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 1996 Conservative Party Conference Speech – 11 October 1996

Below is the text of Mr Major’s 1996 Conservative Party Conference speech made on 11th October 1996.


Madam Chairman, we’ve had a good week.

It’s been the week the Tory family came together – to renew the family contract with the British nation.

And through the week, colleague after colleague has set out fresh, detailed, new policy for the future.

There’ve been some marvellous speeches.

It’s been 21 years since Michael Heseltine first got a standing ovation at this conference. And no one has sat down since.

The well-being of our country is more important than any political party.

And the well-being of the Conservative Party is more important than any member of it.

So the lesson is clear. Everyone in the Conservative Party should work – and if I know them, will work – heart and soul, irrespective of personal interests, to secure the re-election of a Conservative Government.

Over the last two or three years there’s been attempt after attempt – by our opponents – to sully the reputation of our Party.

Well, I know this party.

No doubt it’s not perfect – nor is everyone in it.

But I grew up in it.

And that campaign won’t succeed.

Because this Party as a whole is straight and honourable and true and – like you – I’m proud to be a member of it.

Unlike Labour, we aren’t ashamed of our past.

Unlike Labour, we haven’t abandoned our principles.

Unlike Labour, we haven’t had to reinvent ourselves. We’re proud of what we’ve achieved.

Because, Madam Chairman, we’ve changed Britain – for the better.


When I became Prime Minister, I set out to make Britain a low inflation economy.

I knew what a fight it would be.

But we went for it. We took the flak.

No weakening. Heads down. We did what we always do when we’re challenged: we came out fighting.

And, as a result, we’ve had the longest run of low inflation this country has seen for a generation.

I want to thank my colleagues – and you – my party – for standing with me through that battle. Between us, we’ve transformed the prospects for our country.

And we did it with raw political gut.

We set out to create jobs. And we’re succeeding.

Unemployment is lower here than in any comparable country in Europe.

In Britain it’s falling.

In Europe it’s not.

Last year, this year, and next year we’re set to have higher growth here, in our country, than any big country in Europe.

Curiously enough, the Labour leader didn’t mention these successes in his flight of fancy last week.

Pages missing perhaps?

He just said the country was falling apart.

Inflation down.

Mortgages down.

Unemployment down.

Some fall.

Of course, there was a time when this country was falling apart. It was when we had a Labour Government.

So I’ve got some friendly advice for Mr Blair. If you knock your country, you’ll never lead it.

The plain truth is I’m the first Prime Minister for generations who can say “We’re the most competitive economy in Europe”.

And I intend to be the Prime Minister who builds on that success after we’ve won the next General Election.

Madam Chairman, at that election there’s a central question. It’s this: who can be trusted with the future?

Labour try to persuade people it’s them.

“We’re different” they say. “We’ve changed our name”.

“Rely on us – you know we’ve always been wrong in the past”.

Well, that’s candid – if a touch eccentric.

Trouble is, they’re wrong in the present as well.

And it simply won’t do for Mr Blair to say, “Look, I’m not a Socialist anymore. Now, can I be Prime Minister please?”.

Sorry Tony. Job’s taken.

And anyway, it’s too big a task for your first real job.

Mr Blair’s handlers are trying to spread the tale that he’s a very fierce dog indeed. Indeed, but also that he’s quite harmless.

Another eccentric messages, “Fierce dog – no teeth!”.

By the way, have you noticed how the less a politician has to say, the more over-heated the language in which he says it?

When every aim becomes – “a crusade”.

Every hope – “a dream”.

Every priority – “a passion”.

Then it’s time to duck from cover.

And when the whole show is laced with words like “tragedy”, “catastrophe”, “triumph” and “destiny” – terms with real meaning, but which, ransacked for political advantage, degrade the message – then I think of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “the louder he talked of his honour, the faster we counted our spoons”.


Madam Chairman, I came into politics to open doors, not shut them.

They were opened for me.

I was born in the war.

