William Hague – 2001 Speech at Welsh Conference

Below is the text of the speech made by William Hague, the then Leader of the Conservative Party, in Cardiff on 14 May 2001.

It is always a pleasure for me to be back in Wales. Wales gave me some of the happiest years of my parliamentary career – although, of course, that’s not all I took away from my time here.

And it is a great privilege to back among so many friends in the Welsh Conservative Party. I know that at this Election Welsh Conservatives are thirsting for the fight and are fighting to win.

We can win because of the leadership of Nick Bourne and his brilliant team in the National Assembly, Nigel Evans at Westminster and Jonathan Evans speaking up for Wales in the European Parliament.

We can win because of the hard work and dedication of Conservative Councillors across Wales.

We can win because of all of you in the Welsh Conservative Party have never wavered in your commitment to the Conservative cause and your determination to see the end of this miserable Labour Government.

And that is what all of us are going to do – ensure that Tony Blair is given his marching orders from No 10, put Welsh Conservatives back in Westminster and the Conservative Party back into Government.

To come back to Wales is to find myself again among real people: not the politically correct commentators and radical lawyers Tony Blair has in mind when he talks about “the people”. But real men and women leading real lives.

People who are more interested in how much they are paying for petrol than in how much Cardiff council is paying its leader. People who are more concerned about their child’s GCSE results than about what method of election should be used in the Assembly. People who are more interested in whether their daughter can walk safely at night than whether she should serve in the front line.

People who understand that you can be proud to be Welsh as well as proud to be British, and value what the nations of the United Kingdom have achieved together. People who Labour sometimes dismiss as old-fashioned because they still believe in personal responsibility and patriotism and the importance of family.

People and communities all over Wales, who are starting to wonder whether any politicians are in touch with their concerns. People not unlike those like those I grew up with in the Rother Valley.

My classmates at Wath-on-Dearne Comprehensive had fathers who worked in mines and in steelworks and on farms. Like all parents, they wanted their children to have the best possible start in life. They wanted their families to be financially independent. They wanted a secure old age. And, without ever making a fuss about it, they loved their country.

Even back then, they were considered unfashionable. The last thing the Labour Party wanted was to give them independence. Much better to keep them in the industrial working class. Take away their freedom of choice. Tell them where to live. Tell them where to send their children to school. Make them join a trade union. Don’t give them their own pension. Make them depend on the state for every rise in life.

Our party changed that. We gave people the opportunity to take back control over their own lives. And they seized that opportunity with an enthusiasm that astonished the world.

Now the children I was at school with have families of their own. Their jobs are in computer firms, in high-street banks and call centres; they’re nurses and teachers and self-employed builders. They own their own homes, and they’re saving for pensions. And the girls in my class are struggling to balance the pressures of being a good mother and holding down a good job.

Those are the people who motivate me. People who are beginning to wonder whether ministers will ever listen to them. Our party is in it for them, and others like them throughout the United Kingdom.

Let me be honest: when I was here as Welsh Secretary, I made a number of friends who told me they were voting Labour. They had a variety of motives. Some of them actually believed all that rhetoric about a new Britain. But most of them simply felt that Labour deserved a fair crack of the whip.

They weren’t expecting miracles. They wanted decent schools for their children, safe streets and the opportunity to prosper by their own effort. It wasn’t much to ask. But, four years on, they’re feeling let down and conned.

They were promised lower class sizes; but they’ve seen class sizes rise in secondary schools throughout Wales.

They were promised a cut in NHS waiting lists. But, although in-patient waiting lists have fallen in Wales by 2,000, outpatient waiting lists have risen by a staggering 57,000.

They were told that taxes wouldn’t have to go up. But they’ve been taxed for marrying, taxed for driving, taxed for wanting to own their home, taxed for trying to put a little aside each month, taxed for growing old. They’ve seen council tax soar in Wales, with Band D houses now paying £215 more than when Labour took office.

And they’re wondering – as we are all wondering – where all the money is going. You’ve paid the tax, but you’re still waiting for your operation. You’ve paid the tax, but you’re still waiting for news of your train. You’ve paid the tax, but when was the last time you saw a police patrol on your street?

Those people I met as Welsh Secretary, who were so keen to tell me that they were voting Labour, expected a Government that would be tough on crime. But they’ve seen police numbers cut while prisoners are let out of jail early.

They believed that the priority would be “education, education, education”. But they’ve seen teachers bent double under paperwork and classroom discipline undermined. They’ve class sizes increase and children sent home because of staff shortages.

