Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

Speech to Conservative Central Council

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: Solihull, Warwickshire, West Midlands
Source: Thatcher Archive: speaking text
Editorial comments: The press release (408/79) was embargoed until 1130. There are the usual stylistic variations between speaking text and press release. Sections of the speech have been checked against BBC Radio News Report 1800 24 March 1979.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 4338
Themes: Commonwealth (Rhodesia-Zimbabwe), Conservatism, Defence (general), Economic policy - theory and process, Education, Industry, Monetary policy, Privatized & state industries, Public spending & borrowing, Taxation, European Union (general), Economic, monetary & political union, Foreign policy - theory and process, Foreign policy (Africa), Foreign policy (Western Europe - non-EU), Labour Party & socialism, Law & order, Local government, Religion & morality, Society, Social security & welfare, Trade unions, Trade union law reform, Strikes & other union action

Mr Chairman, I am glad that we are having a meeting of the Central Council this week-end. We could all be rather busy in a week's time.

But whether or not we succeed on Wednesday, the Election can't be long delayed. So let's begin by trying to see ourselves in Britain as others see us.

Last October, the Valéry Giscard d'EstaingPresident of France gave a remarkable interview on French television. In it he reviewed his country's progress over the last few years and considered her prospects for the future. [end p1]

He noted that in the 1960s, when he was the Finance Minister, he set himself the personal objective that France should overtake Great Britain. “I remember” , he said, “our great debates with the British. We were always behind and I said to myself; France must now get ahead. Since 1967” , he went on, “France has overtaken Great Britain in terms of living standards and we are at present getting very substantially ahead” .

I don't quote these remarks to gloat over British failure or to celebrate French success. But they do represent a brutally frank and accurate account of what has happened to this country in relation to one of our major friends and competitors. They show, too, how—given the will, the policies, the leadership—a country can pull itself up by its own bootstraps to the lasting benefit of all its people. [end p2]

Consider what has happened to Britain.

When I first entered the House of Commons twenty years ago this autumn, we were second in the European league. Now we are in the relegation zone.

In the fearful jargon that passes for English in the corridors of Socialism the new word is “comparability” .

Well, let me offer them some “comparability” . Compared to most of our competitors we earn less. Compared to them we produce less. Compared to them our standard of living is low. Compared to them, our taxes are not just high, they are penal. [end p3]

Our comparative national decline was officially confirmed at the European Council meeting in December when the new monetary system was under discussion. Britain had difficulty in joining the scheme because she was—to use Europe's chilling new name for us—an “LPC” , a Less Prosperous Country.

What a medal for Mr Callaghan to bring back from Europe—LPC … and Bar. What a mark of recognition for fifteen years during most of which—except for a four year gap—he has been a senior minister or Prime Minister. What a grand salute to Socialism.

For a few days we had the dubious honour of being shop steward of the small band of “LPCs” in Europe—Italy, Ireland, and ourselves. Even that distinction did not last long. Italy and Ireland have now joined the scheme, prepared to accept the economic discipline that our Government rejects. [end p4]

But we're not really an “LPC” —a third-rate country heading for the scrap heap. We have great natural riches. We have great human resources. Unfortunately, we also have a Labour Government—and we've had one for the best (or more accurately the worst) part of the last fifteen years—the years when things have gone so sadly and badly wrong.

A Labour Government—intent on distributing wealth instead of creating it, and ending up without anything to distribute. That is the dead weight which has made Britain poor, and which poor Britain has to carry. Until we get rid of it, until we shake it off, we will never reverse our nation's decline or restore the spirit of confidence and enterprise and hope that used to be the very hallmark of being British. [end p5]

It is not just that Labour have governed badly—and they have. As we've seen this winter they now seem virtually incapable of governing at all.

It is hardly surprising, for internally they are divided against themselves. They have no policies except more of those which have led to our present troubles. They are bound inescapably by ties of history and financial dependence to one single, powerful interest group. They have proved themselves incapable of acting in the interest of the nation as a whole. Beginning of section checked against BBC Radio News Report 1800 24 March 1979:

Yet still they hang on, sacrificing their last shred of dignity and self-respect, their one ambition to survive by hook or by crook from week to week, from day to day, almost from hour to hour. [end p6]

Whether or not they manage a few more abject months or weeks or even hours in office, the result will be almost certainly the same. I believe that Labour has passed the point of no return. (Applause.) [End of section checked against BBC Radio News Report 1800 24 March 1979:] But every day lost makes our job more difficult. Every week wasted delays the start of the country's revival. The remedy is in the hands of the minority parties. We shall know the answer on Wednesday night.

