With an election in prospect and the polls pointing to a recovery in support for Labour, WORLD IN ACTION asks Margaret Thatcher, leader of the Conservative Party about immigration, unemployment, pay policy and Conservative electoral prospects—and on future relations with Edward Heath and Enoch Powell . She is interviewed by Gordon Burns . Burns
Mrs Thatcher, it is three years ago this week since that famous first ballot when you defeated Mr Heath in the leadership battle and that win may well face its critical test this year with every possibility of a General Election. So, in this first major interview you have given of the New Year, I would like to examine some of the issues that you will be judged on by the electorate.
First, immigration. Considerable controversy and confusion in recent weeks about possible new get-tough Tory policy over immigration; threats that you may well make major cutbacks on the level of immigrants allowed into this country. If you do get to power how severely would you cut the numbers? Thatcher
Well now, look, let us try and start with a few figures as far as we know them, and I am the first to admit it is not easy to get clear figures from the Home Office about immigration, but there was a committee which looked at it and said that if we went on as we are then by the end of the century there would be four million people of the new Commonwealth or Pakistan here. Now, that is an awful lot and I think it means that people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture and, you know, the British character has done so much for democracy, for law and done so much throughout the world that if there is any fear that it might be swamped people are going to react and be rather hostile to those coming in.
So, if you want good race relations, you have got to allay peoples' fears on numbers. Now, the key to this was not what Keith Speed said just a couple of weeks ago. It really was what Willie Whitelaw said at the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton, where he said we must hold out the clear prospect of an end to immigration because at the moment it is about between 45,000 and 50,000 people coming in a year. Now, I was brought up in a small town, 25,000. That would be two new towns a year and that is quite a lot. So, we do have to hold out the prospect of an end to immigration except, of course, for compassionate cases. Therefore, we have got to look at the numbers who have a right to come in. There are a number of United Kingdom passport holders—for example, in East Africa—and what Keith and his committee are trying to do is to find out exactly how we are going to do it; who must come in; how you deal with the compassionate cases, but nevertheless, holding out the prospect of an end to immigration. Burns
But if 45 to 50,000 per year is too many, what figure is acceptable? Thatcher
Well, it must be very much less but you cannot decide the figure until you know those who at present have a right to come in. But what is quite clear is that we cannot go on taking in that number. You see, my great fear is now that if we get them coming in at that rate people will turn round and we shall not have good race relations with those who are here. Every one who is here must be treated equally under the law and that, I think, is why quite a lot of them too are fearful that their position might be put in jeopardy or people might be hostile to them unless we cut down the incoming numbers. They are here. They are here. They must be treated equally. Burns
But the rules of entry are quite strict as they stand at the moment. I mean, where could cutbacks be made? Would families here be told that their dependants could no longer come? I mean where do you make the cutback?
Well now, we did make a very considerable cutback, as you remember, in 1971. We said that after that, and the Act took effect in 1973, everyone coming in no longer had the right to settle permanently in this country. Now that was quite a major step forward. They could come here for a job but they had not the right to settle permanently and they had not necessarily the right to bring their families for permanent settlement. Now, the interesting thing is we are in 1978 now, some of them, therefore, will have been here for five years whether they are going to be given the right to permanent settlement or not. Now, the Labour Party Conference, not last year but the year before, they voted to repeal the 1971 Act and part of the 1968 Act. We thought it was necessary to strengthen the position. What we want to know, and what the Home Office have never been able to let us know, is the numbers who, under present law, are entitled to come here. Until we know that, it is extremely difficult because when I went round India and Pakistan—and Mr Callaghan has followed in my foot-steps—I said to them, “You do realise that this country, the United Kingdom, is more densely populated than either India or Pakistan” . It is not as if we have great wide open spaces or great natural resources; we have not. So, either you go on taking in 40 or 50,000 a year, which is far too many, or you say we must hold out the prospect of a clear end to immigration and that is the view we have taken and I am certain that is the right view to keep good race relations and to keep fundamental British characteristics which have done so much for the world. Burns
But you will then have a tough, new immigration policy should you come to power? Thatcher
I have described what it is. How you describe what I say is a matter for you. Burns
And it will be a major election issue as far as the Conservatives … . Thatcher