My father was 66. My mother was – how shall I put it? Surprised.

We were like millions of others. Not well off, but comfortable, until financially the roof fell in.

Nothing special about that.

But for us, it changed our life.

My mother coped – as women do.

I left school at 16, because 5 pounds a week mattered.

I learnt something from that experience. In the game of life, we Tories should even up the rules.

Give people opportunity and choice, to open up an avenue of hope in their lives.

And by “people”, I don’t mean “some people”. I mean everyone.

Opportunity for all.

It’s in the bloodstream of our party.

It was Shaftesbury who gave an education to thousands of children from poor homes.

It was Disraeli who gave many working men the freedom to vote.

It was Salisbury who brought free education within the reach of almost every family in England.

All Tories.

And it was Margaret Thatcher – another Tory, as you may know, who sold council houses and public industries, giving people a real stake in this country.

Giving people opportunity marks the great divide in British politics.

In its heart, Old Labour, New Labour, any old Labour still believe that Government knows best.

I don’t.

But then, I’m a Conservative.

I believe we should give families opportunity and choice and a wider, warmer view of life.

Our belief in choice is the driving force of our policy – its not a political ploy; for me it’s the core of what I believe in.


I start with education.

There are millions of children in our country. All unique. Everyone an original: different skills, different talents, different needs.

Should each child – with all his or her originality – be made to fit into a regimented education system?

Or should we design an education system to fit the originality of the child?

We of course we should.

So our task is to provide a rich choice of schools and colleges, giving the best to every child and demanding the best of every child.

And who should choose the right schools for those children?

The Government?

The bureaucrat in Whitehall?

The councillor in the Town Hall?

Or the parents, who love and care for those children?

Of course it’s the parents.

Wherever possible, they should choose.

We’re improving that choice every year.

And we intend to widen it further.

So, I make this promise:

If parents want more grant-maintained schools – they shall have them.

More specialist schools – we’ll provide them.

More selection – they’ll have it. Why should government say “no” if parents think it’s right for their children?

And if parents want grammar schools in every town – so do I, and they shall have them.

We grammar school boys – and girls, Gillian – believe in choice for parents.

That means parents shouldn’t face a choice between one bad school and another.

What kind of choice is that?

I’ll tell you.

It’s the kind of choice you get in Islington – unless you move out of the borough.

We’re going to change that. That’s why this autumn, as Gill Shepherd told you, we’ll turn today’s promises into tomorrow’s reality with a flagship Education Bill.

We want high standards in every school.

It’s why we set up the National Curriculum. It’s why we insist on tests.

Without tests, how can you know what a child hasn’t learned?

And how can parents be sure how well their children – of their school – are doing?

When we insisted on giving that information to parents, John Prescott called it “Political Propaganda”.

Just pause and think about that for a moment. It tells you a lot.

Information to parents about their children – and the Deputy Leader of New Labour calls it “Political Propaganda”.

Well, well. If education’s a passion for Labour, it’s a passion that dare not speak its results.


While on education, I want to say a word about sport.

Firstly, well done England on Wednesday. More please.

And well done Scotland. I hear it was no effort at all. But you’d have won anyway.

Last year, at this conference, I told you of my determination to restore sport, and particularly team sport, to the heart of school life.

It’s natural and healthy for young people at school to have their sporting heroes and heroines: sportsmen and women whom they can choose as role models.

So with the enthusiastic help of the Sports Councils, I’m going to set up a team of Sporting Ambassadors – widely drawn from the best role models in sports, our leading athletes, past and present – who’ll visit schools and talk to pupils, teaching staff, school governors and parents, to enthuse and inspire and encourage.

To work up the scheme, I have asked that legendary England cricketer – that man for all seasons – Sir Colin Cowdrey – to chair a small committee whose members will be drawn from the elite of the sporting and academic worlds. Colin is here today and I want you to thank him for agreeing to do this.

His committee will announce their conclusions by Christmas, and I intend that the scheme will be up and running in schools in the coming academic year.