But: “If it be not now, yet it will come” .

And when it comes, remember the record. Remember the lesson of the last few years. [end p7]

Labour means more Socialism; Britain needs less.

Labour means drift; Britain needs purpose.

Labour means restriction; Britain needs liberty.

As the election approaches, people will ask us, “Wasn't our decline inevitable? Does it really matter when we're better off than we used to be? In any case do we have any choice? Even if we wanted, could we really reverse the decline?”

Those are the questions that I want to answer today. I believe they are questions that should be at the very centre of political debate in this critical year. [end p8]

I don't begin by claiming that Britain could have stayed “top nation” for ever, or that we can realistically aspire to that position today. But we should be able to hold and develop the place that we used to have before the rise of the Empire—a place once described as that of “the smallest of the great powers and the greatest of the small.”

To lead Britain's successful fight back, we need a government that will work with and not against the grain of human nature. And we need a government that will concentrate on restoring a fair and sensible balance in Britain's life—a balance that corresponds with the liberties, traditions and values of our people. [end p9] ( Notes by MT:

1) Too little attention to creating more wealth—too much concentration on its distribution.

2) Too much power in the hands of government—too little left to the citizen and small business.

3) Trade union side —power and responsibility have ceased to march together.

4) Law and Order—must restore rule of law. Constitution, liberty and order.)

Conditions for the creation of wealth

We must recognise, first, that when you crib and confine a nation's economic freedom—as Labour have done—you crib and confine the creation of wealth on which all progress so largely depends.

There is only one sure way of increasing prosperity. It won't be done by government strategies or plans. It will only be done by giving the people themselves the incentive to do so. You don't stimulate economies; you stimulate people. That is why we place so much emphasis on the importance of cutting the tax on work, the tax on skill, the tax on initiative, the tax on savings.

No other free country in the world has such an oppressive tax system as ours. It deters with equal force those at the bottom of the ladder and those at the top. [end p10]

Less than thirty years ago, a family man with a couple of children didn't start paying income tax until he was more or less earning the average industrial wage.

Today, the tax man calls before he has even got half-way there. He starts paying tax at a lower income than in any other country in the European Community except Italy. And his starting rate of tax is the highest of all.

Is it any wonder that people ask “Why work?” when it can make little difference to your income whether you've got a job or not? How can anyone be expected to work harder if tax claws back what work puts in? [end p11]

Mr Healey is now preparing the last of his fifteen Budgets in five years. He should remember that men and women do not go out to work in the mornings thinking cheerfully, “Now what can I earn for the Chancellor today?” . No one stays late at the office, or spends Saturday mornings at the factory, in order to add even more to the coffers of the Inland Revenue.

High taxes hold back production and they take away a person's independence too. Each pound government takes from the taxpayer's pocket is a pound less to spend on his family. A pound less for the mortgage or rent. A pound less for the heating. A pound less for the petrol or train fare. A pound less for new clothes for the children. This Government would rather force these economies on the family than make economies themselves. [end p12]

Labour's policy is to put more people on benefit so that we become a more dependent society—dependent on government welfare. Today there are over 8 million people who have to claim means tested benefits. Beginning of section checked against BBC Radio New Report 1800 24 March 1979:

Now, we will cut taxes so that people can look after themselves and their families, so that they can build for their own future. That's the way, and the only way, to revive the spirit of independence in Britain and get this country moving again. What is the point in taking so much away from a person in takes, they haven't enough to look after themselves and then have to go to ask for means-tested benefits? That's no way for a proud country with a proud people, but it is the socialist way and it's the way that's got to go, and go for good. End of section checked against BBC Radio News Report 1800 24 March 1979.

To pay for tax cuts, curb inflation and give industry the room to expand, we shall have to reduce the State's take of what the nation earns.

