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 in Rugby – 26 April 1996

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech in Rugby made on Friday 26th April 1996.


Let me touch on a number of things including prospects and some of the things I may say to you over the next few minutes may perhaps surprise you, but I hope pleasantly in a range of ways. Let me firstly just set out precisely where we are economically and how we got there.

It is not all that long ago that we and the rest of western Europe, the United States, Japan, most of the world in fact, south east Asia perhaps excluded, were in the midst of perhaps the most severe recession that we had seen for 20 years or more. When we went into that recession, I made a promise to myself and to my colleagues that we have kept and that is vital for the future of our economy. The promise I made was this: we will do nothing during the recession that will mean when we come out of the recession we have laid the seeds for future problems. Time and time again that has happened in recessions, as economic cycle succeeds economic cycle since the War we have seen that problem. Recession, pressure, the Government takes action, it gets out of the recession but the seeds are laid for a fresh inflationary spiral and we go, after another move in the economic cycle, back into the same problems. How many times have we seen that happen since the War?

I have had vivid experience of inflation. You have of course as businessmen, you know the perils of it, I needn’t spell them out to you, but I have to say to you, quite apart from the business perils there is a social implication to inflation as well that I feel extremely strongly about, too strongly perhaps you may feel but I will express it for you:

If you have ever been in a position where you wonder at the beginning of the week whether your family can pay the bills at the end of the week because the prices are going up, then you begin to see inflation not as some abstract economic theory but as something that threatens the very security of the way you live so I loathe inflation and I make no secret of the fact that I loathe it and we have taken every precaution we can to prevent that inflationary genie escaping from the bottle again and what is the result of what we have done during the period of the recession. And I would like you to bear in mind when I say that that we have lived in the same economic climate as our partners in Germany, France and other parts of western Europe. What are our economic circumstances now?

We have inflation under 3 per cent for the third successive year and it is still going down, we will hit our target of 2.5 per cent or less at the time of the next general election. Apart from the social implications, you don’t have to worry in your future planning in the way you once did about whether Your investments are going to soar in cost because of inflation or whether the projections upon which you based your investment will suddenly fall apart. That is the first point to be made.

The second point is that a very unusual economic trick has been pulled. Not only has inflation come down but contrary to what we have often seen, inflation has come down in parallel with unemployment. Unemployment has dropped by three-quarters of a million in the last couple of years or so.

What has happened elsewhere in western Europe in those countries in the same markets, in the same economic environment? As our unemployment has fallen steadily, theirs has gone up. If you look at Germany, their unemployment rising far higher than ours; in France, their unemployment round about 12 per cent, stuck, no sign of it coming down. We are below 8 per cent and falling. And neither is that a false measure. Not only do we have a lower rate of measured unemployment, we have a higher percentage of our workforce actually in jobs than any major economy across Europe through inflation below 3 per cent and falling and unemployment falling. There are not a lot of people in this room who will remember when that combination was as secure as it is at the present time.

Has it been done at the expense of nil growth? We have had larger growth in our economy over the last couple of years than our competitors across Europe; that is going to be the case this year, it is going to be the case next year, so low inflation and falling, too high unemployment but lower than anybody else and falling and growth as good or better than any of the other European countries. What has happened to competitiveness? You know very well what has happened to competitiveness. We are now taking markets we haven’t had for generations in this country, exports are running at record levels. Go and listen not to what I say – I suppose there is an element of “well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?” Go and see what German industrialists and other people say, have a look at the booklets on your chairs and see what businessmen here and politicians and businessmen abroad have to say about the British economy. There was a time when we stood here and looked at the economies of our competitors and wondered how they did it. I wish the extent of fashionable opinion in this country would wake up to the fact that that is now happening in reverse; those countries abroad are now looking at Britain and saying: “What has happened to her? How has she suddenly produced an inflation record like this, a job-creation record like this, a growth record like this and increased her competitiveness?” so that as we meet here today, we are probably the most competitive industrial nation in western Europe.

That is where we are, the question is what do we do with it because that factor is apparent. What we have built is the platform for future prosperity but the prosperity itself needs to be built and it needs to trickle down to the people up and down this country who by their efforts have played a part in creating the opportunities that now lie in front of us.

We had to put up taxes, something I loathed doing but it was taxes going up or high borrowing and interest rates going up instead. But now we have begun to reduce taxes, the first tax reductions are in this month’s pay packet and they are well worth having. I hope we will be in a position to do more, as soon as we prudently can, we most certainly will.

Let me touch on two or three other things:

Peter mentioned the social chapter. That is one of the principal reasons why we are more competitive than other countries. Not the social chapter as it is but social expenditure as it is across Europe. Let me give you the figures:

For every £100 in wages that a British employer pays, it costs them an extra £18 in employers’ national insurance contributions and on-costs of that sort. In France, Germany, Spain and Italy, it is between £30 and £45, a huge competitive difference.

