John Major – 1995 Speech to the Conservative Way Forward Dinner


Below is the text of John Major’s speech to the Conservative Way Forward Dinner on 3rd February 1995.

When you first invited me to address this dinner some six months ago, I was delighted to accept.

Your very name begs questions we are wise to address: I’d like to set out some thoughts tonight on the way forward on the economy, on Europe and on Northern Ireland. But before I turn to these, let me touch on the wider question.

There’s often the tendency to search for a new Holy Grail – a single big idea to enthuse the mind and attract the millions.

In truth, one idea – however big – won’t do.

The world changes continually – faster today than ever before – and we must catch and mould that change. That is why I have put in train Policy Groups not only to provide the widest possible review of the right policies for the next Election, but for the new Millennium as well.

These groups will look at Britain’s role in the world, and the opportunities that lie ahead.

This will be wide-ranging. And I would certainly welcome contributions from Conservative Way Forward.

Of course, some will say “We’ve won 4 successive General Elections. Why change?” The answer is we won 4 successive General Elections because we changed. We changed the way governments fought inflation, fought union power, reduced punitive levels of personal taxation and increased our prestige in the world.

These changes played to our natural instincts. They also reflected what people wanted – articulated what people felt. They put the country first and they increased choice, opportunity and freedom. Now and always, that is always the right way forward for the Conservative Party.

We are different from other political parties. We are not interested in the nanny state. We’re not interested in managing a graceful decline for our country. We have faith in Britain and in the talents of the British people. We believe Britain’s influence can grow. We plan to make it grow. And we have a lineage and maturity unmatched by any other British political party.

Our broad objectives are simply stated. First, to build a more powerful economy without which all our other ambitions fail. Second, to lift our national ambitions, and exercise our influence both in Europe and the wider world.

Over recent years, national morale has been bruised. The recession hurt. It was longer and deeper than anyone expected. But the point is, we’re through it. It’s over. Its time for Britain to be more confident. To reassert our merchant venturing spirit. To be more outward looking and assertive. And we’re right to be so because we’ve come out of our difficulties in better economic shape than anyone imagined.

That hasn’t happened by magic, by chance. It’s happened because we’ve taken economic decisions to build long-term success, not short-term popularity. We ignored siren voices with quack remedies; those who said don’t worry about the deficit, it’ll go away; go soft on inflation, it won’t rise. We said no.

And because we did we are now on track to deliver stable growth and low inflation for the long-term. The prospects are good. The pessimists are being confounded. They said

manufacturing was dead. It’s expanding.

The trade gap would widen. It’s narrowing.

Inflation would take off. It hasn’t.

Unemployment would reach 5 million. It’s half that and falling.

The pundits have recast the old phrase “no news is good news”. Now it seems to be “good news is no news”. Well, let me offer an alternative news summary.

Last year we had growth of 4 per cent. More than anyone else in Europe. That 4 per cent growth went into investment and exports. It packaged the feel-good factor and has cut unemployment by 500,000 over the past two years.

Exports are booming. Month after month new records are set.

Not many years ago our motor industry was a basket case. Now we are set to be a net exporter of motorcars.

A few years ago the British steel industry was at death’s door. Now it is one of our top ten exporters.

A few years ago the British motorbike industry was ridden off the road. Now British companies are exporting high value motorcycles to the Japanese.

The fact is British industry is hugely competitive. It’s penetrating markets more deeply than ever before and it is doing so while its markets are still coming out of recession. As they grow, so should our exports.

Let me just offer one final thought for our alternative news summary. It illustrates our changing circumstances very vividly. When you put visible and invisible trade together, the United Kingdom is now in surplus with Japan.

All this is important because economic success not only creates jobs, but yields taxes to enable us both to meet our social ambitions and diminish the impact of tax.

It means as the economy grows, we can return to our tax cutting agenda.

The policies of the other parties are to put taxes up. The Liberal Democrats have kindly pointed that out by costing Labour’s programme and calculating it would put 5p on the standard rate of tax. The fact is; as Labour head for 30p, I tell you this: we’re still heading for 20p.

Let me turn now to Europe.

Europe is important. It is important for our security, and for our industry. Economic well being is at the heart of our European policy. The European market is half of our trade. It is the main reason why companies in Japan, Korea, the United States choose to invest in the UK. It’s one reason why the City remains the world’s leading financial centre.

So Europe’s future matters to us. To our livelihood. To our living standards. To our jobs. We should debate it. And we have an obligation to shape it and make it congenial to us. The basis of our approach is the framework I set out at Leiden. Let me hammer home some of the points.

