Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

Margaret Thatcher

Speech to Conservatives in Gravesend

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: Gordon School, Lower Higham Road, Gravesend, Kent
Source: Thatcher Archive: OUP transcript
Editorial comments: The press release (GE570/79) was embargoed until 1900; it consisted of short extracts and the speech itself was billed as "informal". A tape survives in the Thatcher Archive.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 4685
Themes: Judiciary, Parliament, Conservatism, Conservative Party (history), Defence (general), Economic policy - theory and process, Education, Employment, Industry, General Elections, Monetary policy, Taxation, Labour Party & socialism, Law & order, Religion & morality, Social security & welfare, Trade unions, Trade union law reform, Strikes & other union action

Mr Chairman, Mr Brinton, Ladies and Gentlemen

There is, of course, another reason for my coming to Gravesend as well as it being a marginal seat. It is that this was an old stamping ground of mine some 29 years ago, which is where I started, and who would have thought 29 years ago that I would have been back here in this particular guise. You'll remember that I was candidate for Dartford in 1950 and 1951, that we often exchanged visits with Gravesend, that we knew Rochester and Chatham, and indeed we all fought as a unit in this part of Kent, and you're quite right, Mr Chairman, if Tim BrintonTim doesn't get back, I don't, not as leader of the party, so you'd better work extremely hard here in Gravesend as well as in Rochester and Chatham, and in Dartford.

But it is a tremendous pleasure to be back. I didn't succeed in representing this part of the world, although, as you know, I live not very far away, and it was some time later that I eventually had the honour an privilege of becoming a Member of Parliament for Finchley. And it is a great honour and privilege to be a Member of the British Parliament, representing the British people, and may it always be so, may Parliament always be supreme, and the Mother of Parliaments be an example to other democracies throughout the world.

Now, when I first went into Parliament in 1959, some of the problems were similar to those which we discuss now, but, you know, the figures we put on them were very, very different. We always used to talk then about prices, about jobs, and about growth. But none of us ever dreamed that we'd live to see a time when a Government could in fact double prices within five years as this Labour Government has. It is, of course, the only Government in history in this country since records have been kept that has in fact doubled prices in this country and therefore halved the value of money during the lifetime of one particular Parliament. And so, when I hear them addressing us on what to do about prices, I think, well, if we need advice about how to keep prices down, we wouldn't really go to the chap who's had the most experience in this country of putting them up. That doesn't make any sense at all. They boast now, that they have halved inflation. Well, who put it up to what it was to halve it from? If that isn't a little bit Irish!

We also used to talk about jobs, but we've never had a Government in the post war period that's had such a high rate of unemployment as this one, and we've never had a Government that's had such a low rate of expansion in the economy as this one. So, when I went in, the rate of inflation was very, very much lower. We used to think that we weren't doing well although it was only about some 3%;. When I went in there were lots of jobs, and the rate of unemployment was very low indeed and we used to find ourselves steadily expanding the economy, steadily expanding industry, expanding housing, expanding services, expanding commerce, year after year.

And I think, you know, we managed to do that because we had a truly Conservative approach to solving this country's problems, very, very different from the socialist approach. The socialist approach always talks about stimulating economies and [end p1] government doing this, that and the other. We know that you don't stimulate economies, you can only stimulate people, and if you give them the freedom and the chance, they will do it for you, they will build the prosperity of the country, and they in fact will create the extra jobs that are going to help our young school leavers so many of whom do not have jobs to go to now.

Well, those have been subjects which have been discussed at election time for a very long time. They were not the ones on which I wished to concentrate tonight. I wanted to take up one or two other points. This morning at Central Office, we had a very interesting press conference, we can say that because I wasn't there, and I enquired when I got back, what had happened and they said ‘Oh, it was extremely good’, and told me exactly what had happened, and you might have seen some of it on television. The subject we had chosen was why, even if you've never voted Conservative before, you should vote Conservative this time, even if previously you had been a Labour voter. We chose that because we know that there are some six former Labour cabinet ministers who've now left the Labour party. Most of them are actively supporting the Tory cause, and we had one of them there this morning and it was of course Reg Prentice, and he said that one of the things which made him turn over from being Labour to Conservative was the realisation that if you really worked the free enterprise system properly and successfully, particularly as they do on the continent of Europe, like in Germany, in France or as they do in Japan or the United States, you found that not only did you raise the standard of living of the people, and as you know, their standard of living is far, far beyond ours, but you also found something else. You found that you had more resources to do more for the social services, to have a better pension scheme, to have a better health service, to have better welfare provision and sometimes even to spend more on education as well. And he had learned that free enterprise and a social conscience go hand in hand together. That is what many, many people have learned, and many, many people who joined the Labour party years and years ago because they wanted to see one thing and they thought the Labour way was the way to achieve it, did so because they wanted to see a fair return for a good day's work to people who were in jobs, and they wanted to see better pensions and better facilities for those who are not able to help themselves, and they thought that the Labour way was the way to do it. Now we also had similar objectives, but we didn't go about it the Labour way.