And now they’re wondering whether any politician will ever listen to them. They’re beginning to think that nothing will ever improve. That taxes will only ever go in one direction. That violent crime can only get worse. That there will always be failing schools. That no one will sort out the chaos on our roads and railways. Even that the drift into a European superstate is inevitable.

Well I say that none of these things is inevitable. I’m not promising to have all the solutions. No politician can. But things can improve. There is no excuse for giving up.

I won’t give up on the families, the savers, the pensioners whose taxes are rising faster than anywhere else in the world. It doesn’t have to be this way. The only reason that our taxes are shooting up is that the Government has chosen to raise them.

Of course decent public services need to be properly funded. People don’t object to paying tax when they can see that the revenue is being well used. But they do object when the money going into the NHS is not spent on patient care, but on preparing accounting systems for the euro. They object when up to £47 million is to be spent on a new Assembly building. They object to being taxed to recruit new armies of clerks and officials and regulators and licensors and inspectors and bureaucrats to the state apparatus.

And they’re right to object; you’re right to object. None of us minds paying for roads and schools and hospitals. But do you really feel the same about paying £4 million to take on more Labour spin-doctors? Do you really want to spend £1.4 billion in Wales on scrapping the pound?

The fact is that we have become used to a level of service from the state that we would never accept in any other walk of life. We put up with poor schools and cancelled operations and a bad return on our pension contributions because we feel we have no choice. But we shouldn’t have to.

If you wanted to book a holiday in Spain next month, and went to the travel agent, and were told that your holiday would have to be in two years time and had to be in South America, you’d use a different travel agent. If your local supermarket never stocked the goods you wanted, but charged you through the nose all the same, you’d want a refund.

Well I say you should have that refund. If the Government has enough of your money left over to spend millions of pounds on advertising to tell you what a good job it’s doing, then it’s taxing you too much.

Taxes in this country are beginning to spiral out of control. It isn’t selfish to think this: it’s responsible. People know that you can’t spend more than you have. And they know that, at a time when our competitors are cutting tax, Britain can’t afford to drive away investment.

I don’t believe that things have to be this way. Other countries are reducing taxes without cutting services. For twenty years Britain has been the lowest taxed country in Europe. That has brought us more jobs, more investment, more trade and more economic success than any other country in Europe. Yet Mr Blair is throwing all this away. He is increasing taxes and regulation while the rest of the industrialised world is going in the opposite direction. He is out of touch with the British people who know they are paying too much for too little – and he is out of tune with the needs of global competition.

Future jobs and growth will come to countries which cut taxes, not those which keep on increasing them. Mr Blair can try, Canute like, to turn back the tide of those who want and need lower taxes – but he will not succeed. Tax cuts are an idea whose time has come.

Michael Portillo and I have shown how we can cut taxes by £8 billion. We have shown how we can fulfil our plans to reduce taxes.

Last Friday I challenged Tony Blair to repeat the pledge he made at the last election when he said that he had “no plans to increase tax at all”.

That was four days ago. What have we heard from the Prime Minister? A deafening silence.

What is the problem? It can’t be that he’s lacked the opportunity to repeat his promise. He could have told one of the callers on GMTV that he would not increase their taxes – after all, they told him they were paying too much already. He could have told David Frost that would not increase taxes. He could have told John Humphrys this morning that he would not increase taxes.

When it comes to tax increases, the best policy Tony Blair has been able to come up with is to keep mum.

He hopes the British people won’t notice that he has turned Trappist.

Too bad, Tony: we’ve noticed alright.

We all know why he won’t answer.

We all know that his spending plans require another round of stealth taxes to pay for them – £10 billion according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

That’s equivalent to increasing the price of petrol to nearly £6 a gallon, or £1.30 a litre.

We know why he won’t answer, and what’s more he knows.

He won’t answer because he can’t answer.

No wonder Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are rowing.

The Prime Minister has boxed in his Chancellor. Gordon Brown needs to raise taxes, but Tony Blair won’t let him say so.

So the compromise they’ve reached? A conspiracy of silence.

If we were in America and Tony Blair was asked a straightforward question on tax, he’d plead the Fifth Amendment. You know the one – that’s the one that protects people from incriminating themselves.

Watch out for Labour. They’re going to try the same deceit at this election that they tried at the last.

They’re going to tell you that they won’t raise the rate of income tax.

But you know that is just a piece of spin. They said that last time and then increased income tax for millions of people by abolishing tax allowances and dragging more people into higher taxes.

I repeat my challenge to the Prime Minister. Be honest with the British people. Give it to them straight. Will you increase taxes if re-elected, yes or no?

