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 to the Newspaper Society – 1 May 1996

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech to the Newspaper Society, held in London on Wednesday 1st May 1996.


[Small section missing] What we see in our legislation is an environment in which the media thrives and is competitive without creating a monopolistic situation. I have to say to you it is a difficult balance to keep. I believe it is an intensely important balance in the democratic debate, but I don’t pretend to you that it is one that is readily obvious and one that can be achieved without a great deal of discussion and thought. For what we are seeking to do in Cross Media Ownership provisions is to exploit new opportunities and new technologies while ensuring that we protect diversity. Of course we have listened to the representations we have had by the regional press and national press on the subject of ownership, and we will continue to listen to them. We sought to lift controls which restrict the growth of vibrant media companies. All over the United Kingdom, companies, whether national or local, are finding themselves in a more competitive environment than any they have ever faced in the past. We seek to reflect that across a whole range of legislation and to try and find a more favourable environment than ever before for the newspaper industry, and indeed every other industry to operate.

One thing I am sure of, the press expect the government to protect their freedoms, and if I may say so, sometimes under some provocation we have sought to do precisely that – to ensure that the press is free and unfettered to carry out its proper goal in the democratic debate. Not for us the veiled threats that if the press misbehave at the next general election they can expect curbs. Others may make those threats, indeed have done, we certainly don’t. And I think also it is well worth people looking at the commitment to put the European Convention on Human Rights into British Law, because a careful examination of that will show you that the voluntary code on press complaints could be replaced by regulations by courts, were that to be incorporated into domestic law.

Now of course changes in the newspaper industry were essential, are essential, and I have no doubt will continue to be essential in the future because of the competitive market in which you operate. Old jobs, hallowed, dignified by tradition are suddenly overtaken by an entirely new way of doing things. Every day in the House of Commons l face appeals to fear of change, fear of a change, appeals which want to ignore change, that want to stop it and always itches to control it.

I must say to you, I believe that although that may sometimes be good politics in the short-term, it is bad statesmanship. Unless this country actually faces the need for change – unpopular and uncomfortable though it may be for governors and governed alike – unless we actually meet those changes, face those changes and make those changes, we will not provide a business environment for the present, or for the future, in which British industry and commerce can survive and thrive. And I believe we have to make those changes, however difficult they may be.

Labour have a new language these days, the pretentious language of ‘stakeholding’. I have to say to you, and I do not believe I am alone in this, that I am not entirely sure what it means or what it amounts to. It does seem to me to be a retreat into some cosy world of the past, that our future will only be bright if we look at the future, make the changes that are necessary, uncomfortable though they may often be, in order that industry and commerce can seize the opportunities that undoubtedly are there. And that can be done.

Your industry perhaps above all, both nationally and locally, your industry is a classic example of how we embrace change with confidence. What we have seen in the last decade or so is an extraordinary burgeoning of new titles, new media companies, and whole new media industries.

Information, education, communication – they are some of the key watchwords of the future. And we in Britain are uniquely well placed to take advantage of these global changes. The liberalisation of the whole telecommunications industry, the massive asset of the English language – all of this shows why your industry and across the economy as a whole, we can make Britain the Enterprise Centre of Europe, an increasingly effective and efficient force on the international business environment.

We are now, as we meet here today, within a year of a General Election. And I believe as we get closer to that election people will increasingly wish to focus on the substance of the political debate. And I emphasise the substance. The important questions about substance and about policy are really very straight forward. Will it work? Does it make sense? Does it add up? Will we be better off, or worse off, if we take this particular route? How does this policy or that policy actually affect our national interests?

They are the key questions and what we, the politicians, and what you, the media, must ensure is that those issues and principles are properly set out, exposed and challenged as well. Those questions affect our future. They deserve an answer from the politicians, and not just evasions.

