Edward Heath – 1972 Speech to Conservative Party Conference


Below is the text of the speech made by Edward Heath, the then Prime Minister, in Blackpool in October 1972.

It is just 25 years, Dame Peggy, since I attended my first Party Conference, and I have been at every one since. There may well be some in this hall today with a longer record than that. But no one else, as I understand it at any rate, has been present for the last eight years as Leader of the Party, or for the last three as Conservative Prime Minister.

Every Conference has its own character stamped upon it; and so it has been with this one. This Conference has been a triumph for moderation, for decency and for good sense; and we all recognise how great a part the younger members of our Party have played in it. It has been a triumph not confined to this hall. It has been achieved with the whole world watching. The media, with their microphones and cameras – not forgetting their pencils and notebooks – have seen to it that the world outside this hall has watched a Party that knows its own mind is prepared to speak its own mind. What you have said has clearly matched the national mood.

You are here representing every part of the country and every aspect of our national life. In your debates and by your votes you have decisively shown that moderation, clearly expounded and firmly pursued, meets the need of the nation.

We have shown this week that we reject the equivocations so prevalent in this hall last week – the equivocations of those trying to make us believe that any problem can be solved just by facing both ways. Equally we reject those who react to one extreme by rushing to another, seeking to persuade us that in this way quick and easy answers can be found to hard and complicated problems.

We are not a nation of extremists. We are a nation that believes in firmness and fairness; and this week we in this hall have shown that this is where we as a party also stand.

The people of this country want a fair society. The Conservative Government is in process of creating just that. We are seeking to create it in the talks that we started with the employers and trade unions about curbing inflation – talks that will continue next Monday at Chequers. Throughout this Parliament we have been continuously engaged in the battle against inflation. Let no one say that we have not fought, and fought hard. When we have had setbacks, as we have, they have not been for the lack of will in trying to overcome them.

We have not always been helped by those who in the past year have constantly made our small majority in Parliament still smaller and led others outside to believe, wrongly, that we could be toppled. But I would like to express my gratitude to all my colleagues in the Cabinet and in the Government for the firm support which they have given in the fight against inflation. It is to all our regrets that Reggie Maudling should not be on this platform with us this morning.

At all times we have sought co-operation with those concerned in the country’s economic organisation. It was through no fault of ours that sometimes events led to confrontation. We were returned to office with a clear mandate from the electorate – a mandate to reform the law on industrial relations, to reform the system of housing finance, to reform the social services, to reform the tax system and to reduce taxation. That was a clear mandate to enable the weak to be protected, the poor to be helped and others to be encouraged to expand the wealth of the nation. All of this mandate has been carried out. Yes – and we were given a mandate to reduce inflation. That we knew had to include bringing down inflationary wage settlements throughout the economy to something much more in line with production. We have been given all too little credit for the success we achieved.

Over a wide area of the economy there was co-operation. But in parts there was also confrontation. And so it was that Government, management and unions first met to discuss conciliation. As a result new machinery has been created by the employers and the unions. But that is not enough. We have now, therefore, jointly embarked for the first time in Britain, on the path of working out together how to create and share the nation’s wealth for the benefit of all the people. It is an offer to em­ployers and unions to share fully with the Government the benefits and the obligations involved in running the national economy.

I have always emphasised my belief in more open Government. For the parties to these talks to be able to work together better, they must tell each other all the facts. It may well be that employers and unions will recognise the need for more skilled and experienced staffs to carry through their part of the opera­tion. For what we are involved in is not just another argy bargy. It is a real attempt, a rational attempt and a sensible attempt to create greater prosperity and to make it more secure. What is more, this should be a continuing process, flexible enough to adapt itself to economic circumstances as they change.

For the three parties cannot be expected to solve all the problems at once. But neither can the country wait until we have agreed on all the solutions before we act in order to contain inflation. We must act now and we ought to act together speedily, knowing that the machinery we have created at different levels can meet regularly and frequently to deal with the problems that remain, to deal with the new problems as they arise. Knowing that, we can look ahead year by year to consider the means of creating further expansion and look ahead to agree upon the priorities to which the nation wishes to devote its increasing wealth. This, then is our offer as a Government. No one should underestimate its importance. There are two reasons why I believe there is a better chance now of achieving our objectives.

First, everyone has learnt that the cost of confrontation is high for all concerned, whatever the settlement – in empty pay packets, in lost production, in damage, often permanent, to a firm to an industry. There is another reason why I believe responsible union leaders are now readier to join with the Government and the employers in a co-operative effort to fight inflation. It is that for the first time they are being asked to do so against a background of expansion.

For years under Labour the unions were being asked to make sacrifices as part of a policy of restriction and deflation. This time they are being asked to make their contribution to a rate of expansion that has not been achieved for more than a decade. As we sat around the table we soon came to realise that we had much more in common than the differences which divided us. In other words, we found a common desire to pursue economic policies for all people – not for one sectional interest, but for all. It is for the social partners, as I would call them, to acknowledge publicly and unequivocally that sometimes wider and common interests will conflict with their own sectional demands. It will be for them to have the courage to override their sectional interests. But in this the Government also has a part to play. It is for the Government to help them towards what we ought to recognise will be for them an act of imagination requiring very great courage.