The Conservative Party has worked out the most detailed plan ever produced by an Opposition, showing exactly how we can make savings in Government spending without taking a single penny from hospitals, or schools or the police or the Armed Forces.

It’s not going to cure everything. But it will allow us to deliver tax cuts for small businesses and married couples and savers and pensioners and people with children.

And it will allow us, in our first year in office, to reduce the cost of petrol by 27p a gallon and that will be welcomed by the elderly, disabled people and millions of others for whom the car is not a luxury but a necessity.

People are not expecting the Earth. Just for the chance to live secure lives without having to rely on the state. It isn’t much to ask.

Pensioners want the dignity of independence in their old age. They’ve paid tax throughout their lives. They shouldn’t have to go on paying in retirement. That’s why the next Conservative Government will raise the state pension and, at the same time, raise pensioners’ tax allowances by £7.50 a week, which would take a million pensioners out of tax altogether.

And for those at the other end of their careers, those just starting out in the work place, I say: you should have the opportunity to build up your own pension fund without having to rely on the state.

People want to do the right thing: to put aside a little each month to provide for their retirement, or for their children or grandchildren. They’ve already been taxed for earning the money; they shouldn’t be taxed again for wanting to save it. The success of our economy depends on encouraging investment. That’s why the next Conservative Government will abolish taxes on savings and dividends.

And there’s no excuse for giving up on marriage. Married people provide stable homes for children. They should be rewarded, not penalised. That’s why the next Conservative Government will introduce a transferable allowance for married couples worth up to £1,000. And we will offer special help and training to women who take time out to look after their children, but who want to return to work when their children are older. Let’s not be afraid to say it: we believe in marriage.

There’s no excuse for giving up on our roads. John Prescott seems to think that driving is a vice. But just because he treats his two Jags as a luxury, that doesn’t mean that the rest of us can do the same. For women who don’t want to walk home from the station after dark, or for families trying to manoeuvre small children to school and back, or for small businesses needing to shift their goods, or for people who live in rural Wales, driving is a necessity.

Mr Prescott may regard petrol duty as an ethical tax. But I don’t see anything ethical about a tax on women and children and small businesses and the countryside. That’s why the next Conservative Government will cut fuel tax by 6p a litre, that’s 27 pence a gallon.

And we need to do it now. Because in Brussels today they’ve been discussing a plan to harmonise fuel prices across Europe. Stephen Byers admitted it this morning. And don’t think for a moment they’re planning to cut petrol tax in Britain to the European average. It’s a one way street. They want to lock in higher petrol taxes here and prevent them from ever being cut again. That’s why Britain’s drivers are saying to Labour and to Brussels at this election: hands off our fuel.

And there’s no excuse for giving up on the crime problem. It’s just not true to say that rising crime is inevitable. During the early 1990s, crime rates started to fall. But now we’ve seen record rises in violent crime, especially in the kinds of offence that tend to ruin lives: assaults, rapes, muggings.

When you spend too long looking at crime figures, it’s easy to lose sight of what each one of those recorded offences means in terms of human misery.

When a pensioner has her handbag snatched by a lout on a bike, it may not register as a major offence. But, for that pensioner, it can be a life-changing experience. She may never again feel comfortable walking along the street where it happened. She may never again feel safe outside her home.

When a family come back from their holiday and find that their home has been broken into and ransacked, the statistics simply notch up one more burglary among the thousands that take place every month. But that family’s home has been soiled and violated: it will never feel quite the same again.

There is nothing inevitable about this crime wave. It hasn’t just happened spontaneously. It has happened because police numbers have been cut, and because those officers who remain in the force feel blamed and demoralised. And it has happened because nearly 35,000 serious criminals have been released early. Police taken off the streets, criminals turned on the streets.

Think, for a moment, about what this means. Serious criminals – muggers, burglars, sex offenders, even attempted murderers – have been allowed home early. Over a thousand of these have breached their curfew conditions, and some have disappeared entirely. Many more have committed crimes while on special early release: more muggings and burglaries, more assaults on police officers, more rapes.

This did not need to happen. And it doesn’t need to happen. Mistaken policies can be dropped. It is possible to begin to put things right.

The next Conservative Government will stop early release. We will introduce tougher sentences for violent and sex offenders, tougher sentences for drug pushers, tougher sentences for burglars. And we will make prisoners serve their full sentences.

And, while they are in custody, we will make prisoners do a full working day: not artificial schemes, but paid employment. And we will see to it that some of their wages go to compensate the victims.