But I say “politicians and media” have a responsibility because I believe we both do. And let me explain to you why I say that. We have as sophisticated an electorate in this country as in any country in the world – sophisticated. But even so, these days it is often an uphill struggle to engage in rational detailed debate about contentious issues.

The simple problems are gone. The complex problems remain and they are very difficult. They are very difficult to solve and they are very difficult to report fully and accurately as well. They need background and they need explanation.

We are all familiar with the simplistic headlines. I have even heard there are politicians who talk in sound-bites in the hope that they might possibly become headlines.

But there are two concerns that I would not be surprised if you shared with me. The first is over-simplification of important issues; and the second is too much emphasis on what is wrong and too little acknowledgement of what is right.

I think that one of the great advantages of the written word is the opportunity to explain issues in greater depth. News clips on television and radio are very important, but they can rarely do proper justice to a complex detailed issue. It is impossible to conduct a serious political issue and then interpret it in a simple headline, impossible to address a complex issue in a brief clip on the 6 o’clock news.

Let me paint a thought. I speak for 40 minutes on the intricacies of education and I set out a whole series of detailed policies. On the 5.40 or 6 o’clock television news there will be 1 minute of my speech and probably a contentious bit, 1 minute of my 40 minutes; it will be followed most probably by 1 minute of Mr Blair, who hasn’t read the speech; 1 minute of Mr Ashdown, who hasn’t understood the speech; and a 2 minute explanation by someone of what it was I meant by what it was I said. Of course the Prime Minister was talking about education, but what he meant was that he wanted to distract you from divisions in the party over European policy.

That does not advance the democratic debate very much. And as for documentaries, they tend to follow after the event and are often broadcast at inconvenient times and to small audiences.

But for the written press, national and local, a different set of criteria apply. I believe that the media has a very important duty in the exercise of our essential freedoms, to inform debate upon important issues, to raise public awareness and to inform our society.

There is a problem that I would like to share with you and I hope you will accept that I am seeking to share it with you because I believe it is something that together we need to address.

These days in our complex society with our complex problems, there is a tendency for people and their views to get labelled for ease of recognition. There is a tendency for the arguments to be over-simplified to the extent that they are only reported as if in code. It is left wing, or right wing, it is Europhile or Eurosceptic. We all know the code. I would like to alert everyone to the danger, and the danger is the short-changing of the public of what the true opinions and positions of their politicians are on important matters of national concern.

But let me try and give you an example of what I mean. I believe it is the government’s job, any government, it is their job to weigh up the issues and to take action in what it judges to be the best long term interests of the country. Of course many will disagree with their conclusions, they may disagree, that is part of the debate but it ought not to dictate the agenda and certainly it won’t dictate mine. As Prime Minister I must speak for the national interest as I see it – and I will, whatever the noises off may be and from wherever the noises off may come.

Let me take the European debate for a moment. I believe strongly that Britain can and does benefit from being in Europe. If we were to stand back and contemplate what our position might be had we not been opening up the European market over the last quarter of a century, I think you would begin to see precisely what I mean.

But at the same time, whilst I have not a shred of doubt that we should be in the European Union fighting for the sort of European Union we want, we need to have the confidence to defend our interests and our rights as a nation state within the European Union.

It has many frustrations, but it is in our interest, beyond a doubt, to be a part of it and seek to shape it. It is not in our interests to be on the side of it and leave the shaping of future policy, in whatever sphere it may be – social or monetary – to other people, then leaving us with decisions that they have made with which we have to live. That in my judgment is not a position for a proud, important, independent, democratic nation to find itself in. And that is why I believe we need to be in the centre of the European debate and express our views.

But we are there to express our views and that means we can reject – as I do – any further moves towards political integration in Europe. It is important that a rational common sense European debate does not get obscured by over-simplification for the search for political drama.