Labour say cuts are impossible. They always say cuts are impossible. 2½ years ago they said it was impossible to cut spending by £2,000 million. [end p13]

The IMF, whose money they wanted to borrow, said, “It must be done, do it” . They did it. It's not impossible to cut spending. Every housewife with a weekly budget to balance knows that nothing is impossible, given the will, the character and the strength of purpose. We must stop saying, “it can't be done” to everything that will get this country on its feet again. We simply cannot go on as we are, spending more each year to pay the interest on our debts than we spend on the defence of the nation.

Ministers ask with wearying frequency, “But where would you cut?” I'm surprised they still pose that question. Haven't they visited any Labour Town Halls recently? Perhaps they're waiting for those bigger and better Town Halls to be built, like the £50 million palace at Southwark. And haven't they read any of the reports of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee—or any of the correspondence of the Sir Douglas WassPermanent Secretary at the Treasury for that matter. [end p14]

He and his colleagues seem to have kept an accurate account of election year spending by the Government in Labour seats. Some of those Labour MPs are clearly very expensive gentlemen.

Of course, we won't be able to get all the savings we want from eliminating waste. When we've seen the books, we shall have to tell the country where else savings will have to be made. But getting rid of waste can and will yield substantial amounts. If we found that just one per cent of government spending was being wasted—a pretty low figure you might reasonably reckon—even that would give us £700 million. That represents all the income tax paid in one year by three quarters of a million families—money literally down the drain. With that money, we could knock nearly 2p off the standard rate of income tax. [end p15]

Less Government

The second way in which we can start to turn things round in Britain is to reverse Labour's policy of building up the power of the State at the expense of the freedom of the individual.

Everyone who runs their own business knows what that means. They're at the receiving end of government meddling. Last year John Nott gave a graphic illustration of what they have to put up with. He calculated that if the 1000 firms that were then members of our Party's Small Business Bureau receive just one ounce of government paper in the post every week for a full year, that would amount to 1½ tons of paper in all. There would be 1 million pages, which would take you about ten years to read. The pile would be 200 feet high—which is roughly 35 Labour MPs laid end to end. [end p16]

If you calculate those figures for the whole country—for the 800,000 individual small businesses—then the pile would grow to 30 miles high. And that, for the record, is 28,000 Labour MPs laid end to end. What an unpleasant thought.

If you're working in local government, you have exactly the same experience as the businessman. A valuable report the other day from the local authority associations showed how Whitehall is strangling local democracy with reams of red tape. Does the Home Office really have to send a circular to local authorities telling them what colour shirts firemen should wear? Does the Department of Education have to give instructions about the vitamin content of margarine? Is it really essential for the DHSS to send letters to Chief Executives of certain districts advising them on the processing, handling and cooking of trout? [end p17]

In our Britain, Conservative Britain, the stream of regulations from central government will slow to a crawl. In our Britain local councils will be free within the limits of good housekeeping to look after the interests of the communities they serve. In our Britain business and industry and individuals will be free to get on with their own affairs without interminable government meddling, so that their energy will be directed towards winning new markets and creating new jobs.

Power and responsibility of trade unions

Our third task will be to strike a fair balance between the rights and the duties of the trade unions.

In the last few years, Labour have fed and nourished the worst instincts in the trade union movement. [end p18]

The result is that what originally sprang from a deep and genuine fellow-feeling for the brotherhood of man is today disliked and feared, and does more damage to our country than ever before in its history.

Incidentally, to talk about industrial action when what one means is industrial inaction is not just to pervert the language: its to take yet one more step along the road that leads to 1984. Despite what has happened, union leaders are less to blame than Labour Ministers who, time after time, have chosen to surrender to the crudest political demands instead of fighting for what they know is right.

Of course there are exceptions: like Labour politicians who have shown publicly that they understand the direction in which our historic trade union movement should be encouraged to march. [end p19]

Back in the 1960s, Lord George-Brown pointed out how trade union restrictive practices were holding down the amount we produce. Even Harold Wilson and Barbara Castle battled away, ten years ago, for more sensible trade union laws, until they were defeated by an alliance between the James Callaghanpresent Prime Minister and the leaders of the TUC that set the pattern for the next decade.

