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 at the 1996 Scottish Conservative Party Conference – 11 May 1996

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech at the 1996 Scottish Conservative Party Conference, held on 11th May 1996.


I want to touch first on two issues of great concern.

When last I came to Scotland, I went to Dunblane. The events there were a horror, almost unimaginable – a mad act that robbed innocent children of a happy future.

Michael Forsyth and Michael Howard have already announced an amnesty on illegal guns to gather them in.

Lord Cullen – one of Scotland’s most senior judges – is to advise us on what further action is needed.

Should legislation be necessary – and it may well be – I can promise you we will move speedily. We have already set aside time in the Parliamentary programme for this purpose.

I intend that we will do all we can to ensure such a crime cannot happen again.

Secondly, beef.

The European ban on beef has caused frustration and anger.

Not just amongst farmers, but amongst everyone.

Certainly here in Scotland, as Scottish beef is a by-word for quality.

The ban is totally unjustified. It’s the result of panic, not science. And it must be removed.

The ban turned a problem into a crisis, not just in Britain, but across Europe where beef markets have also been hit.

Next week, the first steps towards lifting the ban are going to be discussed in Europe. I hope that progress will be made.

For the ban was introduced by the Commission. And it is the Commission that has now unanimously recommended a partial lifting of the ban.

Against that background, our European partners must understand the level of resentment that will be created if they fly in the face of scientific arguments and the Commission’s recommendations and continue to damage our beef industry.

But let us be frank. Even when the ban has been lifted, we will need to rebuild consumer confidence to regain our markets. We need to make the case for quality again and again.

Many beef herds have never had a case of BSE. So, while we aim to get the ban totally lifted, we’ll also be pressing to get rapid exemption for specialist beef herds.

Such a move across the UK will particularly benefit Scotland, and the premium, grass-fed beef herds for which Scotland is rightly famous.

We’re already consulting on proposals to get mature, prime beef from these herds back on the market in Britain.

But to regain our markets around the world, we must – in our own interest – look at any sensible proposals to speed up the already rapid decline of BSE throughout the UK.

I met with the Scottish NFU this morning, and heard from them first hand of the fears and anxieties of their members. I promise you this – we will stand by this industry.

We have already committed huge resources. In addition to that, I am confident that we can deliver significant extra help for beef producers within this year’s European farm settlement. And, to help the exporters, we’ve agreed to pay more money to those whose stocks were destroyed or devalued in the initial crisis.

I pay tribute to the leadership which the NFU has given over this difficult period, and to the effective and influential role they have played.

We’ve made a start in tackling this crisis but we need to remove the threat of BSE once and for all. British beef is the best in the world.

It’s good to be back in Scotland and to find you in such good spirits.

So am I.

I always enjoy coming to Scotland. Not least because you always doctor my water in a most agreeable way.

We’re now within a year of the next General Election.

And, when it comes – next year, I expect – we Conservatives are going to win that election – by working together, north and south of the border.

It’s a good Tory word, “together” – and especially so here in Scotland.

It emphasises that ours is a United Kingdom.

And we’re the Conservative and Unionist Party.

We believe in working together, north and south.

And, so long as there’s a Conservative Government, that’s how it will remain.

Some people say to me – why? Surely, if Scotland breaks away, England will save on public spending and can have lower taxes? And surely, it’ll be easier to win elections without the SNP, Labour and Liberal MPs from Scotland?

True. But the United Kingdom as a whole would suffer. And so would Scotland.

And we Conservatives put the United Kingdom first, even though it’s not to our Party advantage. That’s not the way Labour behave. Their devolution plans put the interests of the Labour Party first. We put the country first. And that’s the difference.

For months, Michael Forsyth and his team have been taking the argument to Labour, exposing their flawed plans.

Showing how they would wreck Scotland.

Showing how the devolutionists are laying a false prospectus before the Scottish people.

I have a message for you Michael. The battle you’re fighting for Scotland is as important as any that has been fought before.

Fight hard. Punch hard. Punch often.

And you’ll have from me all the support you need.

When I became Prime Minister I spoke of a classless society.

Many scoffed that this had happened without my noticing it.

Others said it was a preposterous and even undesirable aim.

Well, there have been remarkable changes in British society over the last 50 years. Indeed, I’m a beneficiary of them.

But don’t tell me that a child brought up in deprived circumstances – and given an inadequate education – has the same prospects as one from a more prosperous background with a good education.

