Leader's speech, Blackpool 1975
Margaret Thatcher (Conservative)
Commentary:This was Thatcher’s first speech as Party leader, in which she identified two challenges facing Britain. The economic challenge was to reduce inflation, unemployment, taxes, and public spending, while the moral and political challenge was to rebuild our self-confidence as both a nation and as individuals. Thatcher blamed socialism for Britain’s ills and she outlined her own vision, in which the free economy was the basis not only for all our liberties, but also for the nation’s prosperity. She proposed to overcome the economic challenge by reducing public spending, and rebuilding incentives and profits, and to meet the moral and political challenge by reasserting our values, promoting excellence, and extending choice to all.
Thank you for a wonderful welcome.
The first Conservative Party Conference I ever attended was in 1946 and I came to it as an undergraduate representing Oxford University Conservative Association (I know our Cambridge supporters will not mind). That Conference was held in this very hall and the platform then seemed a long way away and I had no thought of joining the lofty and distinguished people sitting up there, but our party is the party of equality of opportunity, as you can see.
I know you will understand the humility I feel at following in the footsteps of great men like our Leader in that year, Winston Churchill, a man called by destiny to raise the name of Britain to supreme heights in the history of the free world; in the footsteps of Anthony Eden, who set us the goal of a property-owning democracy - a goal we still pursue today; of Harold Macmillan whose leadership brought so many ambitions within the grasp of every citizen; of Alec Douglas-Home whose career of selfless public service earned the affection and admiration of us all; and of Edward Heath, who successfully led the Party to victory in 1970 and brilliantly led the nation into Europe in 1973.
During my lifetime all the leaders of the Conservative Party have served as Prime Minister and I hope the habit will continue. Our leaders have been different men with different qualities and different styles, but they all had one thing in common: each met the challenge of his time. Now, what is the challenge of our time? I believe there are two: to overcome the country’s economic and financial problems, and to regain our confidence in Britain and ourselves.
The economic challenge has been debated at length this week in this hall. Last week it gave rise to the usual scenes of cordial brotherly strife. Day after day the comrades called one another far from comradely names and occasionally, when they remembered, they called us names too. Some of them, for example, suggested that I criticised Britain when I was overseas. They are wrong. It was not Britain I was criticising, it was socialism, and I will go on criticising socialism and opposing socialism because it is bad for Britain. Britain and socialism are not the same thing, and as long as I have health and strength they never will be.
Whatever could I say about Britain that is half as damaging as what this Labour Government has done to our country? Let us look at the record. It is the Labour Government that has caused prices to rise at a record rate of 26 per cent a year. They told us the Social Contract would solve everything, but now everyone can see that the so-called Contract was a fraud - a fraud for which the people of this country have had to pay a very high price. It is the Labour Government whose past policies are forcing unemployment higher than it need ever have been. Thousands more men and women are losing their jobs every day, and there are going to be men and women, many of them youngsters straight out of school, who will be without a job this winter because Socialist Ministers spent last year attacking us instead of attacking inflation.
It is the Labour Government that brought the level of production below that of the three-day week in 1974. We have really got a three-day week now, only it takes five days to do it. It is the Labour Government that has brought us record peace-time taxation. They have the usual Socialist disease: they have run out of other people’s money. It is the Labour Government that has pushed public spending to record levels. How have they done it? By borrowing and borrowing. Never in the field of human credit has so much been owed.
Serious as the economic challenge is, the political and moral challenge is just as grave and perhaps even more so, because economic problems never start with economics. They have much deeper roots in human nature and roots in politics, and they do not finish at economics either. Labour’s failure to cope, to look at the nation’s problems from the viewpoint of the whole nation, and not just one section of it, has led to a loss of confidence, and to a sense of helplessness, and with it goes a feeling that Parliament, which ought to be in charge, is not in charge, and that the actions and decisions are taken elsewhere.