During their brief period in Opposition 1970–74, Labour encouraged, and exploited union extremists, with none more prominent among the cheer-leaders than Mr Callaghan. In government, Labour have placed a militants' charter on the Statute Book. It could scarcely have been worse if it had been written by Jamie Morris. We all lived through the result, this winter when the country suffered the worst spate of industrial disruption for years. [end p20]

At first the Prime Minister refused to concede that anything was wrong; Mr Healey dismissed it all as a “hiccup” ; the Attorney General—was there ever such a disastrous law officer as Mr Silkin?—went one better and talked about “lawful intimidation” .

In an atmosphere of mounting inhumanity, one by one Labour's chickens came home to roost while Downing Street looked helplessly on. Rarely has a Government's total lack of leadership been so mercilessly exposed.

In desperation, Labour looked about for some ploy that might postpone their inevitable end. They came up with the so-called “concordat” . It was hastily pressed into service as the answer to Britain's deeply-rooted problems. It is of course no such thing. [end p21]

It proposes more State control and more State interference. It approves the direction of pension and insurance funds. That means—it can mean nothing else—letting Labour Ministers play with your hard-earned savings, letting Mr Benn, for example, invest them for you in things like the Kirkby Co-operative. This part of the concordat is in fact taken straight out of the Left-wing Labour programme for the 1980s which we are always being assured will never be endorsed by No 10. Well, it's got that endorsement now in black and white.

In return for all this, the union leaders have given little if anything away. There hasn't been a more one-sided bargain since the Social Contract. [end p22]

There are no effective safeguards for the individual against the abuse of closed shop agreements. There is to be no serious action against blockading and secondary picketing—indeed the concordat endorses the sort of picketing that we've seen in many recent disputes. It leaves out the firm encouragement of greater union democracy that we need. And it leaves out all sections of society with one exception—the leaders of the unions. But it is the whole nation which suffered under last winter's enormities. It is the whole nation which has suffered from Labour's years in office. And it is the whole nation which will benefit from the sensible changes in the law that we are pledged to make—changes that I wish Mr Callaghan had made when we offered him our support for them in January. ([Note by MT:] Picketing. Closed shop. Postal ballots.)

A strong and responsible trade union movement has a crucial role to play in rebuilding our shattered economy. That is our Conservative belief. That is Conservative policy. [end p23]

We want to see trade union leaders more concerned with the prosperity of their members than with the power they can wield in the affairs of the Labour Party. We want to see them more concerned with raising industrial output. They've got to remember that we can't have a German standard of living without a German standard of work.

There is plenty to be done as Frank Chapple pointed out the other day in his attack on low production and over-manning. And his words were given added point by this month's figures from the Bank of England. They showed the growing gap between output in Britain and in other countries. Even our least efficient competitors—the Italians—are today pushing up output twice as fast as we are, while the most efficient, the Japanese, are going ahead six times as fast. This spells penury for Britain and trade union leaders know it as well as anyone. [end p24]

The rule of law

The fourth great task for the next government will be to restore the rule of law. That means giving the fight against crime the priority it deserves. And it means seeing that Parliament is once again supreme in this country. Power must lie in the hands of the people's representatives in Parliament, not, as last winter, in the hands of pickets and strike committees.

The rule of law is the basis of a civilised society. It must not be bent and twisted for political ends. So we do not accept with Labour's resigned shrug of the shoulders the reports of the tax amnesty conceded to printworkers in Fleet Street. Since when has liability to tax depended on union membership? In a free society no-one, I repeat no-one, should be above the law. [end p25]

Nor do we condone the recent behaviour of Mrs Shirley Williams who is prepared to bring in new laws to destroy good schools but will not use the existing law to keep schools open. For us, the position in the caretakers' dispute was quite clear. The unions should not have asked for the schools to be closed. The local authorities should not have closed the schools. The Minister should not have tolerated their closure.

Maintaining the rule of law is the first essential if we are to return to the standards on which our past greatness was based. In many ways it is a remarkable tribute to our people that despite all that has happened, the quiet majority have continued to live their lives by the largely unwritten rules that have governed decent behaviour for generations. The quiet majority don't sponge. They don't fiddle. They aren't out solely for what they can get for themselves, regardless of others. [end p26]

Most of our people try to make the best not the worst of their jobs. They recognise their obligations as parents and members of a family. And they recognise that we are all members one of another.