I know that in saying what I have just said to you that this view does not neatly fit into those simplistic boxes – Europhobe or Europhile. And because I occasionally make speeches that don’t fit into those simplistic boxes, it is all too easy to claim that what I am saying is just a balancing act with all the indications of compromise that that implies. I bluntly reject that interpretation. I am against communism. I am against fascism. That doesn’t mean I compromise as a Conservative. I am a Conservative because I believe in conservatism, and I take a middle of the road view on European matters because I believe our national interest requires us to be in Europe, not to take an extreme view, anti-European or fanatically pro-European, but to fight my corner in the interests of my country in the European debate.

I don’t think that is a lack of conviction, I think that is an understanding of what is in the interest of the vast majority of people in this country and it is right for me to fight for those and not to be pushed to one edge or another edge of a vitally important debate for this country, and I have no intention of being so.

But if you need to carry out your agenda, whether in Europe or elsewhere, the first ingredient for any government is to produce a stable economy. And I would like to say to you today that I think we have produced a more promising series of economic prospects for this country than we have literally known for generations. I know in the clamour of daily drama this can so easily be overlooked, but let me just set out some of the points to illustrate what I am saying.

As we meet here today for this excellent luncheon, we have the lowest mortgage rates for 30 years; the lowest basic rate of tax for over 50 years; the lowest tax burden of any major European economy; the lowest unemployment of any major European country; the longest period of low inflation for 50 years; we get more foreign investment in this country than any other country in Europe, and almost as much as the rest of Europe put together; our industry exports per person more than Japan or the United States; and we have seen fewer days lost in strikes since records began. And if one turns to social changes: we have invested more in pensions than the rest of Europe added together; and we now have one in three of our young people entering higher education, where it was only one in eight 15 years ago.

I have set out those points. I have to say to you that if I had come to you on the eve of the last general election and said I am going to come back in May 1996 and I will have achieved all those changes, there is not a single journalist or proprietor here who would have believed that that would actually have been achieved. But it has been, and the fact that it has been makes a profound difference to the backdrop of policy for the future and it is the backdrop to the agenda that I will put before the country at the next General Election.

That agenda that I care about is a very down to earth agenda but I think it is a very realistic agenda. It sees the world as it is and it seeks to improve it. It is not pipedream dressed up as rhetoric. It is about trusting people and giving individual choice and opportunity to them, not having it exercised by government, national or local. It is about encouraging enterprise for the simple reason that governments cannot create jobs. We can set a framework in which enterprise can create jobs, but not if we hamstring it in the decisions that it has to make. And so we need to encourage enterprise and let it loose to create jobs, prosperity and security for the future.

There are people who think they are helping jobs by preserving old jobs with artificial legislation. I say they are wrong and what they actually do is inhibit the provision of new jobs that will last and extra efficiency and competitiveness for this country.

I have an agenda about maintaining respect for the rule of law and for ordinary common decency. I believe that up and down this country the people to whom you sell your newspapers, they are decent, straight forward, common sense people and they cry out to see that defended nationally and locally by their politicians and by their opinion formers and I believe that is precisely the business that we should be in.

We need to care for the way that people are treated by the public services. I come from a background where the public services were very important to my family and I learnt at a very young age the arrogance of so much of the public service, the arrogant belief that because it was funded by the taxpayer and provided free at the point of delivery, that one didn’t have the same rights as a consumer of that service that one would have had if you were paying cash on the nail. For I passionately disagree with that. We don’t pay cash on the nail for our public services, we pay cash in advance in taxes, compulsorily extracted from our incomes, in order to provide that public service and we have every right to demand of it the very best service that can be provided.

And I think we need to re-assess and speak more frequently about the pride and respect that our country deserves, about our national institutions and about our values. Those are issues that will be at the core of the next General Election and they are issues upon which I will be comfortable to fight.

One of the most ill-judged criticisms of recent years has been those commentators who have said: “But there is very little difference between the political parties”. Now it is true that a number of parties ape traditional Tory sentiments these days, and they do that because they know that that is what appeals to the innate instinct of the British nation. But the policy issues, the actions that will be carried out in government that would affect you and all the people who read your newspapers, those differences are very real.

