Michael Howard – 2004 Speech to Conservative Party Spring Conference

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Below is the text of the speech made by Michael Howard, the then Leader of the Opposition, to the Conservative Party spring conference on 7th March 2004.

First of all, I want to thank you for all the hard work you do for our Party.

It has been quite an eventful few months. I certainly never expected to be where I am today. But I am immensely proud to be standing before you now.

Proud because no other party in Britain has a longer or greater history. Proud because no other party has done so much for our country. And proud because no other party has the opportunity to achieve so much in the future.

I also feel a sense of humility, facing this audience. Like all of you, I’m a party worker. In my case, it’s my only job. Most of you here today work hard, both at a day job and as Conservative councillors or volunteers.

You are the Conservative Party. We are utterly dependent on your commitment, your loyalty and your enthusiasm.

I want also to pay tribute to Iain Duncan Smith for his brave leadership in difficult times. Our Party owes him a real debt. And it is right that we should acknowledge that today. But now we must look forward as Iain wants us to do.

In the last four months, we’ve made important changes to the Party.

We’ve more than halved the size of the Shadow Cabinet.

We’ve streamlined Central Office.

And soon we will be moving from Smith Square to more modern headquarters.

In the last few months, we have gained 20,000 new members.

We now have more members than both Labour and the Liberal Democrats put together.

We are the largest party in local government – we now have more women councillors than any other party.

And today, here in Harrogate, we have almost 1,500 party workers – our largest number ever.

In short, the Conservative Party is back. Back as the only alternative to this failing and discredited Labour Government.

We meet at the beginning of a new century. It is a century which will see enormous change. In twenty years time the world – and our country – will look very different.

And here in Britain the nature of that difference will be determined at the next General Election.

Today we stand at a crossroads. We have a clear choice about the direction we take. One road leads to an ever bigger role for the State. Higher taxes. Higher government spending. A country in which big government knows best.

The other road leads to a country in which people pay less tax and have more control over their lives. A country in which individuals have the freedom to determine their own destinies and make the best of their talents. A country in which people are big and the State is small.

These are the differences – the fundamental differences – which will form the battle lines at the next General Election. Make no mistake. Labour will caricature our position. As they become more frightened, Labour will launch an unprecedented campaign to frighten the British people.

But we will not be deterred or deflected by Labour’s scare tactics. We will not be deterred or deflected from putting forward our vision for our country.

We owe it to this great country of ours to show that there is an alternative. An alternative to Labour’s never ending cycle of tax and spend and failure to deliver. That alternative is lower taxes and smaller government: trusting people and giving them control.

Britain is looking for a new approach. And it is up to us to convince the people that our way – the Conservative way – is a better way.

Last month Oliver Letwin published carefully considered proposals for public spending.

We want to concentrate spending on our key public services that so desperately need reform. Health and education. We will invest money in reform, not waste it on an out-dated system. We want public spending to grow less quickly than the economy as a whole. And we want the State to take less of the nation’s income.

So instead of Labour’s Third Term Tax Rises, a future Conservative government wants to lower taxes.

And let me tell you why we want to do that. We believe that low taxes give people the opportunity to make their own decisions: decisions to save, to give, to spend, to keep more for their families and their children. People grow in confidence, and grow morally, when the State gives them that opportunity by taking less from them. That is the moral case for lower taxes.

But there’s another reason to lower taxes. Low tax economies are the most successful economies. They create more jobs, they grow more businesses, and they increase people’s wealth. So we have both a moral and a practical case for lower taxes.

That is the difference between Labour and the Conservatives. A difference that deserves to be debated in a serious way.

It is hardly surprising that people are cynical about politicians, when politicians don’t conduct grown up debates. Look at what Labour’s various spokesmen had to say about Oliver’s proposals – after a period of quiet reflection – perhaps as long as, oh, 30 seconds. They said that our plans would lead to “the wholesale elimination of public services”. They claimed that our “real intention is to cut … investment”. They said that our plans are “more extreme than ever”.

I’ll say this for them. They’re obviously rattled. I read in the papers this morning that Labour has appointed a minister to scrutinise every speech I make – line by line. Well I don’t know who you are – but I hope you’re watching now. Sit back and enjoy the show.

Don’t get me wrong. Politicians can and should criticise each other’s proposals. Let’s just do it in a grown-up way.

You know me.

I am not backward in coming forward.

I see it as my duty to point out where I think the Government is going wrong. I do it every week in the House of Commons … At Prime Minister’s Questions.