It goes even deeper than that, to the voices that seem anxious not to overcome our economic difficulties, but to exploit them, to destroy the free enterprise society and put a Marxist system in its place. Today those voices form a sizeable chorus in the Parliamentary Labour Party, a chorus which, aided and abetted by the many constituency Labour Parties, seems to be growing in numbers. Mind you, anyone who says this openly is promptly accused of seeing Reds Under the Beds, but look who is seeing them now. On his own admission, Mr. Wilson has at last discovered that his own party is infiltrated by extreme Left Wingers, or to use his own words, it is infested with them. When even Mr. Wilson gets scared about their success in capturing key positions in the Labour Party, should not the rest of us be? Should not the rest of us ask him, ‘Where have you been while all this has been going on, and what are you doing about it?’ The answer is nothing.
I sometimes think the Labour Party is like a pub where the mild is running out. If someone does not do something soon all that is left will be bitter, and all that is bitter will be Left.
Whenever I visit Communist countries their politicians never hesitate to boast about their achievements. They know them all by heart; they reel off the facts and figures, claiming this is the rich harvest of the Communist system. Yet they are not prosperous as we in the West are prosperous, and they are not free as we in the West are free.
Our capitalist system produces a far higher standard of prosperity and happiness because it believes in incentive and opportunity, and because it is founded on human dignity and freedom. Even the Russians have to go to a capitalist country - America - to buy enough wheat to feed their people - and that after more than 50 years of a State-controlled economy. Yet they boast incessantly, while we, who have so much more to boast about, forever criticise and decry. Is it not time we spoke up for our way of life? After all, no Western nation has to build a wall round itself to keep its people in.
So let us have no truck with those who say the free enterprise system has failed. What we face today is not a crisis of capitalism but of socialism. No country can flourish if its economic and social life is dominated by nationalisation and State control.
The cause of our shortcomings does not, therefore, lie in private enterprise. Our problem is not that we have too little socialism. It is that we have too much. If only the Labour Party in this country would act like Social Democrats in West Germany. If only they would stop trying to prove their Socialist virility by relentlessly nationalising one industry after another.
Of course, a halt to further State control will not on its own restore our belief in ourselves, because something else is happening to this country. We are witnessing a deliberate attack on our values, a deliberate attack on those who wish to promote merit and excellence, a deliberate attack on our heritage and our great past, and there are those who gnaw away at our national self-respect, rewriting British history as centuries of unrelieved gloom, oppression and failure - as days of hopelessness, not days of hope. And others, under the shelter of our education system, are ruthlessly attacking the minds of the young. Everyone who believes in freedom must be appalled at the tactics employed by the far Left in the systematic destruction of the North London Polytechnic - blatant tactics of intimidation designed to undermine the fundamental beliefs and values of every student, tactics pursued by people who are the first to insist on their own civil rights while seeking to deny them to the rest of us.
We must not be bullied or brainwashed out of our beliefs. No wonder so many of our people, some of the best and the brightest, are depressed and talking of emigrating. Even so, I think they are wrong. They are giving up too soon. Many of the things we hold dear are threatened as never before, but none has yet been lost, so stay here, stay and help us defeat socialism so that the Britain you have known may be the Britain your children will know.
These are the two great challenges of our time - the moral and political challenge, and the economic challenge. They have to be faced together and we have to master them both.
What are our chances of success? It depends on what kind of people we are. What kind of people are we? We are the people that in the past made Great Britain the workshop of the world, the people who persuaded others to buy British, not by begging them to do so but because it was best.
We are a people who have received more Nobel Prizes than any other nation except America, and head for head we have done better than America, twice as well in fact.
We are the people who, among other things, invented the computer, the refrigerator, the electric motor, the stethoscope, rayon, the steam turbine, stainless steel, the tank, television, penicillin, radar, the jet engine, hovercraft, float glass and carbon fibres, etc. - oh, and the best half of Concorde.
We export more of what we produce than either West Germany, France, Japan or the United States, and well over 90 per cent of these exports come from private enterprise. It is a triumph for the private sector and all who work in it, and let us say so loud and clear.
With achievements like that who can doubt that Britain can have a great future and what our friends abroad want to know is whether that future is going to happen.