There are many who achieve good results from bad beginnings. But one of our principal risks as a Government – and as a Party – is to ensure that fewer and fewer of our children have those bad beginnings. And that’s what our education reforms are about.

We don’t believe that people in difficulties always have only themselves to blame. Don’t forget I’ve been poor and unemployed. And I know that our Party has done more than any other to relieve poverty and to finance the National Health Service and social security.

It was practical compassionate Conservatism that marks me a Tory and millions like me.

And it’s values like that that have underpinned the last 17 years of Conservative Government.

17 years.

Some people on the cocktail and chattering circuit think it’s time for a change. As though Government were a game of street cricket with everyone having a bat in turn. But what sort of change?

Labour wouldn’t bring to Britain the sort of changes we’ve brought.

Taxpayers. Cuts for everyone. The lowest basic rate for 50 years. Change that?

Homeowners. Lowest mortgage rates for 30 years. Gas, telephone bills falling. Change that?

Workers. More of our people in work than any major country in Europe. Change that?

Savers. TESSAs and PEPs flourishing. Scotland is thrifty. It saves. And now it has a 20p rate of tax on savings – a new low. Change that?

Businessmen. The longest period of low inflation for almost 50 years. Why change that?

Parents. More choice than ever before. We shouldn’t change that – and Labour agree.

Not only do they agree, they welcome our change and take advantage of it.

You don’t believe me. Check with the Blairs. Ask Harriet Harman.

Pupils. More going on to higher education than ever before.

Patients. More being treated than ever before.

The changes we’re brought about are changes for the better.

Thanks to them, Britain is the best performing economy in Europe. The world’s leading companies are pouring in investment and jobs.

Britain, with her unique heritage of trading links, and a mother tongue that’s the world’s common language, is winning new markets around the globe.

Today, Britain stands on the threshold of a new era of opportunity and prosperity as a global trading nation. A small island that’s an international success.

Of course, there’s much we have to do. But look what we’ve done.

Take our schools, for instance.

We inherited a system that had become a secret garden, overgrown with so-called progressive theories.

Today, children are taught the basics. Labour called that a “fanatical doctrine”.

We’re going to make sure that children are regularly tested. Labour said tests “encourage a climate of failure”.

Exam results are published. Labour called that “political propaganda”.

Schools can now govern themselves. Labour said that was “wrong”.

Wrong? It’s precisely the kind of education parents want. That’s not wrong. It’s just commonsense.

The same goes for crime. We’re been turning back the tide of political correctness that excused the criminal and forgot the victim. It meant once again taking on the so-called progressive establishment that dominates Labour thinking.

Well, we took them on.

For example, we increased the maximum penalty for cruelty to children. For dealing in drugs. We gave the police new powers to stop and search suspects.

And right the way down the line, Labour opposed almost every change.

If Labour had won their arguments, dangerous criminals who are in prison today would be out – walking the streets.

So, change? Change back to that? Surely that would be folly.

Some of the changes we’ve made have been painful. They’ve hurt people. And they have hurt us politically in by-elections and local elections.

But although it hurt, it worked.

And when we look around us we can see life getting better and our country becoming more prosperous.

So when people talk of change, ask them “What kind of change do you prefer?”

“Higher inflation? Lower taxes? More jobs? Tougher laws under the Tories?”

That’s the kind of change you and I want. And it’s the only way to meet the challenge of the future. A change to Labour would be a change all right – a change for the worse. Don’t let it happen.

Mr Chairman, before these changes, British companies and British businesses were fighting just to keep their heads above water. Now they are fighting to lead the field.

And that’s especially true in Scotland.

Which place in the UK do you think has gained most from our reforms of the last 17 years?

Seen living standards grow by over a third?

Grown faster than the rest of the United Kingdom over the last five years?

Exports 40 per cent more per worker than the United Kingdom average?

Brought unemployment down to its lowest rate for almost fifteen years?

You’re right: that country is Scotland.

Could this remarkable success story have happened without the Union?

It’s out of the question.

Labour or the Scot Nats would never have given Scotland the changes she needed. Instead of sunrise industries we’d have had sunset industries, propped up by subsidy, but doomed to disappear. The only question was when.

Our way has delivered the private investment that’s the key to Scotland’s success.

In one year alone, almost 100 projects brought Scotland over one billion pounds worth of planned investment, creating or protecting over 12,000 jobs.

International companies – like Motorola, NEC, BT – they’re all investing in Scotland.

And they’ll continue to do so as long as they’re sure Scotland will stay in the United Kingdom and income tax will not rise above those in England.