Colin scored nearly 8,000 runs for England. Now he’s going to inspire nearly 8 million boys and girls who might want to play, compete and represent their country.

I want them to enjoy sport. And they’ll enjoy it more if they play to win.

Take it from me – winning is fun.


There are those who believe in the self-before-everyone, grab-what-you-can school of thought. They may find opportunity for all an odd philosophy.

But it’s ours.

And for the last 17 years we’ve followed it.

We’ve cut direct tax, given more and more people the opportunity to save, to own shares, own pensions, own homes.

More than ever before, we’ve given families more independence and more freedom to choose.

As a result, millions have become owners of homes, savings, shares and pensions.

But not enough yet.

Madam Chairman, in our next 5 years, we will seek new opportunities: an opportunity owning democracy.

Helping more people save and build security for retirement.

Helping people who need care keep more of those savings.

We’re aiming for the least possible tax to give the greatest possible choice.

As we can afford it, we’ll move to a 20p basic rate for all. That’s our priority.

We know that cutting taxes isn’t government giving anything back to people.

It’s the government taking away less of people’s own money.

That’s why low taxes are right.

We don’t want to soak the tax payer.

Labour often say they want to soak the rich.

But they’re the only party in history who also regularly manage to soak the poor.

And sometimes no taxes are right. So, to encourage wealth creation for the future, we’ll reduce and then abolish Capital Gains Tax.

Many people in our country build up savings long after they’ve enough for their own needs.

One reason they do that is to pass on the fruits of their life’s work to their children and grandchildren.

This is a powerful, human emotion.

So, over time, our next target is to remove the burden of inheritance tax.

Building wealth for the many, not for the few.


People treasure independence. Their own independence. The State is the last option, not the first.

The more independence, the less reliance. The less reliance, the more we can help those in real need.

There are many demands we must meet.

Health – as science provides more treatment.

Social services – as we improve care.

We’ve always accepted this responsibility.

But as we accept responsibility, so must people themselves.

Dependency must be about needs, not culture.

I can’t stand the welfare cheats. I’ll tell you why. They deprive those in real need.

We’re determined that taxpayers’ money goes where it’s needed.

Our task is to build a welfare system for the 21st century.

A system for a self-help society – not a help-yourself society.

And one way of building independence is to get more people back to work.

We’re now doing that on a scale that’s the envy of Europe – partly because we refuse to make political gestures that cost jobs. That’s why I say “No” to the minimum wage and “No” to the Social Chapter.

The minimum wage is the wage of the dole queue.

It’s not a wage at all.

How can you talk of a Social Chapter that makes it more difficult for people to find work.

That’s why I say they’re no-go areas for jobs and no-go areas for us.

It’s business not government that creates jobs.

But government can help the unemployed.

Last year I announced our plans to develop a Contract For Work.

This week we Tories took a big step forward with the start of our new Job Seekers Allowance.

We don’t want to pay people to stay on the dole. We do want to help them get back into work.

So first we’re going to help those who’ve been out of work the longest. They’re the people for whom the barriers to opportunity are highest.

First, we give them help to find a job and if that doesn’t succeed, they’ll be offered work on a community project.

For many it’s just the motivation they need.

But it also shows up those who don’t want to work. I think that’s right.

So over the next year we’ll be extending the scheme to towns and cities across the country.

This is part of building a welfare system we can afford. One that goes with the grain of the British nation. Fair to those in need. And fair to those who pay the bills.


Madam Chairman, every year, someone writes to The Times to say he has heard the first cuckoo of spring.

And every year at the Labour conference, some cuckoo distorts out commitment to the National Health Service.


Our NHS is unique.

In this country, when you’re ill, we take your temperature.

In other countries, they take your credit card. While I’m in Downing Street, that will never happen here.

That doesn’t mean that National Health Service shouldn’t change. It must. If it were fossilised, it would decline.

I saw that clearly the other day when Norma and I visited a doctor’s surgery – in Glossop actually.