And let me tell you the differences I mean. The different approaches to public expenditure, where it is clear that the Opposition would spend far more and where their plans don’t remotely add up to the income they are likely to have. The difference between our philosophical belief as Conservatives in low taxes, and our opponents’ hidden agenda of raising taxes, whether through axing child benefit, taxing company cars, or raising the rate for anyone who earns as much income as Clare Short.

There are different approaches throughout the political agenda, different approaches to employment. My approach is to create jobs through enterprise, not to damage enterprise by adding extra social costs to employers to inhibit their capacity to employ.

The difference between the action that we have taken to improve standards and choice and information in education, and the action all our political opponents have taken, which has been to oppose everything we have done to improve standards, to enlarge choice or to dispense information to parents.

I believe in choice in education. Our children are not all of a kind. We need a rich variety of choice to match the individual needs of our children. And I don’t have a shred of hesitation in saying that that will certainly include an extra element of selection where that is the demand of parents and where that is the wish of school governing bodies.

And then there are differences in our approaches to crime, where we have produced measure after measure and had to force them through the House of Commons against the votes of our opponents time and time again.

And then perhaps, at this moment, the greatest debate of all. The implication of the Opposition’s policies at home and in Europe for the constitution and the stability of the United Kingdom.

Let me turn firstly to the plans for devolution and other constitutional tinkering. I won’t mince my words about that. I believe that if we were to have a tax-raising parliament in Scotland, that we would have taken a giant step towards dismantling the United Kingdom as we see it today. These policies are not thought through. How can it be right for Members of Parliament at a Scottish Parliament to vote upon matters that affect Scotland, and then go down to England and vote upon the same matters affecting England, where English, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs would have no say in what happens in Scotland? How can it be right to leave over-representation in Scotland where they have a tax gathering Assembly? How can it be right for a disproportionate amount of public expenditure to continue to flow to Scotland if they are to have their own tax-gathering Assembly?

And what have the Scots done, what dreadful crime have they committed, that they should be invited to pay at least an extra 3p in the pound in taxation? I have a great affection for the Scots, I listen to them whenever I have the opportunity, and I have never heard them say to me yet: “I would like to pay an extra 3p in the pound in taxation”.

When our opponents say: “We might reduce taxation in Scotland”. Really? Well that would be a novelty, for Labour to reduce taxation anywhere would be a novelty. But for Labour to reduce taxation on the basis of a disproportionate amount of public expenditure coming out of the rest of the United Kingdom would not be possible. The fact is taxes would rise in Scotland and there would be great disunity between Scotland and the United Kingdom.

And what would happen at some stage in the future, and if possible, perhaps probable, that the Separatist Party in Scotland won the elections for the Scottish Assembly? Would not the Scottish Nationalists regard this as a mandate for separation? That is the basis of their programme. Of course they would. And what would be the position between a Scottish Parliament in which a party demanding separation had just got the majority, and an English parliament perhaps peeved and concerned that they were pouring extra expenditure into Scotland? What sort of division and break would come about from those policies?

Now I am not seeking to make a cheap political point. If one wishes to talk politics, we don’t have as many seats as the Labour Party in Scotland by quite a margin, if I wanted to play political advantage I would say let Scotland go, I will be 40 seats to the better if I let Scotland go. But I say no. The United Kingdom would be weaker if it began to break up and we lost Scotland. I would rather have Scotland, even with its extra Labour and Scottish Nationalist seats, than see it divide. We Tories are on a high point of principle with our policy about Scotland and we will try and make sure that this is a central part of the next General Election because a United Kingdom that is divided and broke up would not only mean a weaker Scotland, it would mean a weaker United Kingdom as a whole and it must not be permitted to happen.