I shall not make it a major election issue but I think there is a feeling that the big political parties have not been talking about this and sometimes, you know, we are falsely accused of racial prejudice. I say “falsely accused” and that means that we do not talk about it perhaps as much as we should. In my view, that is one thing that is driving some people to the National Front. They do not agree with the objectives of the National Front, but they say that at least they are talking about some of the problems. Now, we are a big political party. If we do not want people to go to extremes, and I do not, we ourselves must talk about this problem and we must show that we are prepared to deal with it. We are a British nation with British characteristics. Every country can take some small minorities and in many ways they add to the richness and variety of this country. The moment the minority threatens to become a big one, people get frightened. Burns
So, some of the support that the National Front has been attracting in recent by-elections you would hope to bring back behind the Tory party? Thatcher
Oh, very much back, certainly but I think that the National Front has, in fact, attracted more people from Labour voters than from us, but never be afraid to tackle something which people are worried about. We are not in politics to ignore peoples' worries: we are in politics to deal with them. Burns
There has been some speculation of late about whether Mr Enoch Powell may be softening his attitude to the Conservative Party. In recent speeches he has seemed to be approving of policy on devolution, European elections and so on. He would, no doubt, approve of a tough new policy on immigration. Could there be a time approaching when Mr Powell could make a dramatic return to the fold? Thatcher
Well, Mr Powell is an Ulster Unionist. In Ulster there is no Conservative Party; it is the Ulster Unionist Party and the question therefore is whether the Ulster Unionists would get closer to the Conservative Party. When I first came into Parliament in 1959 they took the Conservative Whip—you are familiar with the phrase— Conservative and Ulster Unionists went to the same back-benchers' committees and tended to vote together. Then, as you know, there were differences and they have not. So, it is not a question of Mr Powell being Conservative. There is no Conservative Party in Ulster; it is the Ulster Unionist Party. It may well be that their views on the main things in politics are far closer to ours than to socialism and that, I think, is going to be the ultimate question at the next election. It really is going to be what I call a watershed election because you must always remember that what the Prime Minister has got behind him is more than eighty members of the Tribune Group, very left-wing. Burns
Can we move on to the trade unions and to pay policy? You went on record this month as saying that wage restraint would end if the Conservatives came to power; there would be a return to free collective bargaining. To clear up some confusion, would that be an immediate return to free collective bargaining? Thatcher
I think you are quite right in saying that there is a lot of clearing up in this area to be done. Certainly, in regard to Government policies because I am quite often questioning the James Callaghan Prime Minister—indeed, twice a week—about this. Unfortunately, his answers do not seem to fit my questions because we have no statutory incomes policy. Phase I and Phase II ended and we were told then that there was going to be a return—and I quote— “to normal collective bargaining” and that is free collective bargaining and then it was said that that would mean single figures on wage rates—6%;—not more than 10%; on earnings and now it seems to have become almost 10%; on earnings but a lot of people have gone beyond it. So, what you have is a sort of very indistinct phase and no one knows what the position is and again I asked the Prime Minister last week and he said, “But we have free collective bargaining” and so we put down a question saying “What do you mean?” and it came out that there is free collective bargaining but, on average, it must not be more than 10%; in any group. So, there is a lot of confusion at the moment and there is going to continue to be a lot of confusion. But there are a few points to get clear. There is no statutory incomes policy. Unfortunately, Government is operating black lists on some firms and some grey lists too. Now, I must say it seems to me wrong to have a general 10%; guideline because, you see, there are many companies that need to pay some workers more because the differentials have been so squeezed that they cannot get skilled workers. If you cannot get skilled people it often holds up production and jobs in the unskilled and you need that production to get the wealth of the nation up and you need those jobs to get unemployment down. There are some companies paying lower wages than others who want to bring them up and if they say, “We want to pay more than 10%;” they are stopped. And there is another thing which I learned very much when I was in America—free trade unions are the hallmark of a free society. And if you are in jobs, and many of them are skilled jobs, and your trade union people cannot bargain on your behalf you know what is happening, some of the skilled are are leaving work and going to unskilled and what is the point of belonging to a trade union if they cannot bargain on your behalf? Now, I know what peoples' fears are. They are fears that those who bargain would not be responsible, that