But what leadership have they been given? Look at the record of the Wilson years, the Callaghan years, the long lean years of Labour and ask yourselves “Is it surprising that there is such a lack of confidence in our ability as a country to do better?”

It is that confidence that we must restore, by matching the mood of the people, by refusing to take on more tasks than any government can or should assume, by promising less and achieving more. [end p27]

Britain's role in the world

Restored confidence will enable us to play our proper role in the world again.

While we have been preoccupied by economic failure at home, much that deeply concerns us has been happening overseas.

Next month's election in Rhodesia may provide an opportunity to end the Rhodesian crisis. That opportunity must not be wasted. For the last fifteen years all British governments supported six principles. The Election holds out the hope that the last of those principles may be fulfilled. ([Note by MT:] Based on one person one vote. Choice between parties.) If the election takes place in the freest and fairest conditions possible for a country beset by terrorism, that last principle—that Britain must be satisfied that any proposed basis for independence would be acceptable to the Rhodesian population as a whole—could be met. [end p28]

Unlike Dr Owen, we do not intend to prejudge the issue either way. It is for the Rhodesian people, not him, to decide whether the new constitution represents a satisfactory form of majority rule. We will send observers to the election and we will form a balanced judgement on the basis of their report.

If the Six Principles are fulfilled, it will be the paramount duty of any British Government to return Rhodesia to a state of legality, to move to lift sanctions, and do our utmost to ensure that the new independent state gains international recognition.

If we wish to play our full part in shaping world events over the next few critical years, we must also work honestly and genuinely with our partners in the European Community. There is much that we can achieve together, little that we can achieve alone. [end p29]

We in Britain came late to the partnership, and have been slow to find our role within it. As a Conservative Government and as Conservatives in the European Parliament we will argue tenaciously for our national interests when these are at stake.

We are not, I think, alone in that.

But we shall do so as wholehearted supporters of the Community.

In politics I have learnt that it is the half-hearted who lose. It is those with conviction who carry the day. In Europe, as in Britain, the Conservative Party is the party of conviction. We are convinced that it is in the interests of Britain as well as of Europe that our partnership should succeed. [end p30]

Churchill, Macmillan, Monnet and the other statesmen with their broad and generous vision of a united Europe, believed in a free but not a standardised Europe. They were concerned with democracy. They were concerned with peace. That must still be our inspiration and our purpose—to safeguard democracy in the cradle of the civilised world.

We must look to our defences. The condition to which Labour has reduced them can only comfort those who wish Britain ill—and those whose ambition is to break up the Western Alliance.

A household which finds itself short of money, and then goes and cancels its insurance policies, courts disaster. So a nation which skimps on its defences is playing with fire. We shall rebuild our defences and in so doing strengthen the alliance. That must be a prime task for the new Conservative Government in the years which lie ahead. [end p31] ([Notes by MT:] Most of these things the great majority of our people believe.

Arrogance of Owen.

City [capital like?] Harold Lever.

Heredity of Anthony Wedgwood Benn.

Privilege of Shirley Williams.

A passion for liberty under the Law.

A deep pride in our country past achievements

A longing for her return to the of greatness.)

Mr Chairman, the years which lie ahead will not be easy.

Rebuilding a country we can once again be proud of will call for qualities of courage and daring equal to any we have had to summon in the past. But throughout our long history these qualities have never been lacking when we have needed them, which is why I remain an optimist.

Four centuries ago Sir Walter Raleigh wrote on the window pane “Fain would I climb, yet fear I to fall” . The first Queen Elizabeth wrote below these words: “If thy heart fails thee, climb not at all” . [end p32]

It is in that spirit that we Conservatives will this year put ourselves, and our programme for the rebirth of our country, before the British people. We offer a clean break with the recent past. We offer hope for despair, confidence for doubt resolve for weakness. We offer a new beginning.

([Note by MT:] I believe most of our people are Conservative at heart.)

For all who believe, as we believe, that Liberty under the Law is the only foundation on which to build a great future, it may be the last chance we have. Let us take it and fight together. This time there can be no substitute for victory.

([Notes by MT:] Conservative—An enduring passion for liberty under the law.

They have as we have—An instinct for deeper moral values.

A deep sense of pride in Britain's historic achievements.

A longing for her return to greatness.)