And the next Conservative Government will reverse Labour’s cuts in police numbers. It’s not just a question of attracting young men and women to serve in the police force. It’s a question of keeping them there. Police recruits join up because they want to serve their communities. They want to be out on patrol, not handcuffed to their desks. And they want to know that, if they stop and search a suspect, his word will not automatically be taken over theirs.

There is no excuse for giving up on crime. With resolve and a little imagination, with proper sentencing and with visible policing, it really is possible to turn things around. It has happened elsewhere. It happened in New York, where a properly motivated and resourced police force transformed what used to be one of the most violent cities in the world. It could happen here.

And I refuse to give up on the Welsh countryside. Labour ministers seem to have no grasp of how serious things have become in Wales. It’s not just hill-farms that are suffering. Livestock and dairy farmers in Wales have seen their income fall by 25 per cent in four years. Seventy-three farming jobs are lost each week in Wales, as families who have managed the land for generations are being forced to sell up. When I say that we are witnessing the asphyxiation of rural Wales, I am not choosing my words lightly.

The countryside doesn’t just need an injection of cash. It needs a vibrant and successful economy.

Coming on top of all the other problems, Foot and Mouth has been a disaster for the Welsh countryside. For so many farmers years of hard work has been destroyed in a matter of weeks. Rural businesses have seen their turnover collapse. And there have been animal welfare problems of a kind we never expected to see in Britain.

The priority of the next Conservative Government must be to help the countryside recover. So immediately we take office, and working with the National Assembly at every stage, we will implement our Strategy for Recovery, containing steps to stamp out Foot and Mouth once and for all, to help our struggling tourism industry and other rural businesses and firm action to prevent this terrible disease entering Britain again.

The next Conservative Government won’t just offer the Welsh countryside a one-off transfusion. We will aim to restore its long-term health. Our proposals come as a package: cuts in the business rate for rural shops, pubs and garages; support for village post offices; an end to Labour’s housing targets; more use of brownfield land for development; 6p a litre off the price of petrol; help for village schools; an extension of rural homeownership.

In the long term, if agriculture is to remain a viable industry, we will have to change the entire basis of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. If I sat down today and tried to come up with the most expensive, least efficient, most Byzantine farming system I could, I doubt I’d get close to the CAP. Every family in the United Kingdom pays three times over for the CAP: first, to support the production of food for which there is no market; then to pay for its storage, and occasionally its destruction; and then all over again as consumers to prop up artificially high prices.

So with all this money sloshing around, you’d expect some of it to be going to our farmers. But, because Britain is a food importing country with relatively a relatively efficient agricultural sector, we do very badly out of the subsidy system. In other words, our taxpayers and consumers are coughing up, not to support British farmers, but to subsidise their Continental competitors!

This cannot go on. Our farmers are among the most dedicated and innovative in the world. On a level playing field, they’d acquit themselves against all comers. But they cannot compete properly as long as they are confined by the current Common Agricultural Policy.

The next Conservative Government will re-negotiate the Common Agricultural Policy so that many decisions currently taken at EU level would be taken by the governments of individual member states. The voice of the Welsh Secretary will be vital in speaking up for the interests of Welsh agriculture.

Above all, there is no excuse for giving up on our schools. I was lucky as a boy: I went to a first-rate comprehensive. But there were other children in the neighbourhood who were less fortunate than I was: who went to schools where they were never stretched, where their ambition was never kindled, where their potential was slowly poured into the sand.

No parents should be forced to send their child to a failing school simply because of where they live. It was wrong then and it is unacceptable today. In a society as wealthy as ours, there should be no such thing as a sink school.

Tony Blair, with his customary attention to detail, promised to give us “education, education, education”. Well, I want to be a little more specific than that with my own aims. I want discipline, standards, choice.

Schools should be answerable to parents, not to politicians. That’s why the next Conservative Government will set our schools free: free to set their own admissions policies, free to decide their own rules, free to spend their own budgets. If our children are to realise their potential, we need to release the energy and enterprise of those who work in education. It can be done.

I’m not going to promise to set everything to rights. But I can promise that the next Conservative Government will clear its desks to focus on improving our education system. And I can promise that we will push more resources out to our schools.

We will set Welsh schools free from red tape and bureaucracy and allow the National Assembly to provide funding directly to schools. The Assembly will then work with local authorities to improve school standards across Wales.

We have calculated that if the National Assembly paid money direct to the schools themselves rather than through the LEAs, we can place an extra £540 a year at the disposal of heads and governors.