I do it because it is my duty to hold the Government to account. And I do it because their failures make me angry.

Everything I have and everything I am I owe to this country.

Britain is one of the greatest countries on earth, full of the most talented, energetic and hard-working people.

We are a country of great traditions too. Traditions which should not just be written off in a government press release. We are proud of those traditions and we will respect them. The future of our country must be grounded in those traditions.

And I am optimistic – hugely optimistic – about that future. I know how much better Britain could be doing.

Britain is at her best when she aims to be the best. That is my aspiration for our country. But when I look around me today I see so many missed opportunities. And that makes me angry too.

Angry that a million children played truant last year – over 200,000 more than in 1997. What hope is there for our country when youngsters don’t even go to school?

It makes me angry that a million people still have to wait for their operations, and that waiting times are getting longer. It makes me angry that at the beginning of the 21st century, thousands of people still have to suffer the indignity of mixed sex wards.

It is a tragedy that the people most let down are the elderly – the generation that made such sacrifices during the war.

It makes me angry too that violent crime is at its highest level ever, with almost a million violent crimes committed last year. That gun crime has doubled since Labour came to office. Today it is the eldery woman, walking down the street on her way to the shops, who is fearful, not the mugger lurking in the dark.

A million on waiting lists. A million off school. A million violent crimes. And a million excuses from this government.

And it doesn’t have to be like this. You know what the real problem is? When we urgently need action, Labour’s nowhere to be seen. And when we don’t need Labour, you just can’t get away from them.

Take the economy.

Gordon Brown loves lecturing our European partners about how they should make their economies more like America. I agree with him. But at the same time, he’s doing just the opposite. He’s introducing more red tape, more regulation and even higher taxes, when business just wants to be left to get on with the job.

I sometimes think that Gordon Brown is an addict – a tax and regulation junkie. But he cannot bring himself to admit it. There’s a questionnaire that’s been developed by a well known London clinic.

It’s designed to help people face up to their addictions. So here are some helpful questions to find out just how bad Gordon’s habit really is.

-Do you use tax and regulation to help cope with your problems?

-Are tax and regulation affecting your reputation?

-Have you lost friends since you started taxing and regulating?

-Have you ever tried to quit or cut back taxing and regulating?

-Do you need to tax and regulate more than you used to in order to get the effect you want?

Sadly I think we all know the answer.

Only recently, I went to see a small firm that had just been instructed to fit emergency lighting at a cost of many thousands of pounds. That cost had a real effect – they had to lay someone off. Yet the year before, at a previous inspection, no such demand was made.

In the intervening twelve months, nothing had changed. There had been no accidents and no change in working practices to justify the new requirement. No new machines had been installed.

I mentioned this when I spoke at the CBI’s annual conference. That provoked a letter from Andrew Smith, Labour’s Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. He said he’d been extremely concerned to hear about this. Do you know why? Not because of the cost. Not because someone had lost their job. Apparently I was wrong to blame the Health and Safety Executive for this new burden on a small business … I should have blamed the Fire Service.

Wouldn’t it be better if we had a government that scrapped regulations – instead of scrapping over who was to blame?

I criticise Labour’s approach not because I believe that Labour are taxing and spending simply for the sake of it. Almost all politicians go into politics because we care about our country and we want Britain to succeed. We all want the best healthcare. The best education. Safe streets. The disagreements between us – and they are sincere and profound – are on the best way to get there.

I accept that Labour want the best for our country. They just want to do things in a different way. The wrong way.

So my criticism of Labour is that they won’t accept that their tax and spend approach, without real reform, just isn’t working. It was actually Gordon Brown who said that “more resources must mean more reform and modernisation”. But that hasn’t happened.

Labour’s 60 stealth tax rises mean that we are paying £42 a week more in tax for every man, woman and child in the country. British business is paying £15 billion a year more in tax and red tape. The Chief Executive of Tesco has said that “like a tide, the level of taxes seems to be forever rising. The water is now above our waist”.

These are my criticisms of Labour. They spend without reform. They tax by stealth. They regulate remorselessly. And they have failed to deliver the improvements that our country is desperate to see.

The Liberal Democrats do not offer a credible alternative. As those of us in this hall who have to fight them every day know only too well, they have a literally incredible approach to politics.

Their own campaigning document tells them to “be wicked, act shamelessly, stir endlessly”.

