The text of Sir John Major’s speech at the Carlton Club Political Committee Dinner, held at the Carlton Club in London on Tuesday 16th June 2009.
SIR JOHN MAJOR:
When Tim Eggar invited me to join you this evening, I didn’t realise I would be doing so at such a surreal moment.
Just over a week ago, we had a Cabinet reshuffle beyond parody, with an outcome beyond belief.
Before it began, Ministers were queuing to leave the Government rather than join it. When it was complete, the Prime Minister had himself been reshuffled. The Prime Minister’s allies told us we could not have another unelected Prime Minister in this Parliament. But now we have – doubly unelected since he’s in the Lords. He may not have the title Prime Minister but, if not, it’s the only one he doesn’t have.
If newspaper reports are to be believed, a tired and fractious Gordon Brown was sent to bed on Thursday evening, whilst the new First Minister set about finalising the Ministerial changes. Presumably the next morning, Gordon was informed he had:-
A Chancellor of the Exchequer he tried to sack;
A Foreign Secretary he didn’t want to keep; and
A brand new Cabinet appointment: former social worker Tessa Jowell, whose responsibility seems to be “Caring for Gordon”. She is No. 10’s own Supernanny.
Poor Gordon. No more late nights. No more early mornings. No more playing with the computer after lights out. No more YouTube. No more voting for TV talent shows. No more throwing things around the room. And if there’s one more tantrum – Gordon will be sent straight to the Naughty Step.
I told you it was beyond parody. Unfortunately, with things as they are, it is not beyond belief.
Nor is Gordon’s capacity to undermine the Office of Prime Minister. Given everything else that should be occupying his mind at the moment, is it really a good use of his time to make telephone calls checking on the progress of a talent show singer? Frankly, I’d be more impressed if he’d taken time out to check on the progress of our limbless soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
At the moment there’s a general assumption that the Conservatives will win the next election. Certainly, Labour can’t. Nor can the Lib Dems.
But we can’t yet be confident we will get a clear majority. Winning the General Election is still unfinished business.
When we lost – in 1997 – we had been in Government for 18 years: so long, many electors thought a fifth successive win would be bad for democracy.
But it is ironic that the electorate turfed out the only Government in the last 50 years to leave Office with every single economic indicator improving, and elected a Party that has nearly bankrupted the Nation.
When the economic crisis began, Gordon Brown blamed America. He stopped when Barack Obama became President. After all – it’s difficult to kick ass when you’re licking boots. So now the Prime Minister refers to the global crisis. Of course there is an international dimension, but to blame others for our mess is, at best, a half-truth. It’s a very New Labour response: political self-interest comes first. National well being trails far behind. And the unvarnished truth scarcely gets a look-in.
The truth is starker. Even if there had been no international crisis:
– We would still be in recession.
– Our national and personal debt levels would still be at record highs.
– Our banking system would still have been poorly regulated.
– Our pension system would still have been wrecked.
– Our education system would still need reform.
– Our health system would still be unable to cope.
– And our prison system would still be overflowing with prisoners who need not be there, whilst others who should be there are being released early.
None of that can be blamed on America.
At the wrong end of these policy failures – are innocent individuals.
Everyone has three pillars to their security: job; pension; home. After twelve years of Labour, none of them is secure. In time, property values will recover. But, for many, the other pillars will not recover in time to help them.
Unemployment is rising rapidly: anyone over 40 will find it hard to get another job at a comparable income. The impact on domestic life is immense.
For those coming up to retirement, the future is bleak:
Pensions based on the level of retirement income are dead – Gordon Brown killed them with a tax levy; and
Pensions based on investment value have collapsed – destroyed because Gordon Brown ignored the growth of debt.
Millions paid into a UK pension fund for nearly 40 years: now they are finding the lump sum due to them is down by one-third, with the yearly annuity down by 40%. That is not a one-year loss: it’s a loss for the rest of their lives.
Nor can they sell their houses to make a capital gain: the collapse in property prices has closed that option.
Savers suffer too: with interest rates at record low levels, their savings no longer earn any income.
These are Labour’s victims: all innocent bystanders. So are the secondary victims. Many retirees help their adult children become home-owners; or pay for the education of their grandchildren. In future, fewer will be able to do so. Children and grandchildren lose out.
Labour caused this. No-one else: they cannot put it right. No one asks the mugger to set the broken bones.
But a Conservative Party can do so – provided we put the individual in the forefront of our policy – and our oratory.
Labour inherited a flourishing economy: like every Labour Government before then. They will be leaving a train wreck – worse, even, than 1979. Taxpayers will be repaying Labour’s debts for the next two decades.