they would try to use industrial muscle to get more. I think those fears are far less in free enterprise industry because what keeps prices down, you know, is competition. I mean, firms like the big supermarkets and the big chain stores have done more to keep prices down by competing with one another than all of the Price Commission put together. So, where you have got competition, that holds prices down. So, I believe that in what we call the private sector it will be far better for your unions—and do not forget, I mean, that in 70%; of your firms you have no trouble at all; your unions are very responsible because they know if they price themselves and their goods out of the market, there are no jobs and no future. So, you ask me where we are now? I do not know. The Prime Minister says it is free collective bargaining. You are questioning as if it is not. Burns
I am really asking where we are if you get to power this year? When you take over, is it then a wages free-for-all? Thatcher
What is a free-for-all? You mean that the trade unions should have the right to negotiate with their employers on behalf of their members? I thought that was the job of trade unions. I think it quite wrong if trade unions cannot do that. Burns
But does it not also mean that the strong succeed and the weak do not in that situation? Thatcher
What you are saying then is that trade unions can never be responsible if they carry out their traditional role of bargaining on behalf of their members. Now, the only cases where you have real industrial muscle are the nationalised industries and the irony is that it is socialism that has brought that about and where you have no competition, where they have done away with free enterprise, this is where we have the trouble. All right. What do we do there? In my view, it would be quite wrong to have unlimited subsidies going from the taxpayer's pocket when he has had to be subject to the rules of competition about what he can in fact gain, to go to those who say, “We have industrial muscle, we can demand as much as we like” . So, we could not say that they could have unlimited subsidies. They have to have a certain budget; they have to work within it.
But you know, I think public opinion has moved a lot on this. In the end, the most powerful weapon of all is public opinion and other trade unions. They are not just going to stand back while some say, “Because we are powerful, we are going to demand” . The law of might is not right and I think the British people have learned that. You know, some strikes have been beaten by the power of public opinion and that, I believe, is what would happen.
Can I just repeat one point? If we are going to say that trade unions cannot be responsible in bargaining, that people cannot be responsible, you might as well pack up all hope of a democracy because what you are going to get then is a few people at the top of trade unions bargaining or controlling the Government of the day, telling people what they have got to do and there is no appeal from that. That is not my way.
There is one thing that I have not mentioned. Every political party is interested in incomes policy in this sense. If together the people of this country decide to take out more than they are producing we shall have inflation if there is enough money in the system to allow it. The constraints, therefore, that a Government can put on is by seeing that there is not more money pumped into the system than the situation warrants and that is your real constraint on the rate of inflation. But in the private sector I believe in a return to free collective bargaining; in the public sector that must be done within the limits of the budgets, of how much money goes from the taxpayers' purse into that industry or—er—they are not all industries, very few of them are industries—or into that particular department. Burns
Can you tell us what policies you have got that might help our disastrous unemployment figures? Thatcher
They are very bad. The unemployment that we have had under this Government is far worse than anything we ever had under a Conservative Government. We must get back some small businesses into city centres. It is no good having great areas where people have no jobs. We must, where you have got bad housing, I reckon, start to improve that bad housing without bulldozing it. So, it must be small businesses back into those areas and, my goodness, you have got to do quite a lot on tax law to get that because they have been clobbered. And, really, getting people themselves along to try to do things so that we do not have those vast derelict areas. But, you know, you will get none of this done unless you have a policy that really makes it worthwhile for people to work; worthwhile for people to start up businesses and have them grow and that, I am afraid, is completely different from anything which Socialism offers which is State control; have everything done through committees, have everything done through central planning. It is through central planning that we made those great mistakes. Now what they must do is to mobilise the people to help to rebuild their own areas. Burns
But Merseyside, of course, has one of the highest unemployment records in the whole country. Will getting small businesses back into city centres make big inroads into those figures? Thatcher