Well, how can we Conservatives make it happen? Many of the details have already been dealt with in the Conference debates. But policies and programmes should not just be a list of unrelated items. They are part of a total vision of the kind of life we want for our country and our children. Let me give you my vision: a man’s right to work as he will, to spend what he earns, to own property, to have the State as servant and not as master - these are the British inheritance. They are the essence of a free country and on that freedom all our other freedoms depend.
But we want a free economy, not only because it guarantees our liberties, but also because it is the best way of creating wealth and prosperity for the whole country, and it is this prosperity alone which can give us the resources for better services for the community, better services for those in need.
By their attack on private enterprise this Labour Government have made certain that there will be next to nothing available for improvements in our social services over the next few years. We must get private enterprise back on the road to recovery, not merely to give people more of their own money to spend as they choose, but to have more money to help the old and the sick and the handicapped. And the way to recovery is through profits, good profits today leading to high investment, leading to well paid jobs, leading to a better standard of living tomorrow. No profits mean no investment and that means a dying industry geared to yesterday’s world, and that means fewer jobs tomorrow. Other nations have recognised that for years now, and because they have recognised it they are going ahead faster than we are; and the gap between us will continue to increase unless we change our ways. The trouble here is that for years the Labour Party have made people feel that profits are guilty unless proved innocent.
When I visit factories and companies I do not find that those who actually work in them are against profits; on the contrary they want to work for a prosperous concern, a concern with a future, their future.
Governments must learn to leave these companies with enough of their own profits to produce the goods and jobs for tomorrow. If the Socialists will not or cannot, there will be no profit-making industry left to support the losses caused by fresh bouts of nationalisation. If any one should murmur that I am preaching laissez faire, let me say I am not arguing, and have never argued, that all we have to do is to let the economy run by itself. I believe that, just as each of us has an obligation to make the best of his talents, so governments have an obligation to create the framework within which we can do so - not only individual people, but individual firms and particularly small firms. If they concentrated on doing that, they would do a lot better than they are doing now. Some of the small firms will stay small, but others will expand and become the great companies of the future. The Labour Government have pursued a disastrous vendetta against small businesses and the self employed. We will reverse their damaging policies.
Nowhere is this more important than in agriculture, one of our most successful industries, made up almost entirely of small businesses. We live in a world in which food is no longer cheap or plentiful. Everything we cannot produce here must be imported at a high price. Yet the Government could not have destroyed the confidence of the industry more effectively if they had tried deliberately to do so with the formula of empty promises and penal taxation.
So today what is the picture? Depressed profits, low investment, no incentive, and, overshadowing everything, government spending, spending, spending, far beyond the taxpayers’ means.
To recover, to get from where we are to where we want to be - and I admit we would rather not be here - will take time. ‘Economic policy,’ wrote Maynard Keynes, ‘should not be a matter of tearing up by the roots but of slowly training a plant to grow in a different direction.’
It will take time to reduce public spending, to rebuild profits and incentives, and to benefit from the investments which must be made. But the sooner that time starts, the better it will be for Britain’s unemployed and for Britain as a whole.
One of the reasons why this Labour Government has incurred more unemployment than any Conservative Government since the War is because they have concentrated too much on distributing what we have and too little on seeing that we have more.
We Conservatives hate unemployment. We hate the idea of men and women not being able to use their abilities. We deplore the waste of natural resources and the deep affront to people’s dignity from being out of work through no fault of their own. It is ironic that we should be accused of wanting unemployment to solve our economic problems by the very Government which has produced a record post-war unemployment and is expecting more.
The record of Mr. Wilson and his colleagues on this is unparalleled in the history of political hypocrisy. We are now seeing the full consequences of nearly 20 months of Labour Government. They have done the wrong things at the wrong time in the wrong way, and they have been a disaster for this country.
Now let me turn to something I spoke about in America. Some Socialists seem to believe that people should be numbers in a State computer. We believe they should be individuals. We are all unequal. No one, thank heavens, is quite like anyone else, however much the Socialists may pretend otherwise. We believe that everyone has the right to be unequal. But to us, every human being is equally important. Engineers, miners, manual workers, shop assistants, farm workers, postmen, housewives - these are the essential foundations of our society, and without them there would be no nation. But there are others with special gifts who should also have their chance, because if the adventurers who strike out in new directions in science, technology, medicine, commerce, and industry are hobbled, there can be no advance. The spirit of envy can destroy; it can never build. Everyone must be allowed to develop the abilities he knows he has within him, and she knows she has within her, in the way he chooses.