We must have an intelligent, informed and commonsense debate about what is best for the United Kingdom and for the prosperity of Europe as a whole. I believe we are developing a policy that will command the support of the broad mass of the British people.

It is high time we de-mystified next year’s Intergovernmental Conference. We want it to succeed. We should strip away the speculation and the scare stories and look at the realities.

I know many people fear the IGC is going to take a leap towards a centralised, high-spend, interventionist Europe.

But it isn’t. It is not what the people of Europe want. It is not what their economies need. And it is not what a growing number of Europe’s leaders expect. And it is not what Douglas Hurd and I will accept.

Popular opinion across Europe can’t be ignored.

Ambitious schemes for centralism simply will not get through. Britain for one will not accept them. Nor will electorates across Europe, where in many countries a referendum would have to be held.

What we will aim for is a more flexible European Union. That is the only way forward which makes sense as Europe enlarges.

A Europe of 15, possibly 20 around the turn of the century and more than 25 beyond that, cannot be the same as a Europe of 6. Talk of fast track and slow track misses the point. We do not all have to do the same things at the same time in the same way and we shall resist pressure to do so. Unless Europe is flexible it will simply grind to a halt.

In the negotiations, a balance will have to be found between competing interests. I’ve set out recently some areas where our position is firm. Ken Clarke made the point again yesterday. We cannot accept that sterling should be part of a single currency in ‘96 or ‘97. We don’t believe anyone could sensibly want to go ahead then but, if they do, we wouldn’t be with them. Nor can we accept a prejudgement – one way or the other – about some unknown time in the future. The right for our Parliament to take the decision it wants when it wants is undoubted.

That lies in the future. To say “yes” now or “no” now is to operate on hunch not facts. No one knows what future economic circumstances will be. I will tell you my fear: unless economic conditions were right, a single currency would tear the European Union apart. And, by the right economic conditions, the Government does not only mean the Maastricht criteria – they are a necessary but not a sufficient condition to justify a single currency. Ken Clarke will go into further detail on this next week. The plain fact is that the powerful forces of free markets will massively determine these events. And they cannot accurately be foreseen now.

Nor will we agree to a more prescriptive, centralist Europe, or removal of the nation states veto. The Cabinet are clear about that and our European partners know our views. Moreover, although they may only mutter it sotto voce, a number of our partners agree with us on these points.

But to categorise this position as though it was our only view on Europe, and therefore – to use the buzz words –“sceptical” or “negative” or “anti” European is just plain wrong. We have our own vision of Europe and we are going to set it out and fight for it just as does every other nation in Europe.

We will have a detailed menu of positive changes to improve Europe; to make it more responsive to the needs and concerns of its peoples; to make it more effective and more efficient; to make sure it works to our advantage.

For example, the Single European Market is of huge importance to Britain. We were pioneers in creating it. We have to make sure that its rules are kept.

We need also to improve the common European contribution to NATO and Malcolm Rifkind and Douglas Hurd have worked long and hard on our plans to do so.

In this area, Britain must lead Europe and we are well placed to do so. For the Community itself, we need fewer laws but better laws; and we need those laws properly enforced right across the Union. For example, we are rightly concerned about fraud. We know it takes place in nation states. So we need a better mechanism to stop it. Clearly the UK cannot stop fraud in another EU country, so we need a cross-European mechanism to do so. We will need to provide those powers and Michael Howard’s proposals will help achieve this.

We need recognition that those who make the largest contribution and have the largest populations should have a larger say. So voting weight and patterns need to be considered.

We need to re-examine and review the institutions of the European Union.

To re-inforce the democratic authority of the Council of Ministers as the voice of the nation states.

To make the role of the European Parliament more relevant. To ensure it exercises effective scrutiny of the Commission’s work. And we need also to involve national parliaments more in the legislative process.

We need fewer Commissioners and a more efficient, cost-conscious Commission. We need to continue to reduce the burden on business and to oppose unnecessary intervention and regulation.

This list is simply illustrative of the matters we must consider as we approach the IGC.

One thing above all rules my approach to Europe. Not impractical, elitist opinion, pro or anti. Not dogma or emotion. But a hard-headed view of what is best for this country and for Europe.

I know there are plenty of things wrong with Europe that we must change. But there are also plenty of opportunities in Europe that we must take.

We would not help our national interest by turning away or simply trying to obstruct. We help our national interest by changing what is wrong and convincing people of our case. We have a good case. One that suits this country. One that will improve Europe for all its participants. We should not shrink from putting that case and we will not.

