Below is the transcript of John Major’s speech to the British Retail Consortium on 24th January 1995.
President, Chairman, Ladies, Gentlemen.
Napoleon once referred to the British as a “Nation of Shopkeepers”. Today the Retail Consortium would rightly take that as a compliment. At the time, the British army didn’t.
And Napoleon was left to reflect on St Helena on the wisdom of his remark. He had plenty of time and not much to do. There were no superstores there and precious few shops. No wonder Napoleon tried to escape. He failed –
Whatever the merits of retailing then, no one doubts today it has undergone a revolution. The variety and diversity of goods in our shops has expanded beyond all belief.
In our supermarket are green beans from Kenya, lemon grass from Thailand, asparagus from Peru and starfruit and ortaniques from Morocco. Ortaniques. And once we used to think bananas were exotic!
And in the high street, are small specialist shops, selling socks or ties or Belgian chocolates. The idea of a viable consumer market for shops like these would have seemed incredible even a few years ago.
Has any peacetime activity had a more dramatic effect on our lives in the twentieth century than retailing? Personally I doubt it.
It used to be so very different. As GK Chesterton –
“God made the wicked grocer
For a mystery and a sign
That men might shun the awful shops
And go to inns to dine”.
Rather unflattering –
I know, for many of you, the going has been tough in recent years. The economic and competitive pressures have been intense. But the prospects ahead are now enticing. The economic recovery is established, is virtuous and offers the opportunity to build sustained growth into the next century.
Over the last year manufacturing has grown 5%, with productivity up over 6% and unit wage costs falling. There’s been more good news from the CBI survey only today. We hear so much claptrap about British manufacturing from people who don’t understand how it’s changing –
And that feeds through to exports. Exports are leading this recovery and how refreshing that is. Up 13% on last year, with our first trade surplus since 1987. We’re net exporters of machine tools, TV sets, pharmaceuticals. British Steel are now one of the UK’s top ten exporters. Shorts in Belfast doubled their aerospace exports last year. British exports to China rose an astonishing 43% last year. We even have a current account surplus with Japan.
With growth at 4% last year, the British economy is growing faster than any other big European country. Every year we’re seeing the international economic forecasts updated in Britain’s favour. They said we’d grow faster in 1993. We did. They said we’d do it again in 1994. We did. Now, they predict we’ll grow faster than all our main European competitors this year too. So we will. From 1994 to the end of 1996 we expect to have grown by 10%. Who’d have predicted that two years ago?
This hasn’t happened by accident. It’s happened because sixteen years of supply side reforms have revolutionised the attitude and performance of British industry. And because the decisions taken over the last few difficult years –
Inflation has now been below 3% for 15 months running –
Tax cuts there will be. We are instinctively a tax cutting party. Every improvement in the PSBR brings that day closer. But we will only cut taxes when it is prudent to do so, and not before.
ECONOMY AND RETAILING
I know that my bullish assessment of our economic prospects is not yet reflected in every part of the retail sector –
But consumers are more careful and cautious today. This recovery isn’t coming in a rush. The evidence suggests that the biggest dampener on consumer spending isn’t taxes or take home pay but the fear of unemployment. President: if so, that should soon change. Because unemployment in Britain has been falling for two years –
Let me turn to two aspects of competitiveness: one in your control, one in the Government’s.
First, quality and supporting local firms. In the 1970s, people turned to German or Japanese goods because British goods were often seen as unreliable or shoddy. But that has changed.
The best retailers have long known this: now others are joining in. Your Consortium –
This is not just about national preference. It’s about enlightened self-
So, better local sourcing to build on quality is something you can do for yourselves. Deregulation is an area where I can help you.
I am committed to cutting red tape. Of course we must protect consumers. But over-
We have already made significant progress. Last year we reformed the law on Sunday trading. We have legislated to relax outdated rules on late night shopping and to enable children to go with their parents into suitable hostelries. In the last budget Ken Clarke announced our plans to simplify VAT rules to help up to 600,000 small businesses with their cash flow.
One area that particularly concerns me is the plight of smaller businesses. Over seven million people –
We’re tackling three aspects of this problem.
The new Deregulation Act has given us new powers to ensure that rules are enforced fairly and consistently. We intend to make good use of them.
So we’re reviewing all laws affecting business, to bring them into line with three key principles.
The result should be a radical shift in power. The onus will be on the enforcer to avoid excessive action; not on the business which has to count the cost.
Second, we will continue to sweep away unnecessary regulation.
The Deregulation Act will give us new and quicker ways to cut red tape without requiring full-
We’ll be scrapping bureaucratic controls over a wide area. Cutting back paperwork that burdens building societies and the insurance industry. In future, you’ll be glad to hear, the Transport Secretary will no longer have to approve parking control equipment. We’ll also be changing absurd rules –
And we’ll be cutting back on the excessive information businesses have to provide in areas like consumer credit. Of course we’ll protect consumers, but too much paper confuses everyone and it’s a burden on small business in particular.
Deregulation helps business. But it also makes life simpler for everyone. We will simplify licensing procedures for community buildings, like village halls. We mean to combine licence applications and reduce inspection visits. This should be a real help to local groups like Women’s Institutes, charities and playgroups.