Now, what's happened now? Many of the people who had those very high hopes have seen that they've not been realised in the Britain of today. They've had to stand by, and they've watched and they've seen that those hopes have been realised in our European partners. Like me, some of them have found themselves very unhappy that countries in Europe that we either defeated or rescued have done better than we the British have here. And they turn, and they ask why. And they say, well maybe the Labour way wasn't right because after all, it hasn't increased the standard of living over the last five years. Our pensioners aren't as well off as theirs. It so happens now that we have the longest waiting lists for the health service since the beginning of the health service, and that has happened under a Labour government. And so they're turning round and say, well, maybe we'd better look at the other system, the Conservative way, because where in fact that is practised it produces the results. [end p2]

I therefore wanted tonight particularly to talk a little bit about the pensions, to talk about the Conservative record in providing pensions, and to talk about what we're going to do in the future. I'll then go on to other subjects after that. I have a particular reason for talking about it apart from the political one, and it is this. After I became a Member of Parliament, after some years after that, Harold Macmillan gave me my first ministerial job as a Junior Minister, a Parliamentary Secretary and it was at the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance. Now, looking around you, you'll know that I later went a little bit up the ladder and became Secretary of State for Education and Science, but let's start one or two rungs below when I was a Parliamentary Secretary, the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance.

We were dealing then with many, many people, some on pension benefits, some on war pensions, some on sickness benefit, and I learned a tremendous lot about both operating the scheme and about the problems of our people, our senior citizens. And I learned I think above all that once you had retired, you had an even greater fear of inflation and rising prices than when you were at work, because somehow there was no way of augmenting your income. And what has happened in these last five years has been this. Many, many people who put a bit by during their working years, if they had for example say £100 in the Post Office at the beginning of the Labour Government would have seen the value of that £100 eaten away until, today, it would only purchase goods worth £48 compared with the £100 in 1974.

And so one turns and thinks well what about the pensioners of the future, and in judging what a Conservative Government will do about promises for the future, I always commend people to look not at those who boast most, but at the records in the past, and I want just therefore to draw to your attention the very good pensions record that successive Conservative Governments have had. We discuss these sometimes at party conferences. Which Government was it that provided pensions for the over 80's? They used not to have them. It was the Conservatives who provided pensions for the over 80's, who, until we did it, had not got them at all. Who was it who provided pensions for women widowed between the ages of 40 and 50 who didn't previously have pensions? It was Conservatives again. Who was it who provided attendance allowance for the severely disabled? It was the Conservatives. Who was it who provided special benefit for the chronically sick? It was the Conservatives. Who introduced annual increases for pensions, they used to be at two or three yearly intervals, who introduced annual increases for pensions? It was the Conservatives. Who introduced the Christmas bonus for pensioners? It was the Conservatives. Who introduced the Family Income Supplement to help the low paid? It was the Conservatives. We did that because we thought it better for the dignity and pride of a person that they should have their own pay packet even if they couldn't earn a great deal and it was better to supplement that so they could still have the dignity and pride of the pay packet with their family, than to have them unemployed.

All of those things we did as a Conservative Government and most of them in the last period of Conservative Government. Before that we did a whole lot of other things as well. But you know that is a very, very proud record. I'm particularly pleased and proud about the pensions for the over 80's because in fact it was introduced through a Private Member's Bill by Airey Neave who died so tragically at the beginning of the [end p3] campaign and taken up by Keith Joseph when he was Secretary of State for the Social Services. That is our record on what we actually did for pension provision in this country. Not provided by Labour, but under Conservative Governments. Did we do enough? No, no Government can ever do enough in that sphere. Do we hope to do more? Yes, of course we do.

