The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1997Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Speech to Central Council in Bath – 15 March 1997

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech to Conservative Central Council, held in Bath on Saturday 15th March 1997.


Today, I’m going to set out what I believe.

And why you can only be sure with the Conservatives.

We’ll win because our policies work. And Labour’s don’t.

Because we say what we believe in. And Labour don’t.

Because we’re proud of our record. And they’re trying to hide their past.

That’s why Labour make such a performance of saying that they’ve changed.

Mr Chairman, who were the leading lights of the Labour Party when the Blairs, the Cooks and the Browns joined it?

I’ll tell you. The Kinnocks, the Benns, the Foots, the Healeys.

Now they’re non-persons.

They’re not talked of – except in private, where Mr Cook says Mr Foot is the best Prime Minister we never had.

in public he supports Mr Blair – just – but in private he says something else.

New Labour in a nutshell.

But our real opponent is much more formidable than Labour.

We’re fighting the argument that “it’s time for a change.”

Economic change

Time for a change?

Odd, isn’t it – in 1979 Britain was near bankrupt, scorned, a great nation on the slide. Our country really did need change then.

Why? Because in that harsh, unforgettable winter, Britain was governed by Labour.

This spring, children born that winter will be voting for the first time.

In their short lifetime, an old, decaying – some said dying – nation has been rejuvenated, restored, revived.

Those young people won’t know it. Far too many others out there seem to be forgetting it.

But Britain has changed – from being a European basket case to an international role model.

People once talked of the British disease. Now they’re copying the British solution.

The once sick man of Europe is setting the pace.

So, when you hear siren voices wailing ‘It’s time for a change’ – fix them in the eyes and challenge this nonsense:

‘A change to what?’

Is the nation moaning, out there “Low inflation. Who needs it? Let prices rip”?

Are they frantic at the lowest basic rate of tax for sixty years? “I can’t bear it. Let’s put a penny on income tax again”?

Do they despair as unemployment falls, month after month? “How boring. Why can’t we lose jobs like France and Germany”?

Do they weep that we’re number one in Europe for inward investment? “Forget it – we don’t want foreign money here. Let’s have that Social Chapter, load costs on those companies and drive the new jobs away”?

Mr Chairman, you know they don’t. No sensible person is asking for that.

So, I say to the “time for a change” merchants: “Find me a better country in the world in which to live”.

If you can – well, bye, bye, we’ll miss you.

If you can’t, pipe down – and let us get on with the job of building the well-being of our nation to a level it has never known before.

A Smaller, But Better State

Mr Chairman, my Conservatism is first about helping more people realise their own private hopes and personal ambitions.

And second about removing the avoidable fears that blight too many lives.

Over the years Government after Government has wanted to do this.

Now we have the prize we’ve all been seeking – the strongest, most stable economy that Britain has seen since way before the war.

So now, we can really make progress.

My aim is to make the state smaller, but better.

That’s why our target is a 20 pence basic rate of tax – and for state spending to fall below 40 per cent of the nation’s wealth.

Working two days a week for the state – surely that’s enough for all of us?

I believe that if things can be done better in the private sector, they should be.

But I also believe some things should always be done in the public sector.

And if so, they must be done well.

Over the years we’ve reined back the size of the state. Steel coal, gas, electricity, water, airways – all once leeched on the state for subsidy.

Now they’re in the private sector, yielding taxes for schools, hospitals, police.

It’s a remarkable record – a smaller state, lower income tax and better services.

And there’s further to go.

The Next Conservative Government

Mr Chairman, in the last few days some interviewers have asked me: “It’s been a tough few years, Prime Minister. Why do you want to go on?”

I’ll tell you.

Because I dream of a people’s Britain, in which all the people – not only the confident and well to do – can make their own choices and mould their own lives.

I believe that’s their right. Their right – to choose, to save, to spend, to know that they own.

I want to see everyone have these opportunities.

To see the have-nots become the haves.

That’s why we started the sale of council houses.

Why we’ve sold shares and spread savings.

And it’s why we’re going to provide secure pensions for everyone.

Because the Conservatism I’m talking about isn’t just for the lucky, the fortunate, the able, the self-confident.

It’s for everyone.

For those for whom life is a struggle.

For those who don’t have the best education.

Don’t have a decent home.

Don’t live in a safe neighbourhood.

Don’t have a job.

I should know. I come from them. I care for them. And I long to see them have their fair share of the good things of life.

Opportunity for all: the next Conservative Government is for them, as much as for anyone else.

We’ll make sure that those who don’t have, do have.

People’s Pensions

Mr Chairman, as Britain grows wealthier, we must see to it that more of what the State spends goes where the taxpayer would like it to go.

I believe in the Welfare State – and the security and comfort it offers the British people. I’m determined it will be there for our children and grandchildren.