We have been looking at the rules on how charities can invest their money. Clearly charities must act wisely and prudently. But the present law came into force thirty years ago. I can tell you tonight that Michael Howard will shortly act to increase the proportion of money charities can invest in equities from the present 50% limit, to 75%. On the charities’ own figures, this simple change could boost their income by up to 200 million pounds a year.
These measures are early steps. I hope you’ll go on helping us identify others: that’s a genuine invitation.
I can announce one further measure tonight. The present law on sales of liquor on Sunday is absurd. Why can people buy liquor in a shop at noon but not at 11.30; or in a pub at 3.00 o’clock in the afternoon but not 4.00 o’clock? Now we have Sunday trading there is no logic in these regulations. They are old fashioned, out of date, patronising, Government-
So we propose as soon as we can to sweep them away, and replace them with simple and sensible laws. Supermarkets will be able to sell liquor throughout the six hours they may open on Sundays. Smaller off-
Thirdly, as we sweep away out-
I do not believe many people realise just how damaging the Social Chapter could be for this country. Before I secured our opt-
The Social Chapter could open the floodgate to a new tidal wave of damaging and unnecessary legislation. The European Union shouldn’t decide rules on redundancy payments. They should be decided here. The European Union shouldn’t lay down rules on workplace creche facilities. They should be decided here. The European Union shouldn’t decide terms and conditions of employment for part time workers. They, too, should be decided here.
It is vital to our competitiveness and jobs that Britain remains outside the Social Chapter. Our opt-
President, deregulation affects the whole climate in which you work –
We will shortly be responding to the Select Committee’s report on shopping centres and their future. But let me make two things clear now:
As so often in Government, we have to balance competing interests. The consumer wanting choice and access. Retailers –
Survival was never achieved by standing still. Town centres themselves must adapt –
One hundred town centre management projects are already under way. I warmly welcome the involvement of a number of you present here this evening –
The age of the motor car has forced many changes on rural areas in particular. We need innovative ideas to help improve choice for country communities which have lost the village shop and for people without cars, particularly the elderly. Can we make better use of new technology in these areas? Can retailers think of better ways to provide transport to shops?
This year, the Government will be publishing a White Paper on rural issues. There is, I know, a concern amongst those who live and work in the countryside that our thinking is dominated by urban considerations. It isn’t. To prove that, the White Paper must set out a coherent view of the relationship we expect between towns and cities and the countryside. It must take account of changing economic circumstances as well as the need to preserve and enhance the beautiful parts of our country. I intend the White Paper to set out a policy which will last well into the next century, so it is very important that everyone contributes to the debate. I hope the British Retail Consortium will put their ideas to John Gummer and William Waldegrave who are taking this forward.
Lastly, I want to say a few words about crime.
We know how devastating crime can be for the victim. What is not so well known are the economic consequences. This is a vital issue for your members. Crime costs retailers some 2.5 billion pounds every year. Or to put it another way: retailers’ profits would increase by over 20% if crime could be eliminated.
When we think about retail crime, instinctively we think of pilfering and petty shoplifting. They are bad enough. But alas, too often nowadays we are seeing crimes of quite a different order. Arrogant gangs of intimidating youths on organised shoplifting sprees. Ram-
You have already launched the Retail Crime Initiative. We will continue to work in partnership with you –
First, we need to get planners and local authorities to think more carefully about town centre designs. We need better liaison between police and retailers to share intelligence. Paging and ring round schemes to give early warning and quick response. Radio links between retailers, private security firms and the police. Local crime prevention panels and security committees. There’s a lot going on. But we need more.
Second, I believe we’ve got to get more closed circuit TV schemes in city centres. These schemes have huge potential in the fight against retail crime.
Already, about 250 schemes are up and running or planned:
Crime prevention makes excellent commercial sense. Yet only about a fifth of retailers join in crime prevention schemes. A recent survey suggested that a further half of all retailers would like to get involved. I believe we must involve them in schemes like business watch and City Centre TV. And quickly.
Third, we have to challenge the attitudes that accept crime as a way of life and effectively punish the criminal.
We’ve given the courts the power to pass long prison sentences for serious crimes: up to life imprisonment for robbery and serious violence, including violence against retail staff. Burglary and theft can also carry substantial prison sentences. We’re acting to tackle persistent juvenile offenders can be dealt with more effectively. Stiff sentencing not only keeps the criminal out of circulation, but clearly demonstrates society’s abhorrence and intolerance of crime.
These changes have all been put in place. They take time to work but they amount to a comprehensive change in our attitude to the criminal. We will continue to look at what further initiatives may be necessary.
President, I have always admired the way the retail industry contributes to the community as a whole. The extent to which you take part in voluntary activities –
Retailing is above all a local activity. And your long term interests have always been intertwined with the interests of the local communities. So I welcome the way in which retailers are becoming increasingly involved in social projects which tackle crime at its roots. It is important for you and it is vital for our society that we help young people to discover that there be better alternatives to crime. You can help to put this message across.
President, you said in your introduction that retailing is a British success story. I agree. After nearly two hundred years, we are still a “nation of shopkeepers”. We take pride in that. So let’s ensure that in the years to come, we can still take pride in that. Getting that depends on a healthy and flexible economy and a stable and secure society. Tonight I have set out some ways in which we can work together to achieve this. My task above all is to keep the economic framework sound. To avoid the bad old days of boom and bust. I pledge to do so.