Why does the social chapter matter? Our political opponents say it is a set of principles – a set of principles like Cathy of Clade [phon] was conductor of music! It is not a set of principles. These are policies that you can’t opt out of once you sign the social chapter and the problem is not what is in the social chapter today, it is what would go into the social chapter once every European country was signed up to it and what would go into it is the sort of social provision that exists in the nation states of Europe but not here but that would come into the social chapter by qualified majority vote to diminish our competitiveness against our partners were we to be so foolish as to sign the social chapter. Let me give you a couple of illustrations:

There are some very large companies in countries like Germany and Austria; if they had to make staff changes perhaps for an extremely good economic reason, they can’t do it without going through a works council if they have more than 5 employees. If you want to work overtime in the country of one of our European competitors, you actually have to get permission from the government in order to work overtime. Can you imagine the questions? “Are the staff fit? Is it Sunday? How much are you paying? What is the reason for this?” By the time you have sorted all that out, the export order for which you wanted your workers to work overtime has gone to Britain I hope, because we are beginning increasingly to be able to [indistinct].

Let me just say a word about taxes:

All the figures upon which people can base their broad tax projections are in the public sector. You can’t be detailed, I accept, but the broad figures are there, there is nothing hidden, our accounts are as open as the accounts of any nation in the world so anyone can have a pretty good idea what their tax objectives are, they don’t have to hide behind obfuscation and downright deceit.

My tax objectives are perfectly transparent and clear. As soon as I am able, I wish to reduce taxes further and I wish to go down to a 20 pence basic rate of tax, I am not changing the upper rate of tax and then I want to tackle capital taxes because I think they damage the market, they damage job creation and what we need is job creation and a competitive environment to keep our people in work and to put more of our people in work. These are our objectives.

What are our opponents’ objectives? It is very difficult to say. When asked privately, the leader of the Labour Party said: “We aren’t going to touch people up to £30,000!” which I would have thought to any rational observer would have meant they are going to touch people earning over £30,000 but after that remarkable slip of the tongue, one of the leader of the Labour Party’s minders rushed along to the press to say: “He didn’t say that, he didn’t mean it, it never happened!” Claire Short – bless her honest, cotton-picking socks! – [laughter] seems to think it should happen; she is very well paid. Mr. Prescott is middle class, he is very well paid! Nobody doubts where the instincts of the Labour Party lie or what will happen. I don’t know what the editors of some of the great Labour-supporting newspapers who earn large sums of money think, I hope they have worked out how much it is going to cost them if the upper rate of tax goes up from 40 pence to 50 pence which is the minimum demand of the Labour Party in the House of Commons or perhaps 60 pence but certainly a very expensive proposition.

The people I am concerned about are the people up and down the country who at the moment are being told one thing by the leadership when it is transparent that that is not remotely what their position would be likely to be were they in government. That tax slip of Mr. Blair’s was brushed to one side. Gordon Brown was a bit more explicit on another aspect, on child benefit. Because he is being pressed on tax, he decided he had better display a touch of virility so he decided to announce that he was going to take away child benefit for people with families of youngsters between the ages of 16 and 18 who decide to stay on at school. Let me say something about this:

I left school at 16. I didn’t leave school at 16 because I didn’t want to stay, I didn’t leave school at 16 because my parents wanted me to leave school at 16. I left school at 16 because we could not afford for me to stay at school and I chose to go out and work; my parents didn’t like it but I chose to go out to work.

If you take child benefit away from any youngster in any family, perhaps a low-income family, perhaps not but very many families on low incomes are desperately keen that their children should have a better education, a better opportunity, a better chance than they ever had and these days 1 in 3 of our youngsters go through A-levels and on to university and I am proud of that and I defend the expenditure to make sure that that is possible but if in future Labour were to carry out this plan and have the opportunity, you have a youngster of 16, 17 or 18 going on to A-levels, as they should, they will lose a £560 child benefit every year for each child. Most families have two children, often only a couple of years between them, you will get a rolling effect that dwarfs any tax changes we have seen for generations and how well-targeted it is, targeted directly upon many of the people who have the lowest incomes in the country – £560 a year gone.

Apart from the stupidity of that in inhibiting youngsters whose parents have modest incomes going on to further education, it is thoroughly dishonest for this reason: child benefit was a tax allowance. We changed it from a tax allowance to a cash benefit payment so that it actually went directly to the mothers to be used predominantly for the children because of concerns that that wasn’t happening. What would be happenings is you would be taking away a tax allowance and what is the equivalent in tax? For someone on average earnings, that is the equivalent of an increase of 5 pence in the pound on the standard rate of income tax if that was actually withdrawn from families. That has crept out without the Labour Party realising exactly what it would have meant for people. If that has crept out under pressure, I would like to know what else is lying hidden that needs to come out and that we need to examine before we get towards the next general election.