All the evidence shows that this approach of the Government has the support of the vast majority of the people in Britain, and to have that it must have included the support of millions of rank-and-file trade unionists, who also see that the offer we have made is fair. They also realise that it contains for every one of them a safeguard for their standard of living if the expectations jointly expressed, of the Government, the employers and the unions, should not materialise.

On Monday at Chequers we can discuss and assess the statistics. No one partner can dictate to the others, nor insist that only their views can carry the day. But all will have a responsi­bility to ensure that agreements freely negoti­ated and entered into through the procedure we are adopting are fully supported and carried out.

But the British people now expect us jointly to move to a settlement which will honestly deal with inflation, which will provide them with that improvement in their real standard of living which we have shown to be possible in an expanding economy.

There will always be some who do not want to achieve a strong economy. There are those who do not want a strong Britain at all. There are those who cannot bear to see Britain strong under a Conservative Government.

But for the most part I believe that people in this country want to have a fair and reasonable prospect of beating inflation. They have enough in common to override the vested interests; they are sufficiently at one to turn their backs on false sectional loyalty. The people of Britain want to unite in a common purpose.

When I was given the Queen’s commission to form this Government two and a half years ago, I declared on the steps of 10 Downing Street: ‘Our purpose is not to divide but to unite, and where there are differences to bring about reconciliation.’ It is precisely because we are setting out to do this, precisely because your Government represents all the people, that we have arranged the talks and put forward our plan. We repre­sent all the people, but especially those who have no powerful organisation to speak for them, especially those who are most vulnerable to rising prices, especially those, the weakest in the community, who have most to gain from a strong economy. This is the purpose of the specific proposals which we have put. This, I am convinced, is what the nation needs. It is what the nation expects – nothing less.

It takes a united country to make a nation strong socially and economically. But to achieve this it is not enough to be united in our economic objectives. We need also to renew and strengthen the bonds within our society – the bonds which, over the years, have given this country a strength and stability that has been the envy of the world: the bonds of family, the bonds between employers and employees, between Parliament and people, between Government and governed.

We hear a good deal these days of how these bonds have become weakened. It is easy to exaggerate this and talk ourselves into a crisis of self-confidence. Young people insist on having a greater say in the decisions that affect their lives today and tomorrow – and so they should.

Employees insist on having a greater say in the decisions that affect their jobs and the prosperity of their families – and so they should. And the good employer will increasingly adapt himself to this desire and seek to carry his employees with him in taking management decisions.

People everywhere want to be more and more involved in the decisions that affect them, and one of our aims in carrying through the reform of local government is to make this participation more real and more meaningful. And yet I know what disturbs so many of you here, so many watching or listening in your own homes. It is the fear that freedom and democracy are being abused by those who seek only to suppress free speech and free action. It is wrong that employers should be tyrannised, wrong that fellow workers should be terrorised by industrial action that erupts into violence. You know it is our determination, and I believe the determination of responsible trade union leaders, to stamp out lawless picketing; and it is wrong that those who themselves claim to be in positions of authority should deliberately set out to defy the law of the land. Hence our decision to warn those local authorities – few in number – in England and Wales who are bent on refusing to imple­ment the fair rents law carried through by a democratically elected Parliament.

Robert Carr has told you how this Govern­ment will intensify the fight against law­breaking within the principles of law and free­dom of which this country is proud. But the fight against lawlessness is not one for the Government alone; it is one in which every single one of us has a role to play. And it is one where those who lead or aspire to lead must themselves be ready to give a lead. In the past year we have had too much breaking of the law in the name of the law, too many attempts to disrupt the democratic process in the name of democracy. I believe that the people of Britain are tired of this double-talk and fed up to the teeth with this humbug. For you cannot pick and choose which law you want to obey and which to defy. Let those who value the law stand up and repudiate those who defy the law. Let them repudiate those who refuse to accept the verdict of the courts. Let them repudiate the lawless pickets. Let those who value democracy repudiate the fair rent rebels. Let been repudiate those who want to tear down what Parliament has built up.

A strong Britain. Strong in its economic foundations. Strong in its social fabric. Strong in the bonds that bind us together as a nation and have over the centuries made us the most cohesive and most powerful national force in Europe, if not in the world.

A strong Britain is a confident Britain, confident in its ability to take on the duties and the obligations which are imposed by history on any nation with a claim to greatness. We have shown ourselves ready to face our responsibility in Northern Ireland, to defeat the forces of terror and violence, to give the people of Northern Ireland – all the people – a chance to choose a system of government that will secure the political and social rights of all the people, irrespective of their religion or their political alliance.

This is, in terms of human misery, the most terrible problem that we as a Government and as a country have to face. It haunts us every day. It requires patience, imagination and indeed humility to resolve. I promise you in this Conference that they will be forthcoming. How fortunate we are in having Willie Whitelaw as Secretary of State!