It is going to be very difficult to make major inroads quickly. There are a lot of small businesses up and down the country and the development areas depend upon them particularly. There is a greater concentration in those areas than elsewhere. There are about 800,000 small businesses altogether. If only one in three were to take on an extra person, it would make quite a lot of difference. But there is not a quick answer while your economy is run down and it is run down at the moment and there are not enough incentives in the system. Burns
The solution to the inner city problems is obviously a long-term one. The immediate problem, though, in those areas is the rising crime rate, particularly, for instance, in Liverpool and there is great concern about law and order and, indeed, very many people in Liverpool particularly would tell you that they are frightened to go out at night, things are so bad now. What do you plan to do about law and order? Thatcher
Well, you are not going to remove that fear until you have got enough police to deal with it. In almost all of the big city centres we just have not got enough police properly to patrol or look after the area. You have got to have enough police, properly paid, with enough equipment. You have also, I think, got to restore the right of magistrates to do rather more than care and control orders because then the youngsters just go back and carry on exactly as they were. They will have to go to some establishment where there are people to look after them and see that discipline is enforced. That is a change in the law. I think also Government itself has got to stand up for the law the entire time. This one has not always and I think there is one other very important thing. You will come across children sometimes who have never been taught what is right and what is wrong. From time to time, you will hear some teachers—not very many, but some—say “Oh, those are middle class values; I have no right to teach them to the children” . Nonsense. They are not middle class values; they are eternal values and children must be taught what is right and what is wrong. Of course, they will not always follow it. Of course, there always will be crime. Then it goes to certainty of detection which means police forces and then it goes to having proper sentences for the crimes and I think that means altering the power of the magistrates for young offenders at the moment. Burns
Tougher sentences? Thatcher
Well, at the moment, you know, they can often only make care and control orders and someone thinks that there is a strong supervisor, there is not. I think it was better when some of the youngsters went to a place where they were looked after, where the discipline was properly established and where they were not allowed to leave. Burns
Thinking again about the possibility of a General Election this year; there is a need in any party for unity, all hands working towards victory, which prompts the question—would you like to see Mr Heath in your Shadow Cabinet by the time the Election is called? Thatcher
I agree with you wholeheartedly that we need unity. But, you know, there is no difference between myself and Mr Heath about the need for the Conservative Party to win the next Election and I am sure he will be one of those who will campaign most vigorously. My guess is that until a General Election comes, he will obviously want to keep his options open. He travels about the world and he is most helpful in coming to see me if he has seen top statesmen since I have and letting me know their views and I think that he will wish to carry on that way because neither of us knows when an Election is going to be called. When we know what the results are, we will have to sit down and think what is going to happen then. Burns
Can I actually put that in clear terms, that that means you do not see … . Thatcher
It was perfectly clear. Burns
You do not see him in your Shadow Cabinet before another election is called? Thatcher
I think he will want to keep his options open. Burns
Is he someone you would like to see in a Cabinet should you come to power? Thatcher
He is a very, very able person indeed. Burns
And someone you would like to have in your cabinet? Thatcher
I cannot say who I will have in my Cabinet until I see what the result is and try to allocate the different jobs. You have to fit in people for jobs as well as just saying are they going to come into your Cabinet. The final decisions cannot be made either by him or by me until we see the results and then, of course, he is just as free an agent as I am. Burns
The Tory lead, according to opinion polls, has been dramatically cut back in the last six to nine months. At one point a 25 point lead—Gallup Poll now says it is level pegging. Yet on the other hand, there is still this million and a half unemployed. Should you not be much further out in the lead? Thatcher
Well, you know, the opinion polls can be very deceptive indeed. The only real opinion poll are election polls.
You know in June 1970 the opinion polls showed a very sharp swing back in favour of the then Labour government. It already had a large majority. It had a 9%; lead in the opinion polls, Wilson went out to the country on it and lost, because we got the biggest swing to Conservatives that we have ever had in the post-war period.
I think it will happen again. People are showing they want Conservative policies. What we are saying is in tune with and in touch with what the people want. If you want Conservative policies, you are not going to get it from a Socialist Government with a big Socialist majority. You are only going get it from a Conservative Government with a good Conservative majority.
And I will take at any time the James Callaghan Prime Minister wants a General Election poll, and it cannot come too soon for me. Burns
Mrs Thatcher, thank you very much indeed.