The family doctor is the gateway to the Health Service. More people see their doctor than anyone else.

This was a fundholding practice – part of our reforms – and, in its own small way, an example of the quiet revolution of the NHS.

Waiting lists have been slashed.

People no longer have to trek to the district hospital.

More services were available. Osteopathy, acupuncture, Alexander technique, counselling, nursing, physiotherapy and occupational-therapy posts created. Community Care improved. More money spend on patients, not paperwork.

Tory policy working for the patient.

Now, this practice is one of the very best. But that excellent service could be the future everywhere.

Our task is to make it so.

And this autumn, Stephen Dorrell will introduce a Bill to do just that – giving family doctors greater freedom to develop local services in their surgeries – creating a new generation of cottage hospitals all over Britain.

And that’s only half of it. In the Autumn, Stephen will set out our ambitious plans to build the National Health Service for the 21st Century.

And Labour’s vision? Stuck in the past and stuck in the mud – as usual. They plan to end fundholding.

What ideological madness. Do you know what that would mean? I learnt in Glossop. It would mean that those new clinical posts, new nurses, new physiotherapists, the new occupational therapist – all these would go.

New Labour, no new services.

But, in the NHS we must always try to improve our services.

So, before the end of this year, we’ll unveil new plans to help mentally ill people followed by new plans to reform social care for children, disabled people and the elderly.

More practical Tory measures.

And looking a little further ahead, I still hear too many stories of politically correct absurdities that prevent children being adopted by loving couples who would give them a good home. If that is happening, we should stop it.

Madam Chairman, for over 17 years, through thick and thin, we Conservatives have found extra money for the NHS.

It’s become a habit.

So today, I give you a Health Service Guarantee.

Our Manifesto pledge that the NHS will get more, over and above inflation, year … on year … on year … on year … on year … through the next Conservative Government.


Earlier this week, Michael Howard set out our new plans to fight crime. But there’s two things I’d like to add.

Firstly, in a few weeks, we’ll published new plans to deal with younger offenders.

They’re a real problem.

We must spot school age children turning to crime and stop them in their tracks early on.

One theme of our plans will be to make them repair the hurt they’ve done. And we’ll have some new ideas.

But today, let me tell you of our plans for young tearaways who are out of control.

We only want them in institutions if it’s really necessary.

But if they don’t deserve that punishment – severe for young people – they mustn’t think they can offend and get away with it.

Over the last year, we’ve been testing an electronic way of tagging offenders so we can confine them to their homes, and know that that curfew is being kept.

It’s worked. We think it will work on younger offenders as well – so, we’ll try that too.

If we know a young trouble maker is out there, night after night, disturbing the peace and committing crimes, we’ll make sure the courts have the power to order him to stay put. At home – off the streets.

And the tag around his ankle – that can’t be removed – will raise the alert the moment he tries to go out.

If he can’t go out on Friday and Saturday nights with his mates it might cool him down a bit. If he can’t watch his football team on Saturday, let me say it plain. That’s his fault. Not mine, not yours, his. And it’s time the buck stopped where the responsibility lies. No-one will miss the hooligan on the terrace.

And he might just learn the lesson.

And that will help him – as well as us.


Earlier this week, the IRA once spat their hate at the British nation.

Many good people tell me I shouldn’t bother with Northern Ireland. “No votes in it” they say. Maybe not. But there are lives in it.

And that’s why I bother.

I don’t believe Northern Ireland will leave the United Kingdom, nor do I wish it to.

But I know that there can only be a peace in Northern Ireland if all its citizens – Catholic and Protestant alike – feel their traditions have a welcome place in the United Kingdom. And there will only be peace of mind if we remove the causes that have given rise to so much conflict.

This is a political task. Grindingly hard, I know. But that is what the multi-party talks are for.

Progress has been slow – painfully slow. But progress has been made. And there is no other show in town.

Bombs will not bring Sinn Fein into the talks.

All they mean is that Sinn Fein has slammed the door on themselves.