We have shown ourselves ready to face our responsibility over the plight of the Ugandan Asians, to accept this survival of our imperial heritage, to prove that the promise of a British Government is not to be broken, to show that it means what it says, to bring order out of chaos, to confront cruelty with sympathy and with humility.

In the immediate future we must be confident enough to look ahead. For our future is now about to take on a new dimension. Over years you as a party have always encouraged and supported us in our European policy. You have always by substantial majorities urged us whenever and wherever possible to move towards partnership with the other members of our Continent. We are no longer talking of possibilities; we are talking now of a great achievement. Within a few years how incredibly short-sighted will appear our opponents who urge us to throw our achievement away, particularly when they do so simply because the credit for that achievement belongs to your Conservative Government and not to them.

At the Summit Meeting next week my aim will be to join with our partners, the other Heads of Government, in settling the lines on which our new Europe will grow and work together in the next few years.

In this new partnership we have a chance as a great people, as a formidable nation, as a shaper and moulder of the modern world, to get back into action, to take up a part which I believe we have a unique capacity to fill. This contemporary world of ours is, after all, the world which Britain in the last four hundred years has profoundly influenced. When the cockleshell boats set off with a Drake or a Cabot their new commerce united the whole world. Their settlements sprang up in every continent. The new markets stimulated our science and technology to launch a whole new industrial way of life. The institutions we adopted – of enterprise and personal freedom and social responsibility – broke open the ancient world of absolute government.

For an offshore island of a few million people, it was and remains a staggering achievement. We did not secure it by staying at home. In fact, there is hardly a great movement of post-renaissance man, be it national statehood, scientific endeavour, economic expansion or worldwide discovery that has not been profoundly marked at every stage by British energy and endeavour and backed by the hard slogging dedication of the British people.

If we realise today how large is the part we have played in moulding the modern world, it is above all because that same world now cries out to us for even more drastic and constructive change. For every one of the colossal achievements of the last four centuries, there are now shadows of danger across us on an equal scale – the problem of keeping the peace and how to break down distrust between East and West without taking risks with our own defences. The economic problems – in Europe, how to transform the grim cities and impoverished countryside which years of uneven development have left behind; in the world, how to bring hope and betterment to the two-thirds of humanity who live in poverty.

The problems of the environment – and, here again, let us remember that these problems respect no frontiers. This week’s territorial waters in the Baltic are next week’s waters off Aberdeen. The pesticides carried up the Rhine can be washed off down the Thames. The sulphurs and particles in Britain’s air fall in dirty rain on the Continent of Europe.

This today is the contemporary world of economic imbalance, of environmental insecurity, of national rivalry, and yet at the same time global involvement. It is the world which we have helped to create and which we now inherit. We have all been, as it were, part of these problems. Now we can be part of the solution.

This is the context of our entry into Europe. This alone makes sense of what we have to do. For these problems do not respect frontiers, and neither should frontiers restrict our efforts to solve them.

I see in these immense problems, not a block to British action and ambition, but a deep and satisfying challenge to carry on the work of world building in which Britain in the past has played so great a part. As we reach the last quarter of the twentieth century, we are beginning to see so clearly where the paths of renewal lie. They lead us towards a new community with our European neighbours and, through this community, to a new epoch of British service and influence on the whole society of man.

It is to make a start upon that work that with your support and encouragement I go to Paris as your Prime Minister next week.

I have spoken of the challenge of change, because that is how we see it. And as with so many things in life it is a question of how you look at it. What some people seem to see as an intolerable burden seems to me an incredible opportunity, an opportunity for every one of us.

I suppose when you come down to it most things are a question of attitude. You are either on the side of doing things or you are on the side of believing that they just cannot be done. I think we are getting to a point where each of us in this country of ours has got to decide where he stands. I ask our fellow citizens – do you want to say ‘No’ all the time; ‘No, it cannot be done’; ‘No, we never did it this way before’; ‘No, leave it alone and it might just go away’; ‘No, we are scared’? Or are we going to have the courage to say ‘Yes’ – ‘Yes, this is how it should be; yes, this is what I believe in; yes, this is for the good of us all; yes, we are going to have a try’? It is a decision a lot of people still have to make. They are unsure, they are undecided.

So I say this to all of you as members of our Party. The balance of any future general election lies not with you but with those who are yet undecided. If we cannot give them a lead, then we shall have failed, and we shall have deserved to fail. So let us tell them where we stand, where this Government stands. We are going to build on the past, but we are not going to be strangled by it. We are going forward to take the place which history has reserved for us, and we are going to speak with a voice that has been silent for too long. We are out in the world again. It will take courage. There may be mistakes. But they will not stop is from doing the things that must be done, the things that are going to be done.

But most of all we are going to stand up and be counted. And when our voice is heard its message will be clear. We shall say ‘Yes’ – ‘Yes’ to decisions that may be hard – so long as they are fair; ‘Yes’ to this country of ours that is finally on the move again; ‘Yes’ to a future brighter than anything in the past. And if ‘Yes’ seems a harder word to say than ‘No,’ well, it could just be be­cause when we know that ‘Yes’ is the right word it is the only word worth saying.