Freedom to choose is something we take for granted until it is in danger of being taken away. Socialist governments set out perpetually to restrict the area of choice, and Conservative governments to increase it. We believe that you become a responsible citizen by making decisions for yourself, not by having them made for you. But they are made for you by Labour all right!
Take education: our education system used to serve us well. A child from an ordinary family, as I was, could use it as a ladder, as an advancement, but the Socialists, better at demolition than reconstruction, are destroying many good grammar schools. Now this is nothing to do with private education. It is opportunity and excellence in our State schools that are being diminished under socialism. Naturally enough, parents do not like this, but in a Socialist society parents should be seen and not heard.
Another denial of choice is being applied to health. The private sector helps to keep some of our best doctors here, and so available part-time to the National Health Service. It also helps to bring in more money for the general health of the nation; but under Labour, private medicine is being squeezed out, and the result will be to add to the burden of the National Health Service without adding one penny to its income.
Let me make this absolutely clear: when we return to power we shall reverse Mrs. Castle’s stupid and spiteful attack on hospital pay beds. We Conservatives do not accept that because some people have no choice, no one should have it. Every family should have the right to spend their money, after tax, as they wish, and not as the Government dictates. Let us extend choice, extend the will to choose and the chance to choose.
I want to come now to the argument which Mr. Wilson is trying to put across the country: namely, that the Labour Party is the natural party of government because it is the only one that the trade unions will accept. From what I saw on television last week, the Labour Party did not look like a party of government at all, let alone a natural one.
But let us examine the argument, because it is important. If we are told that a Conservative Government could not govern because certain extreme leaders would not let it, then general elections are a mockery, we have arrived at the one-party State, and parliamentary democracy in this country will have perished. The democracy for which our fathers fought and died is not to be laid to rest as lightly as that.
When the next Conservative Government comes to power many trade unionists will have put it there. Millions of them vote for us at every election. I want to say this to them and to all of our supporters in industry: go out and join in the work of your unions; go to their meetings and stay to the end, and learn the union rules as well as the far Left knows them. Remember that if parliamentary democracy dies, free trade unions die with it.
I come last to what many would put first, the rule of law. The first people to uphold the law should be governments, and it is tragic that the Socialist Government, to its lasting shame, should have lost its nerve and shed its principles over the Peoples Republic of Clay Cross, and that a group of the Labour Party should have tried to turn the Shrewsbury pickets into martyrs. On both occasions the law was broken and on one violence was done. No decent society can live like that, and no responsible party should condone it. The first duty of government is to uphold the law, and if it tries to bob, weave and duck round that duty when it is inconvenient, the governed will do exactly the same thing, and then nothing will be safe, not home, not liberty, not life itself.
There is one part of this country where, tragically, defiance of the law is costing life day after day. In Northern Ireland our troops have the dangerous and thankless task of trying to keep the peace and hold a balance. We are proud of the way they have discharged their duty. This Party is pledged to support the unity of the United Kingdom, to preserve that unity and to protect the people, Catholic and Protestant alike. We believe our Armed Forces must remain until a genuine peace is made. Our thoughts are with them and our pride is with them, too.
I have spoken of the challenges which face us here in Britain - the challenge to recover economically and the challenge to recover our belief in ourselves - and I have shown our potential for recovery. I have dealt with some aspects of our strength and approach and I have tried to tell you something of my personal vision and my belief in the standards on which this nation was greatly built, on which it greatly thrived and from which in recent years it has greatly fallen away. I believe we are coming to yet another turning point in our long history. We can go on as we have been going and continue down, or we can stop and with a decisive act of will say ‘Enough.’
Let all of us here today, and others far beyond this hall who believe in our cause, make that act of will. Let us proclaim our faith in a new and better future for our Party and our people; let us resolve to heal the wounds of a divided nation, and let that act of healing be the prelude to a lasting victory.