Next year’s Conference will give us an opportunity to do so and we should approach it in that spirit.

From Europe, let me return to the UK.

This has been a difficult week for Northern Ireland.

People have been unsettled. Rumours and fears have swirled around that could damage the prospects of peace.

I’ve never promised that the present initiatives would lead to a permanent peace.

I hope they will.

I pray they will.

But I’ve never promised.

These negotiations are difficult and delicate. We’re seeking to overcome generations of mistrust and put in place a better future.

In preparing a Framework Document, we’re doing what the parties asked us to do. Proposing ideas to help the political talks. And that is what they are – ideas. There’s not a prescription that is going to be imposed.

I believe it would be a tragedy if this process failed – and a double tragedy if it failed on the back of a misconception. So let me deal with some of the points that worry people.

Are we going to remove British citizenship from those who cherish it?

This is inconceivable.

The people of Northern Ireland are British.

But they also have long had a right – if they so choose – to citizenship of the Republic.

We have no intention of changing this.

The birthright of Northern Ireland’s people, from either tradition, is not an issue.

Is it true, as The Times said, that a North/South body will “make policy” towards the European Union?

This is nonsense.

The European Union deals with all sorts of people right across the United Kingdom. It is helping in Northern Ireland.

But making policy is a wholly different matter. The Government of the United Kingdom represents Northern Ireland at all levels in Europe. We shall continue to do so. There’s no question of surrendering control of European policy to any other body – in Northern Ireland or elsewhere.

But what about this plan for the British and Irish Governments to intervene jointly in Northern Ireland? For some over-arching mechanism?

Let me put it very simply. There will be no joint sovereignty, no joint authority between London and Dublin, and no joint intervention by the British and Irish Governments. I cannot be clearer than that.

If problems arose, and I naturally hope they wouldn’t, it would be the United Kingdom Government’s responsibility to deal with them – and ours alone. That is our role, and our responsibility.

Are the people of Northern Ireland going to be on a slippery slope?

Of course not. The consent principle is our foundation stone.

The parties must consent to any outcome. And when they have done so the people must consent in a referendum.

Am I going to be a “persuader” for a united Ireland?

The answer emphatically is – No.

Some time ago, I said about Scotland that “no nation can be held within a Union against its will”.

Equally, the people of Northern Ireland cannot and will not be forced out of the Union against their will.

They have a constitutional guarantee.

For my part, I cherish the United Kingdom, and Northern Ireland’s part in it.

So I take the view it is not for the Government to tell the people of Northern Ireland what their future should be. It is for the people of Northern Ireland to decide that future for themselves.

To all of these concerns, there is one fundamental answer.

The sole purpose of the Framework Document will be to help the parties reach agreement. There will be no outcome to these talks unless the parties agree. And the outcome will not be implemented unless the people of Northern Ireland vote for it.

That is why I repeat that they have nothing to fear.

Let me also mention the exploratory talks with Sinn Fein and the Loyalist representatives.

This is an unprecedented dialogue with an unprecedented backcloth.

In the past 5 months, two murders have tarnished the peace.

But during the “ceasefire” of 20 years ago, there were around 150 violent deaths.

A different climate is being established.

Our assurances have been critical to the dialogue.

We said that there had been no secret deals to favour one side over the other.

We promised a level and open playing field – for all who would live by peaceful, democratic rules.

And on this basis, talks are taking place.

What matters is that everyone should be ready to talk about all these issues, however difficult.

Then we can make progress.

I have no illusions about the task.

But we shall not concede to the fear of failure.

For what is the alternative?

As Archbishop Robin Eames said yesterday:

“I cannot see an alternative to a political process, an alternative to patient groping on the way forward. The price of failure is to return to where we have come from, to constant human cost in lives and everything else.”

There is no more to be said.

At the next election the stakes will be high. There are differences between we Conservatives and the opposition on the economy, on Europe, on the constitution, on health, on education. Right the way across the present Government agenda.

No one should fear that there is not a distinctive choice to be made.

The next election will determine whether our world-beating industries stay competitive or sink under a morass of rules from Whitehall and Brussels.

It will determine whether the state will take ever more money out of the pockets of the people, or whether we will get back to the natural Tory principle of reducing taxes as fast as possible.

It will determine whether we continue to be a self-determining nation state or not.

In the 1990s we can build on the great achievements which we have made since 1979 – or we can throw it all away, giving power to the very people who resisted each and every one of the changes that have revolutionised the lives of Britain’s people.

This fight matters as much as any we have conducted before. These are the policies I believe in. These are the policies I am going to fight for and with which I believe we’ll win.