Because – be in no doubt: we are not simply facing a short-term crisis. What has occurred will affect politics for years. Labour’s legacy won’t disappear with a change of Government. It can’t be glossed over or pushed aside: ahead lie decisions as serious as any taken – during peace-time – in living memory.
We should say that: this country is crying out for someone to speak to it directly and honestly; to tell them what has happened and why; and what now must be done. With wise policy, this can be an opportunity. Out of such crises often come great changes. That is the task for David Cameron. Necessity compels us to cut our cloth according to our means. We can do that in one of two ways.
We could simply top slice budgets, with everyone bearing an equal share of the pain. That is easy to do but – a mistake.
Or we could prioritise. We could re-shape Government, reduce it in size, be selective about what Government does, cut out whole functions, abolish unnecessary bodies, cut quangos, end the billions wasted on consultancies, on rebranding, and on fake schemes that serve only as political window-dressing. This needs doing – and the crisis presents that opportunity.
The screams of outrage would be shrill, but we should not shrink from a truth the public recognise: we cannot go on living in a financial never-never land.
And there is a philosophical point here that is critical to our future.
Of course, we must be compassionate. Heartless politics is divisive. To many, it can be frightening. But compassionate policies do not necessarily mean big government. We are over-governed. Smaller government is necessary now for financial reasons: but it is also desirable. Tories should not be defensive about it. Our aim should always be to extend liberty and choice – not to restrict it or bind it in smothering regulation.
We should not accept that big is better. Big government restrains and confines; it weakens ambition; it cuts back on opportunity and it undermines enterprise. Often, it is anti-libertarian. For many people – unfamiliar with government and perhaps unsophisticated about it – it induces wariness, even fear, of The Man in Whitehall. “They” – Whitehall and politicians – “know best”; “are in charge”; “must be obeyed and not challenged”: this is appalling – “they” are our servants, not our masters in a free society.
Labour’s old scare tactic – that we will cut public spending and they won’t – is back again. But that’s not the difference between us: the difference is we’re telling the Country the truth – and they are not.
We must spend within our means or face widespread tax increases – milking the rich will not raise enough. Unless spending is concentrated on what is essential, everyone will be milked. And if we put up taxes to pay for more and more spending, we will entrench high unemployment too – because we will have crushed investment and savings. That is a message we must get across.
None of this will be comfortable, but it’s essential Government becomes a serious business once again – and not the soap opera it has become. And it’s essential the public are told the truth – and not the puerile easy-to-spot lies with which Labour now insult our intelligence.
In an attempt to regain the political initiative we can expect some ill-thought-out policies. One might be electing all (or most of) the House of Lords. The argument is that election confers legitimacy: true – but, sadly, it doesn’t confer talent or wisdom or experience or knowledge.
An elected Lords would be a pale shadow of the Commons but, being elected, would challenge it. It would give more political clout to the Whips and less brain-power to the scrutiny of legislation. The plain truth is that electing the Lords is a populist gesture that would seriously weaken the way Parliament works.
Out would go Field-Marshals, Cabinet Secretaries, former senior Ministers, Captains of Industry, Church Leaders and Academics.
Out would go men and women of proven ability and achievement.
In would come a new would-be professional political class who couldn’t get elected to the Commons.
It would be a poor bargain for good government: akin to polluting vintage port with tap water. But very New Labour.
Over twelve years, New Labour have debased Parliament; taken us to war on a false premise; embellished that error by linking Iraq to the 9/11 attack on New York for which there is not a thread of evidence; affronted civil liberties in an over-reaction to the terrorist threat; and made a mockery of the criminal justice system.
In our country we have always valued personal privacy: it’s why we cherish the secret ballot and the right to silence. In cliché terms, an Englishman’s home has always been his castle. No longer. New Labour have ushered in what the Information Commissioner calls “a surveillance society”. In the atmosphere of fear-mongering, all this has passed relatively unchallenged. It is time it was.
Nor is there a case for the National Identity Register to hold the DNA of innocent people never charged with an offence. And it cannot be acceptable that our homes or cars can be bugged, our letters and emails intercepted and opened – without the sanction of the High Court. All this is legal under legislation introduced by Labour and passed by its supine backbenchers.
For too long we have been drifting with our eyes closed towards a siege society with too much of our nation becoming clients of Government spending or Government contracts or Government subsidy. This is alien to our instincts and our history and our national self-interest.
Change is essential or decline is certain.
The poet Philip Larkin once wrote: “Most things are not meant.” Labour did not mean to damage our national wellbeing, but they have. They did not mean to damage our personal liberty, but they have. Larkin was right: “Most things are not meant”, but his poem was even more prescient. It is entitled: “Going, Going”. Let us hope it is not long before they are gone.