And then of course there are divisions in policy between ourselves and our opponents on Europe. I think it is interesting to look not at the divisions within the parties, of course there are divisions within my party and divisions within the Labour Party. Fifty Labour members recently produced a manifesto that was tantamount to saying let us leave the European Union and have nothing whatever to do with it. So there are those divisions across politics, let us enter into serious debate and acknowledge that.

But there are also very substantial differences between the political parties on European policy. The Labour Party would centralise power in Europe. We would not. The Labour Party would accept the social chapter. We would not. Labour would accept more qualified majority voting. We would not. Labour say they will never be isolated in Europe. We know you sometimes have to be isolated in Europe if you are going to stand up for Britain’s national interests. If Margaret Thatcher hadn’t been isolated we would never have had the rebate. If I hadn’t been isolated, I would have lost the rebate in the Maastricht negotiations. I can tell you now there wasn’t another friend around that table who wanted Britain to retain her rebate from her European contributions which is worth literally billions to us. So you have to be isolated in Europe, you have to stand up in it.

We will seek changes to the Common Fisheries Policy. We don’t know what Labour’s policy is. We will seek changes to the European Court of Justice which is now seeking to change what the law is rather than interpret the law, most recently in the working time directive, but we don’t know what Labour’s policy is. We would have a referendum on a single currency if we decided to enter it. We don’t know what Labour’s policy is.

Now these are deep fundamental differences between the two major political parties at Westminster. That is the real debate. It is an important debate. But let us engage in what the real debate is in politics and not so much of the fantasy debate that we have seen over the last few months.

I will fight that election when it comes on the sharp differences between the parties and upon the issues that I believe matter most to the people of this country. And let me make this point to you. The economic changes we have seen, and the change in our economic prospects, will give unparalleled opportunities after the next general election to the government, opportunities that can be used in different ways, opportunities to change and shape our country that have not been there in recent years while we have been building our present economic strength as we have come out of the recession. The way in which those opportunities are used would be sharply different between the main political parties at Westminster.

I will use those opportunities in a way that will make them predominantly available to individuals and their families, predominantly available to the people. I believe they should have the first choice about how to make decisions that affect themselves, their families, their future and their interests. I don’t believe that will be the first choice of either of our main political opponents.

And as we come to the election, we need to focus on those choices. Whatever the outcome of that election is to be, it ought to be an outcome determined upon the basis of what genuinely matters to the people up and down this country. And that is not a froth and bubble of every day disputes, it is the fundamental issues that affect the future of this country constitutionally and the way in which people live their lives within it.

I believe we are right to lift the eyes of the nation to the opportunities that now lie ahead of us. It is time to rekindle the self-confidence that too often has been at a very low ebb in the last few years. We need to rise above the tendency to be negative, we need to recognise how far this country has come, and more importantly precisely what this country is poised to achieve if it has the courage and the imagination to take the opportunities that lie immediately in front of them.

We have perhaps the best opportunity in front of us that we have had for generations. We need to take it, not throw it away, not dissipate it, not lose it by even failing to realise that it is there.

I have a determination that Britain will become the Enterprise Centre of Europe. That is not just a slogan, it has hard-edged policy behind it. It is a statement of economic philosophy and a statement of belief, a belief that a free enterprise, low tax Britain can ride high as a global trading nation and win markets in every part of the world.

But we do need to get the balance right. By we I mean we the politicians, not only you the media. We need to get that balance right. It is no good talking ourselves down as a country and neither in my opinion is it remotely justified. This is a great nation, it doesn’t have an empire, but it is a nation of importance and influence, with standards and values that most nations in the world still look at with some envy and with very great respect.

Let us realise what we are and stop down-playing what we have done. We need, in my judgment, a proper measure of optimism and self-confidence to fire the enthusiasm and enterprise we need to take on the challenges of tomorrow. That I think is the debate that lies ahead of us. That I can tell you with every fibre of my being is the debate that I believe we should be having in this country at the moment. It is a debate of immense importance, it is a debate I look forward to with relish, and it is a debate I believe that I will win.