But we can only guarantee its future if it remains affordable.

We have set out recently big ideas to do just that.

Today’s pensions, for example, rely on each younger generation being able to pay for the old.

As more people live longer, can we be sure that would always be possible?

It’s a giant of uncertainty that no truly caring government could ignore. A giant that the next Conservative government will begin to slay.

We aim to build on what William Beveridge intended.

To build up – over time – a secure pension scheme for all.

But we’ll go one better.

Ours won’t be a state pension – though it will have a state guarantee.

It will be a People’s Pension, owned by everyone – personally. It will be theirs – by right.

It will be funded by real investments – not unwritten promises and rising tax.

It will guarantee the new generation – our children and grandchildren – not just the basic state pension, but their own personal pool of savings.

By the time they retire, someone on average earnings should have built up £130,000 of savings. Enough to provide a pension of £175 a week.

It’s a long-term plan – a true Conservative idea – one that will give our children a security and independence that previous generations could only dream of.

Protecting Savings

Often true security and peace of mind come from savings.

People save for security. For comfort in retirement. Against a rainy day. To ensure the dignity of self-provision.

They worry about the cost of care if they grow infirm when they are elderly.

And they despair when their savings are eaten up to pay for care.

This week we announced a plan to tackle this problem.

We will lessen the worries so many people have about the cost of nursing home care.

It’s quite simple. A partnership.

We intend to help people who plan ahead and take out insurance against long-term care.

In return, for every £1 they spend, we’ll disregard an extra £1.50 of their assets and protect them from being used to pay for care.

This will mean people can protect more of their savings for themselves and their families.

Too many people who have prudently saved still find their money stripped from them by the accident of illness in old age. This will protect them.

It’s the second great aim for the next Conservative Government – to banish the fear of losing their lifetime’s assets to pay for care in illness.

I believe in the cascade of wealth between the generations. So we’ll help build it up. Help protect it – and, as we can afford it, steadily reduce the burden of tax upon it.

A Modern National Health Service

Over the last generations we’ve seen the greatest leap forward in the health of the nation that we’ve ever known.

People are living better and living longer.

That’s good.

But, as more and more people live longer and longer, the demands on our doctors and hospitals must grew.

And that means constant investment in new science and new treatments in the National Health Service.

If you spend all your time worrying what will happen when you lose your health, you’ve no time left to enjoy it.

So here’s a pledge to fight the third great fear – the fear of disease.

It’s a pledge that no other party has matched.

A pledge for you to take to the doorsteps, to the millions of families who treasure the peace of mind the National Health Service gives.

We will continue to improve the Health Service year on year.

We’ll plough savings back into health care year on year.

And the next Conservative Government will provide more money for the NHS, over and above inflation, year on year on year, for the next five years.

It’s why prosperity matters.

Because growing national wealth will mean better National Health.

Our aim is to make good health more infectious than disease.

As far as the NHS is concerned, if you’re ill we’ll make it better.

A Guarantee of Standards

Mr Chairman, Britain will live or die by whether British workers can think better and work faster than our competitors. The prizes of the next century will go to countries with the best educated workforce.

That means we need the best education for every child, in every class, in every school.

We’ve come a long way – but not far enough to meet tomorrow’s challenges or parents’ wishes.

Parents deserve more choice. We’ll give it to them.

No ‘ifs’. No ‘buts’. No small print or sly evasions.

More grant-maintained schools, more specialist schools, more grammar schools.

If that’s what they want, that is what we – and we alone – guarantee they can have.

Choice is crucial – but it’s no use if it’s a choice between two bad schools.

Children have only one chance at education. Many schools are good. Exam results impressive. But it’s not universal.

I’m not prepared to stand by and see children let down by bad schools and bad councils.

That’s why we’ve put in place our reforms. A national curriculum. Local management. Tests. Tables. And inspections. We had to fight for them all – against bitter hostility from Labour.

Our reforms have shone a spotlight on the dark corners of the education system. Exposed failing schools and the failing education authorities that run them.

As a result, in our Manifesto, we can now do what no previous government has ever dared to do before.

We can offer parents a guarantee of education standards.

Where we need to, we’ll take action to turn failing schools around.

And where whole education authorities are failing, – and, sadly, some are – we’ll send in professional teams to sort them out.

Councils like Islington, Hackney, Haringey – the real Labour heartlands – have failed and failed and failed.

They have betrayed generations of children.

Time after time tests and tables show Labour councils to be the bleakest areas of the education landscape.

And the Leader of the Labour Party has the gall to say that education is his passion. “Education. Education. Education.”

But what has he ever done about those deplorable Labour councils?

Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

Nothing – but turn the car key and drive away to another borough and another school.

Towards a GM school that Tory policies made possible – and which his policies would destroy.