This week they launched their economic policy. They must be the only party that talks about cutting spending and raising taxes.

So our approach will be different from both Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

When I was a boy my parents told me “It does not matter what you do when you grow up as long as you do it to the best of your ability”.

We should be a country which helps everyone to do what they do to the best of their ability, to make the best of their talent and their aptitude.

Every family should have the opportunities that my family had, and better opportunities still.

There are countless examples of people from humble beginnings who make it to the top: who live the British Dream. So let’s talk about it. Let’s embrace it. Let’s celebrate it. Let everyone live the British Dream.

That means creating the conditions for a strong economy and then removing the barriers that hold people back. That’s it. Not initiatives, strategies, targets, commissions, but the energy, enterprise and freedom of our people.

Our task will be simple but no less difficult for that: to tear down the most unjustifiable and debilitating barrier that divides our nation at the start of the twenty-first century.

It is the unacceptable divide between the powerful and the powerless.

Between the controllers and the controlled.

Between those who can choose, and those who have to make do.

Between those who get what they pay for. And those who have to take what they are given.

This shameful divide is not some god-given reality; the natural order of things; an immutable fact of life in the twenty first century.

Why should people in this country, our friends, our families, our loved ones, die of diseases and illnesses that would not kill them in countries just across the Channel?

It is not the fault of the people who work in our public services. They are dedicated, hard working and committed. But they work in a system that hinders and hampers them, when it should be helping them. It is the system that needs to change.

Of course, in this debate, as in so many, it is our very Britishness that thwarts us. For while we may grumble in private, we do hate to make a fuss.

“Oh stop complaining”, we say. “Pipe down”. “Don’t go on about it”.

Well sometimes we should go on about it. We should make a fuss. We should complain. And far from piping down, sometimes we should speak up.

Speak up for the right for everyone to decide where and how their children are educated; the right to decide where and when they get their healthcare treatment. To let the sunshine of choice break through the clouds of state control.

That’s why we need a Conservative government.

That’s what we mean when we say that the people should be big and the State should be small.

That’s what we mean when we say that everyone should be able to share in the British dream.

That is our vision. That is our plan.

We know it can be done, and in the weeks and months ahead, we will spell out exactly how it can be done. But the principle is clear today.

We’re going to give people their liberty by giving them control.

At the moment, we have a state monopoly system notorious for its bureaucracy and waste. And people have no control over it.

So we will change the system to give people power.

The power to choose.

Today the contrast between how we live our lives and how government is run could not be more stark.

People want more control over the public services they use.

Tony Blair sometimes sounds as though he understands that. He sometimes sounds as though he’d like to do something about it. The trouble is he can’t deliver.

Tony Blair will never be able to deliver the changes that our country needs. He can’t do it because when push comes to shove he is a Labour Prime Minister. His party won’t let him. The trade unions won’t let him. And Gordon Brown won’t let him.

He’s impotent now with a majority of over 160. What on earth would he be like in a third term? To vote Labour next time is to vote for a government that has run out of steam, run out of ideas and has reached a dead end.

There is only one party that can deliver.

And that is the Conservative Party.

We are the only party that can deliver the change this country needs. The only party that can lead our country along the right road.

Trust us, Labour say. We will deliver … eventually.

In 1997 – do you remember Labour’s song? “Things can only get better”.

Four years later in 2001 it was a different tune: “We’ve only just begun”.

So what will their tune be at the next election?

Let me tell you: “Give me just a little more time”.

But their time is up. People know that this Government has had its day. More of the same just won’t do.

The fear is in the eyes of Labour now – not this Party. It’s up to us to take our courage in our hands and offer the British people a better way.

On Thursday the 10th of June we face crucial elections – in local government, in London and for the European Parliament. Many of you here today will be standing as candidates in those elections.

Be in no doubt about how important they are. And about how hard we must work for them. They are important in themselves. And they are a staging post on our way to the next General Election.

At these elections voters will have a clear choice.

A choice between Labour’s Third Term Tax Rises and lower taxes under the Conservatives.

A choice between top-down public services that cannot improve and a new approach that gives people more control.

Voters will have to choose between those two visions: big government that knows best or smaller government where people are trusted to take control. It’s a historic choice. It will determine our future for generations.

So these are the battle lines. That is the task. There is the challenge.

We will give power to the powerless.

Control to the controlled.

We will give everyone the choice which today only money can buy.

This is our historic mission.

This is the vision we offer our country.

This is the fight that we have to win.