Peter asked whether we are going to win. I remember Peter asked me that before the last general election. [Laughter]. I look forward to Peter asking me that before the next general election but one and I will give him the same answer: yes, we are going to win and I will tell you why we are going to win:

We are going to win because when you strip away the absurd hyper-exaggeration of everyday news events, what is happening in this country at the moment is that we are producing the most stable economic platform that we have seen for generations. What a tragedy it would be if, having gone through all that has happened in the last few years to create that environment and that opportunity, it were to be casually tossed away with the sort of policies that a change of government would bring about.

I don’t think that will happen but I don’t base my confidence only upon the economy though I am confident about the economy. I base it on one or two other things that hit here [touching part of body?] rather than in the wallet and the first of those is the proposal for constitutional change that our opponents have. If you wanted to draw up a recipe that would divide and break up the United Kingdom, you would draw up the proposal fox constitutional change and particularly a tax-gathering parliament in Scotland that the Labour Party have committed themselves to. Once you get that parliament in Scotland, within a measurably short period of time if you are going to have the parliament, you would have to have a Labour government and Labour governments; like all governments, become unpopular.

Mid-term elections in Scotland and who is likely to win? There is a possibility that the Scottish Nationalists:- separatist party openly declared for separatism – would become the majority party in the Scottish parliament and what mandate are they going to claim? Is it really credible to have a Scottish tax-gathering parliament and still have public expenditure from the rest of the United Kingdom spent in Scotland at a much greater level per head of population than it is in England? Of course it isn’t practical. Is it practical to have Scottish MPs at Westminster voting on matters that affect England while the same English MPs in England cannot vote on the same matters affecting Scotland? What sort of recipe for chaos is being unleashed with its ill-thought-out porridge that they are producing for Scotland?

What have they got against the Scots that they should pay more taxes? What have the Scots got against themselves that they could contemplate any party that would want them to pay more tax?

Then there is the question of Europe. No issue has been more explosive, no issue has been more misrepresented, no issue has been more conducted in stereotypes with the debate often determining itself only on the fringes of argument – those who are fantastically opposed to Europe and those who are fantastically in favour of Europe. There is a middle and it is a very large middle. I don’t know how many of the businessmen here have half their trade going to the European Union and back but I bet a majority of you do because half of all our trade goes to Europe and back so we have a real interest in playing a constructive role and arguing our case. Removing our influence and standing on the outskirts would mean that the problems that we are having with beef, where I am in great dispute with our European partners, could be magnified over a whole range of issues if we were outside the European Union or not playing a part in trying to determine the rules of the European Union but that doesn’t mean we are going to go into a federal Europe.

I can tell you quite frankly I have no intention whatsoever of going down the route to a federal Europe. I just don’t believe it would be right for Europe to go in that direction and I know that it would not be right for this country to go in that direction and we have no intention whatsoever of doing so. We will argue the case, we will debate the case, we will win the case – in which case all is well – or we will not win the case and we will just say “No! You can go in that direction if you like but we are not!”.

At Maastricht, we had huge disputes. Nobody truly believed that I would come back from the Maastricht debates having said “Non to the social chapter and “No” to a single currency with the opt-out. The City didn’t really believe that, none of the newspapers believed it. If you promise not to tell anybody, even some of my colleagues in the House of Commons didn’t believe it! [Laughter]. I know you will find that hard to believe [laughter] but I promise – and tell not a soul – that they didn’t. But at the end of the negotiations there was a choice: no treaty at all because it is agreed by unanimity or recognising that Britain has a distinct view and we are not going to be pushed in that direction.

At the inter-governmental conference in front of us, the same principles will apply. I have set out with great clarity what our negotiating position is in the negotiations and if I have to say’ “No” I will say “No”. I did before and I will again, not because of parliamentary pressures at home, not because of public opinion at home – not just because of those things but because what is in the White Paper on Europe is what I believe about Europe and I have to say I am pretty fed up with the absurd commentary which says you either have to be on one wing of the European argument or the other wing to have any views at all. Well my views are very clear. On one hand, I am being told always that I am shifting my position, on the other I am being told I am being told I am too stubborn and why don’t I listen to people. I am happy to accept one of those if someone can make a credible case for it but I am just a touch concerned that having both of them often on the same day on the same page of the same newspaper written by its seems to me the same person who clearly is not perhaps wholly convinced of his case.

We are not going down the federal Europe route but our political opponents are, the Liberals because they believe in it, the Labour Party because they believe it is fashionable. I just believe it is wrong and when we come to the general election that will be a big division so there will be divisions on tax, divisions on the constitution, divisions on Europe and great divisions on education and other matters.

The fact of the matter is, Peter, when people come to vote in a general election, forget the nonsense of by-elections, the protests – “Oh my God, I’m sick of those people, let’s not bother to come out and vote today!”. You have got real issues, issues that affect the family, the money, the future, the country and upon those issues I am perfectly prepared to take my Conservative case to the country and just as I recall at the last general election as we entered the last week 7 or 8 per cent behind on the Sunday before the election, with every newspaper writing us off and wondering what Mr. Kinnock was going to do in Downing Street, I didn’t believe the polls then, I don’t believe them now, I thought we would win then and I was right, I think we will now and I will be right again. [Applause].