I don’t believe children are less clever in some areas. I believe they’re let down in some areas.

I come from local government but I have no brief for it when it fails. So I offer this warning.

We will not follow Mr Blair and Ms Harman as – head aloof – they pass by on the other side.

We will go into those education authorities. We will examine them. And where they are failing, we will take their powers from them – in the interests of our children.

The Inner Cities

Our Conservatism must be for everyone – whoever they are, wherever they live.

We want to spread the prosperity of the suburbs into our inner cities.

Already we’ve transformed the face of many cities.

But we must do far, far more.

We’re going to tackle the problem of inner city deprivation more imaginatively than any Government before.

We’ll bring to every tenant the choice of freedom from shoddy council control – for a fresh start with a better landlord.

We’ll build a new partnership between public and private sector.

Where tenants agree, we’ll bring in private capital to improve their lives on a scale never seen.

To transform housing; improve schools; fight crime.

Dignity, security, prosperity must walk down every street in the land.

And that must include the inner cities.

Grown up Government: Preparing for the Future – Now

Mr Chairman, in the first years of this century Winston Churchill and Lloyd George laid the foundations of the Welfare State.

The wartime and post-war governments, drawing on the work of William Beveridge, brought in state provision on a huge scale. It was right for its time. And, for a long time, it has served us well.

But now we are on the threshold of a new century. Right across the world – even in the richest nations – people are looking forward and saying that the State cannot shoulder all the burden -and for ever.

Some things, like the free National Health Service, is a principle we must never change.

But, I believe it is time for the third great move forward in public welfare.

To bolster social security with personal and family security.

To build alongside State provision growing private wealth.

To replace the insecurity of dependence for many with the security of independence for all.

I have laid some of those ideas before you today.

This is a bold vision – a grand ambition. It is what I have always longed to do.

When it’s accomplished – and the next generations have the savings and security that we are preparing for them – then I believe people will look back and say: “How lucky we are that governments then looked forward – not twenty minutes or twenty days, but twenty, forty, sixty years.”

Mr Chairman, government is a grown-up business.

It’s not about clutching for the advantage of the hour.

It’s about working for the advantage of future generations some of us may never even know.

And to do that, whatever may be the short-term reaction – from the unthinking, the uncomprehending, the sheer opportunist.

Doing the right thing, at the right time, for the ends we know to be right.


Our record is in the book, our policies are on the table, our principles are clear.

So when people go into the polling booth, and put a cross in the box beside the Conservative candidate, they’ll know what it stands for.

You can only be sure with the Conservatives.

But before they mark that X, I’d like them to think carefully – very carefully indeed.

That X will decide the fate of Britain for the next five years.

But they could mark X somewhere else.

X for the unknown quantity.

An X that might stand for … well, just about anything.

Imagine waking up the morning if the X files stacked up for Labour.

It would be like waking up on an aeroplane that’s taxiing for take-off. What would the new captain say?

“Welcome on board. Before we take-off, I’d just like you to welcome your crew.

You probably remember the last crew from the same training school crash-landed. So did the one before. Indeed, everyone before. But don’t worry, we’re new.

In fact, we’re so new none of us have flown before, except on a television simulator.

During the flight, our bar steward, John Prescott, will be coming through the cabin, offering a selection of goods, all of which cost more tax.

I can’t tell you yet what altitude we’re flying at. Or what speed. Or what direction. But I’m hoping a focus group will tell me shortly.

Our destination – is unknown. But I can tell you the flight time will be about five years.

In the meantime, please ensure your seat-belt is securely fastened.”

Please ensure your seat-belt is securely fastened. That’s surely true. You would certainly need it.


Trade union bosses licking their lips, their lunch boxes packed with their sandwiches and pay demands.

Businessmen reassessing their options, thinking how many they’d have to sack once Labour signed the Social Chapter.

Currency markets holding their breath, remembering how the last Labour government bankrupted Britain.

Scottish Nationalists preparing to say ‘Whatever Mr Blair offers, it’s not enough’.

And the European Federalists, rubbing their hands with glee at the thought of a Britain that will never be isolated in Europe, no matter what they proposed.

If Mr Blair ever walked in through the most famous door in the world, half the hopes of Britain would disappear out the back.

It’s taken 18 years of sound government and sheer hard work by the British people to get us here.

We must not throw it away. Throw it away with the wrong economic policy.

No, Mr Chairman.

It’s not time for a change.

And it would not be safe to change.

Not safe to change economic management.

Not safe to adopt reckless and opportunistic commitments to constitutional change.

Not safe to toe the line in Europe and wreck our competitiveness.

I’ll tell you what it is time for.

It’s time for the clear-headed.

Time for the far-sighted.

Time for the experienced.

Time to be sure.

It’s time for us.

That’s why we’ll win.