But, if either of these things do happen, they won’t. They’ll go elsewhere.

That’s the choice for Scotland.

One of the reasons they come here is that a Conservative Government has built an economy that encourages investors by controlling expenditure and keeping inflation down. That’s meant we’ve been able to cut interest rates and keep taxes low.

Again – yes, it hurts. But it has worked. It’s making life better. Don’t throw it away.

Enterprise has many elements. But high among them is something that goes right to the heart of running the country – and dips into the pocket of every family in the land. Tax.

Tax is always a battlefield between the parties because we have different instincts.

We believe in low tax because it stimulates initiative and enterprise, fosters personal independence, and helps the country create enough wealth to help those in need. So we cut taxes when we can. But, as Ken Clarke said yesterday, when, and only when, it’s sensible to do so.

Labour’s instincts are different. They increase spending.

So, as Roy Hattersley put it, “Labour now has a clear choice. It can either be the party of higher taxation and proud of it, or the party of higher taxes which it is ashamed to describe, afraid to admit and incapable of calculating with any accuracy. It cannot be the low taxation party”.

For once, he’s right. People will have a clear choice, a party whose instinct is for less tax, or a party whose instinct is for more tax.

That’s why our opponents don’t like talking about their tax plans.

But there’s no honest reason why Labour shouldn’t come clean about them. Britain’s books are open.

After all, I’m perfectly happy to talk about our tax plans. They’re quite simple.

We’ll cut taxes whenever we safely can.

Labour are the exact opposite. Believe it or not, I’m told there are actually people who say Labour are addicted to the politics of envy and want taxes for that reason. And New Labour too. Shocking isn’t it?

Be that as it may, one thing is certain. Whatever Labour say for public consumption, people know from past experience they’d be worse off under Labour.

Tory scare tactics, the spin doctors who rule Labour till say. Is it?

For example, any family with a sixteen to eighteen year old child who is in education had better watch out. Under Labour, their child benefits could disappear.

Let’s call it a Teenage Tax – a tax increase of up to £560 a year for families whose children are 16 or over and at college. For some families, that’s the same as an increase of 5p on income tax.

Under Labour, anyone who earns more than Clare Short would be easy pickings for the taxman. Clare’s salary is about £35,000. Many people would love to earn that much. But thanks to Labour’s ThirtySomething Tax, they’d be worse off.

There are other taxes lurking.

And, of course, anyone living here in Scotland would be hit by the Tartan Tax. But if they don’t need it, let them reject it now.

Think how it would damage Scotland to pay more tax than the rest of the country. Who’d be hit most? Not those on high incomes, those on low ones. Someone earning, say, £76,000 a year would see his tax bill rise by 9%. At the same time, someone on £12,000 would see it rise by 14%.

And this from a Labour Party that has the nerve to talk about ‘fair tax’.

Before the last election, Labour published their plans. They said they’d increase spending, so naturally Labour would raise taxes to pay for it.

The New, unscrupulous, Labour Party are different. Whenever Mr Brown threatens honesty on taxes, Mr Blair contradicts him. And Mr Prescott tries to keep up, but doesn’t quite know what’s going on. Well, I can tell you what’s going on.

Labour still want to spend more of your money, that’s what’s going on. They can’t kick the habit – it’s a sort of reflex action. So they’d tax more. They always have. They always will. And nothing is going to change them.

I sometimes wonder what on earth Labour stand for these days.

Their leadership is trying to shed all its history, philosophy and creed with one contemptuous shrug and replace it with – what? A burning desire for office.

But a lust for power is not, and never has been, a qualification for being entrusted with it.

But it’s not just taxpayers who’d be worse off.

Parents would be deprived of a choice of school for their children.

Patients would see hospitals turned upside down as Labour tried to turn back the clock.

Shareholders in privatised companies would find their shares threatened.

But don’t just look at what Labour would do to our reforms. Don’t just think about how Labour would hit the pockets of the people. The real danger is to the very fabric of Britain itself.

By their own admission, Labour say that they’d bring in the most extensive package of constitutional reform our nation has seen.

Mr Chairman, this constitution of ours has run like a thread through this land for centuries. It’s been our backbone and our heritage. And without so much as a qualm, Labour would cut it in two.

I wonder sometimes if they have any idea what their plans would mean?

Labour would change our United Kingdom for good. Or rather, not for good. Palpably, flagrantly for the worse.

If we were to let Labour tear this ancient island of ours apart, it could well be impossible to put it together again.

Labour has tried the devolution gambit before.