We recognise that LEAs provide additional functions other than funding. These will still be carried out by individual Local Authorities, but it will be for the National Assembly, as the body with responsibility for local government, to oversee these functions.

But under Conservative plans head teachers will be able to set their own priorities. Just think of how far even a part of that extra £540 could go when it comes to upgrading school facilities, or taking on extra staff, or offering children more opportunities for sport or drama or music.

But none of these things is possible if we give up on our national independence; if we give up on Britain. I have faith in this country and its people. We can prosper as a self-governing nation.

People often say to me: “Yes, I want to keep the pound. But it’s all inevitable isn’t it? We’re going to be dragged into the euro one way or another.”

No, it’s not inevitable. It’s up to you. You can vote Lib-Lab or Plaid, and see the pound abolished within two years. Or you can vote Conservative to keep the pound.

Labour may not have confidence in this country. They may not believe that Britain is strong enough to survive on its own. But I do. We’re the fourth largest economy in the world. We’re the fourth military power on Earth. We’re one of five members of the UN Security Council, one of the Group of Seven industrialised nations, we have unparalleled links with the United States, the Commonwealth and the rest of the English-speaking world. How much bigger do we have to be before we’re able to run our own affairs in our own interests?

Don’t let anyone tell you that the euro is inevitable.

And don’t let anyone tell you that believing in an independent Britain is anti-European or xenophobic. We are a European country. But we can never be only a European country. We are tied by our history and our geography to other continents.

Welsh people through the ages have settled across the seas. To this day, people throughout the United Kingdom have friends and relatives in North America, the Caribbean, Australia, New Zealand and the Indian sub-continent. It’s not we who are the isolationists; it’s those who want to lock our country into a European bloc.

And don’t let anyone tell you that we’re going to be dragged into a European Superstate.

The Conservative Party wants to be in Europe, not run by Europe. We want the EU to do its job, and to do it well. But there are plenty of policies that could and should be returned to the nation-states.

Look at the record of the Common Agricultural Policy, which has pushed up prices and taxes across Europe while leaving Welsh hill farms and the Welsh countryside devastated. Look at the pettifogging rules that have choked so many of our small businesses.

Labour’s policy is to take the EU institutions that have done all this, and put them in charge of our money, of our defence policy, even of our criminal justice.

Our policy is that Brussels should do less and do it better. That’s why the next Conservative Government will pass a Reserved Powers Act, to prevent EU law from overriding the will of Parliament in areas which Parliament never intended to transfer to the EU. We want our children and grandchildren to inherit the same freedoms that we inherited from our parents.

I trust our people. I am proud of this country: comfortable with its past and confident about its future. I don’t believe that we have to go along with every new Brussels initiative simply because others are doing so.

So let me make one thing clear today. If other members of the European Union want to go ahead with political integration, if they want to merge themselves into a larger union, a Conservative Britain will not be part of it. We shall cheer them from the sidelines: they will always be able to rely on our open markets, on our diplomatic support, on our military alliance.
But we will never compromise our democracy; we will never bargain with our independence.

And so to everybody who shrugs in despair at politics, who thinks that nothing can be done about higher tax and more crime and European federalism and the asylum crisis, I say: something can be done. We don’t promise miracles. But we can make a start.

We are ready to govern for all the people. For people in the countryside, who have almost given up on ministers ever understanding them. For people in our inner cities, struggling to bring up families on crime-ridden estates with failing schools. For people in towns and suburbs in Wales, and all over Britain, who are watching their green spaces disappear inexorably under concrete.

We will govern for taxpayers wanting to see some return on their taxes. For nurses and teachers and policemen who want to get on with their jobs, not be snowed under with paperwork. For people who believe that the countries of the United Kingdom have achieved more together than they would separately, and who refuse to feel ashamed about our history. We are in it for all the people.

To parents who want the best for their children, who believe that teachers who run disciplined classrooms should get our support, not end up in court: we’re in it for you.

To pensioners who have already done their bit, and who don’t understand why they are still being taxed: we’re in it for you.

To people who live with the daily reality of crime, who feel that their town centres are closed to them on a Friday night and who can’t remember when they last saw a policeman on their street: we’re in it for you.

To parents with young families, struggling to make their budgets stretch that little bit further: we’re in it for you.

To all the small businesses and self-employed people who are wasting more time than they can afford to on complying with regulations: we’re in it for you.

To people who work hard, save hard and try to be independent of the state: we’re in it for you.

And to everyone who believes in an independent Britain: we’re in it for you. Come with us, and we will give you back your country.