top down. Instead, services should be run on a human scale. Decisions taken close to those they affect. And that’s what we’re building. The benefits are already clear.

In self-governing schools – schools run by teachers, governors and parents.

And in our hospitals – where team work has cut waiting lists. Are our reforms working? Yes – indeed they are.

One example: since our reforms began, the number of people waiting more than a year for an operation has fallen by 90%. Thousands of people, old and young, are enjoying a better quality of life because they have been treated better and earlier.

Let no one doubt our commitment to our National Health Service. Our commitment is there – in concrete, bricks and mortar.

Labour founded the NHS. They’re proud of it. But built it up. Every week, since 1979, we’ve seen a new capital scheme worth a million pounds.

And we should be proud of that.

And we should also be proud that, thanks to our reforms, GPs now have greater power and freedom to serve more and more of their patients’ needs.

We’re going to build on that. We want to give Britain’s 30,000 GPs the freedom to provide, in the communities they serve, the treatments that people need.

In the summer, we’ll set out some of the next steps down this road – including opportunities for GPs to offer a range of hospital treatments in their surgeries.

Our aim now is a far reaching one: it is to allow GPs’ practices to become the cottage hospitals of the 21st century. To ensure we offer better health care, closer to people, than any other nation can provide.

Law and Order

Mr Chairman, in building Our Nation’s Future we must also take forward our natural Conservative instincts for a society based on law and order.

For decades rising crime and lawlessness seemed unstoppable.

There was a culture that tried to excuse crime.

But crime is caused not by society, by poverty, by circumstances. It’s caused by criminals kicking the door in for personal gain.

For every crime there is a victim. A victim for whom the fear, loss, outrage and intrusion far outweigh the financial consequences.

Let me take one illustration of many.


I had a flat burgled many years ago. Not much was taken because there wasn’t much to take.

But it was vandalised.

I was young. Fit. But I never felt quite the same in that flat again.

How much worse for people whose family home has been ransacked.

Whose possessions have been rifled through, whose security and safety shattered – quite apart from financial loss.

I have no hesitation in seeking tougher punishment for such a crime. And especially for the criminal who burgles again and again – the serial thief.

Let me tell the Conference: I am absolutely behind Michael Howard’s proposals to secure longer sentences for those who commit crimes like this time and again. And we will introduce laws to that effect.

I believe it’s a fair punishment. Let me tell you why. I believe it will deter.

But more important still, if we know somebody is likely to go out and commit more crimes, we owe it to the public to put them out of harm’s way.

That’s the surest way to continue cutting the crime rate. And that’s exactly what we’ll do.

But we need to put equal emphasis on order – or perhaps civility. On a society where the decent common courtesies are expected and observed.

We should not have to tolerate loutish behaviour. People’s rights to quiet and privacy should be respected. Simple obvious rules – on the roads, in the parks, on public transport – should be followed.

To some, these things may seem unimportant compared with major crimes. But they cause many people distress in their daily lives.

So, as we build and extend the role of schemes like neighbourhood watch, we’ll put order as well as law back where it belongs – in our communities.

So when people say to me, is it cost effective to have policemen on the beat, to have special constables patrolling our neighbourhoods, my answer is unequivocally yes. That’s how we’ll give people reassurance. That’s how we’ll nip crime in the bud.

That’s what you want. That’s what we’ll deliver.

The Nation

Mr Chairman, amidst a sea of change, a united nation brings security. We need that security now more than ever.

Our nation’s history is one of change. But sensible, careful change, never change for change’s sake.

Scotland and England united are the cement that binds the United Kingdom together. Scotland is vital to the Union. The Union is vital to Scotland. And the whole United Kingdom would suffer if that Union were damaged.

For me, this issue dwarfs the daily political debates.

Some cynics ask: why do I care about the Union? After all, they say, why should I care about devolution? With Scotland out of the Union, there’s more likely to be entrenched Conservative majorities at Westminster for ever and a day.

That may be true, but they’re forgetting the overall interest of the United Kingdom.

I reject the narrow selfishness of a little England or a little Scotland. I believe that Scotland and England – and Wales and Northern Ireland – have all benefited from the historic constitutional settlement which created our United Kingdom. A unity Labour plans put at risk.

So Scotland faces a choice.

It can share in that success – lead it even – and be at the heart of the Enterprise Centre of Europe.

Or it can cut itself off. Saddle itself with higher taxes. Destroy jobs with the Social Chapter and minimum wage – carrots held out by Labour that would become sticks across industries’ backs.

And it would watch, helplessly, as investors get out their pocket calculators and their airflight timetables and go away.

The scheme for a tax-raising Scottish parliament is separatism by instalments. The Scottish Nationalists have already acclaimed it as the fast track to independence and they’re right.

Could there honourably be devolution without fewer Scottish members at Westminster? No, there could not. Without such a cut, Scotland would become the most over-represented part of the United Kingdom. There’s a word for that – an old word: gerrymandering.

And could it possibly be right that Scottish MPs at Westminster should be able to vote on purely English matters, while English MPs would have no say over matters devolved to a Scottish Parliament?

My answer to that is simple.

‘I don’t believe that we could for ever maintain a situation in which Scots and Welsh Members vote on, say, English education and pay beds while the English cannot vote on Scottish and Welsh equivalents’. You won’t ever guess who said that. Robin Cook. That’s what Robin Cook thinks. The first good sense he’s ever spoken.

Then there’s Labour’s Tartan Tax. Why should people in Scotland pay more tax than in England? What does the Labour Party have against the Scots?

Labour have the cheek to suggest that they might even cut taxes. What an untruth to set before the nation! For how long do they think English MPs will vote 30% more money to Scotland so that a Scottish Assembly can use it to cut taxes north of Berwick? The proposition is ludicrous.

Mr Chairman, my commitment to the Union is total. It’s not just a political commitment. It’s emotional as well. I admit it. And I’m not ashamed of that.

I feel, with every fibre of my being, that the result of this folly would be the dismemberment of the United Kingdom.

That would be the burial of our history, the interment of a great good. It would deprive future generations of a sane, flexible, tolerant system. It would weaken England, weaken Scotland and would begin the destruction of a kingdom whose very reason for being is to be united.

People who support a tax-raising Scottish parliament are sowing dragon’s teeth. These proposals will lead – implacably and irrevocably – to the break-up of the United Kingdom. That is not speculation, it is fact. I do not say “may” or “might”; I say “will”.

Scotland and the Scots are central to the British identity. We are that close.

Let us work and live together, as one nation, as we have been for centuries. If we do anything else, we shall grow smaller – all of us – separately.


Mr Chairman, I’ve set out some of our plans. There is much more yet to come.

Ahead of our United Kingdom lies tremendous – and exciting – opportunities.

The opportunity for more people to realise their ambitions and their hopes and their dreams.

A better life for their family. Their own home. Their own savings. A secure job. A good education for their children.

I became a Conservative because I was brought up to be proud of our country. Our traditions, our heritage.

I still am.

And so are the vast majority of the British people.

Our hopes are their hopes.

That’s why we’ve trounced Labour four times in a row.

And that’s why we’ll do it again.