And now they’re at it again. A Scottish Parliament here, a Welsh Assembly there, regional assemblies heaven knows where. Will they never learn? What a way to mark the Millennium by tearing up the United Kingdom.

Mr Chairman, this fiddling by Labour is a wild and dangerous game. No one can say where it would end.

No-one can answer the questions it raises.

No-one, least of all Labour – can tell how such totally irresponsible and disruptive plans would affect this nation and the real concerns of all its people.

Would it help the Scots if they paid more tax?

Do the Welsh think a talking shop would improve their lives?

And when was the last time you heard people saying, “What Britain needs is more politicians in regional assemblies”?

And all this would be just the tip of the iceberg.

Proportional representation. No government ever able to take decisions without backroom deals.

A Bill of Rights.

Elected mayors – to do what, for heaven’s sake?

A whole raft of constitutional doodling. That’s Labour’s irrelevant manifesto.

Would it mean more jobs? Yes, for bureaucrats and politicians.

More investment? Well, no actually – probably less.

More prosperity? No. Just more taxes.

Would Britain’s voice carry more weight in the council chambers of Europe if we divided her into three? No, much less.

Mr Chairman, the changes Labour plan, no matter how slickly packaged and presented by their media gurus, would destroy in years what has been built up in centuries.

Nor are the dangers Labour post restricted only to devolution. Their European policy is demeaning and disastrous.

Now, I fully understand that the European issue raises the most passionate feelings. Who, in this country, would know that better than me? It’s a central issue of our time. But that shouldn’t distract us from a cool, dispassionate assessment of what is truly in our nation’s long-term interests – and what is not? That is my guiding principle. Getting the balance right for Britain now and in the years to come is the key to our approach to Europe.

Yes, Britain must be a part of Europe, and a partner of Europe. But a Europe of nations, not a united states of Europe. Not a federal Europe. When people say “Let’s have a referendum on whether we want a federal Europe”, I say “why?”

Because, Mr Chairman, there’s no need. Once again, I make this pledge. While I am Prime Minister, if others should opt for such a Europe, then Britain will not be part of it. We don’t need a referendum to know that we don’t want a centralised Europe.

But let no one doubt that Labour would accept such a Europe. Already they’re committed to sign up to the Social Chapter. To give more powers to the European Parliament. To re-negotiate our rebate. To undermine our veto.

So on both counts – what Labour would do to Britain at home and what Labour would do to Britain abroad – the whole future of this nation is at stake.

Mr Chairman, come the election, the future we’ll be fighting for is a Conservative future.

One where everyone feels that they belong.

Where all our people, no matter what their background, have a chance to realise their dreams.

To go to a good school, university, get a job, have a home of their own.

To do what they think is best for themselves, their families, their children.

To enjoy more of what they’ve earned and saved.

These are the building blocks of the future.

They’re what drive the people of our country.

A people independent of spirit, proud of their past. Who look to a future of enterprise encouraged and work rewarded.

Who want to protect the freedom and responsibilities of the family against the intrusions of the state.

Who believe in the rule of law.

And who love our country.

Mr Chairman, at the last election, when I said I would fight to protect the United Kingdom, I was accused of wrapping myself in the Union Jack. It was meant as an insult. But I didn’t take it as such.

You don’t have to dislike other nations to be proud of ours and I am proud of ours. I never feel more comfortable than in defending our nationhood and our unity as a Kingdom.

The Union Jack in the flag of this United Kingdom – and we Conservatives, by nature a kindly Party, need to be ruthless, remorseless and relentless in defence of that Kingdom, as we always have been when that unity has been under threat.

It is so once again today. Labour’s slick world of the soundbite and the over-simplified solution to problems of immense complexity has nothing to offer to bind this nation together. The superficiality of their policies – many of them disingenuous and ill-thought out – is breathtaking. What’s more, they bear little or no relation to the reality of government.

When you walk through the door of Number Ten, reality walks in with you. Reality on a world scale. Over the years a Conservative Government has faced that reality and learnt how to handle it. So let me give you, here in Scotland today, this assurance.

We Conservatives have the confidence and the tradition and, yes, the experience to guide us as we take our nation forward, out of this troubled century and into the next.

That’s why we’re going to win the next election.

Why we deserve to win that election.

At stake is more than just our achievements. More than just the strongest economy we’ve seen for decades.

This election will decide the very future of the United Kingdom itself.

The future of our Parliament, our Union, our Country.

It’s a fight for our Nation’s Future.

And it’s a fight we’ll win.