I applaud the way the Loyalists have maintained their ceasefire in the face of the IRA’s provocation. Their political leaders have gained in influence and standing as a result. I urge them to stand firm and not to throw away what they have achieved.

The IRA’s latest betrayal of Northern Ireland means the demand for decommissioning of illegal arms is justified even more clearly.

We must have decommissioning in parallel with the talks.

And so that there’s no hiding place for those arms, missiles and explosives, Paddy Mayhew will introduce legislation into Parliament this autumn to set out how they can be taken out of circulation.

I want those weapons off the street.

And I want to remove the false excuses peddled by the men of violence for keeping their weapons. Let us expose these men to the world for what they are.

I also want to make government in Northern Ireland more accountable and give MPs more responsibility. We have already given the Scottish and Welsh members greater ability to question Ministers.

This autumn, I shall do the same for Northern Ireland. MPs from there should be able to question the Ministers and scrutinise Government policies directly in the Grand Committee, meeting sometimes in Northern Ireland. I will consult the parties about how best to achieve that.

The IRA has always believed that Britain can be deflected by terrorism. They’ve always been wrong. And they’re wrong now.

No-one will take Sinn Fein seriously ever again until they show a serious commitment to end violence for good.

I believe in the politics of reason – backed by strong law enforcement. I know in the end it will prevail.

And I promise the people of Northern Ireland this;

For as long as there is a political breath in my body, I will fight for a secure way of life in Northern Ireland for a settlement fair to all.


Earlier this week, Ian Lang, Malcolm Rifkind and Ken Clarke set out exciting new possibilities for Britain as a global trading nation with interests around the world. Wonderful speeches, all of them.

We have links and influence on every continent.

We have given birth to a whole family of nations.

I never forget that as I contemplate our future role in Europe.

The sharpest element of the European debate is the possibility of a single European Currency.

We Conservatives are in grown-up politics. We know that where Britain’s national interest is at stake, Britain’s national voice must be heard.

Over recent days in articles, interviews and in this conference hall on Wednesday, I spelt out why we must play a full part in that debate.

Madam Chairman, Europe is changing. The only thing that is certain is that it won’t be the same in the future.

In a few years, Europe will have 26 or 27 members. They’ll be widely different. Many of them will never match the economic performance of the larger European nations.

So, how do we cope with this?

We believe Europe must become more flexible and responsive. That the only realistic future is a partnership of nations, not a United States of Europe.

But some of our partners do see the future of Europe as ever closer political as well as economic integration.

We don’t believe this is practical. Nor, to be frank, desirable.

It’s not the Europe we joined and it’s not a Europe we can accept.

This debate about the future direction of Europe is one of the most critical we have ever engaged in. We need to argue it fiercely but fairly.

Europe is at a watershed.

Britain is a great nation. Of course, we must be in Europe. But we are in Europe to help shape it – not to be shaped by it.


Madam Chairman, a buccaneering spirit, gritty resolve, give and take, a conviction that everyone is entitled to the same dignity, courtesy, and esteem because of what they are, not who they are.

These are some of the values we all share. That’s what makes us a nation. Down the centuries, they have moulded our democracy.

It’s not a concept of government copied across the world because it’s the oldest. It’s because it’s the best. We treasure it. That’s why we must hold on to it.

The Union. Parliament. Our voting system. It’s naive to think that radical change would be easy or risk-free.

And it’s revealing to look at Labour’s plans.

Their priority would be to gerrymander the British constitution.

They’ve avid for more parliaments, more assemblies, more regional assemblies.

Their policy in in chaos. On Scottish referenda, they change sides more often than a windscreen wiper.

What a message. “Vote Labour – for more politicians, more bureaucrats, more taxes, more regulations, more tampering, more meddling, more authoritarianism”.

If this is the New Gospel, give me the old religion.

In less than 1,000 days, Labour would vandalise nearly 1,000 years of British history.

Once again, they show their true colours.

Labour are the Party of the State. We are the Party of the Nation.