Well now, there have been quite a number of misleading stories circulating about what we the incoming Conservative Government will do. Indeed there have been quite a lot of rumours and misleading smears circulating. I sometimes think this Government daren't fight the election on its record, therefore it has to put about all sorts of rumours [applause], tries to distract attention from its record because it knows it would never get returned on it, even on things like inflation and jobs it tries to distract attention by setting targets. No-one can miss a target better than this Government.

Now let's just have a look then at these misleading stories that have been circulating about what we, the incoming Conservative Government, and I honestly and earnestly believe that we shall be the incoming Government, about what we'll do. And let me set out the true position in clear and simple terms.

This is what we shall do for pensioners. The level of pensions will, of course, be increased to take account of price rises. That's to say we pledge to maintain the value of retirement pensions in terms of what they will buy in the shops and the increases announced for November will go ahead. That's point number one. Second, for a long time we've thought that the earnings rule for pensioners was unfair. You know full well that it penalises those who want to help themselves by working. We have therefore decided to abolish the earnings rule during the next Parliament. That's the second point [applause]. Third, the annual Christmas bonus will continue. Fourth war widows pensions will be exempt from tax altogether. And fifth, those pensioners who have another little pension of their own or some savings, and who therefore pay tax, will benefit from our income tax reductions. So you see, free enterprise and a social conscience go together. That is what we shall do for pensioners during the period of the next Conservative Government, and I hope you'll get round and let everyone know what are the true facts, both of our record and of the policy we are proposing in this field.

Now you know that we have been very careful about not making too many promises in an election campaign, and I've said that if electioneering in this country is to become a matter of public auctioneering, then I'm not in it, because I know that every single promise we make means that governments have to take some money away from people who are struggling jolly hard to earn it, whether on the shop floor, whether by skilled work, whether by professional work or management work. They're working jolly hard to earn it and if government takes away more, unless you get expansion then they have less.

And that brings us to the crux of the matter, one of the cruxes of the matter, in this election campaign. You know it often seems to me that Labour Governments come into office, assume that someone has created the wealth which they then set about [end p4] distributing, and they go and distribute it, and then they forget that once you stop the wealth creating process there isn't any more to distribute, and once you tax the wealth creators so much that they say it isn't worth while to work, you don't get the expansion and increase that other nations have had. So let's turn for a moment and have a look. How are we going to get that extra production, that extra output, which will in fact create the prosperity that we need if we really are to be able to have a higher standard of living and to do more of the things which so many of us want to do for people who need it?

By and large, the vast majority of people in this country are both responsible, creative people. They believe in doing the job well. They believe in working hard. They believe that if a job's worth doing it is worth doing well. They'd far rather work for a company that makes profits than for one that makes losses. Their jobs are far more secure, and if they're making profits, it's because in fact they're providing goods and services which the ordinary consumer wants to buy. They want to do better by their families. I think one of the greatest driving forces in human nature is those people who say, “I want my children to have a better start than I do” . And therefore the view they take is, “Look, I don't work for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but I'm prepared to let him have his extra little bit provided he'll let me have an extra big bit of the earnings I have.” This one isn't particularly good at leaving people's own earnings in people's own pockets. He really has rather too large a hand in that pocket himself.

So what we're out for, as Conservatives, is to get the high wages for the hard work, to encourage those who are prepared to work harder, to encourage those who are prepared to spend some time in acquiring an extra skill or apprenticeship, to see that we keep the most skilled managers in this country, to see that we keep here, those who have the ability to start up a business to create extra jobs for our young people and extra prosperity for everyone. And sometimes it worries us very much when we think, where are the William Morrises, the Lord Nuffields and the Marks and Spencers of tomorrow? Have they all gone overseas? Or have they looked at a socialist government and been so discouraged that we're not getting the new businesses or the expanding businesses which our people deserve and which they could operate so well, in competition with anyone if they tried?

You know, the interesting thing is that when some of our people go overseas, whether it's a skilled man or an unskilled man or a manager, they do marvellously there, not only for themselves, but for the operation and the industry in which they're working. We want to have a tax system here that keeps them here, which gives them the incentive to create the extra wealth here. Of course they'll benefit themselves. Aren't they entitled to if they work hard? But equally, they'll benefit the rest of us by having a prosperous country as well. Now these, I believe, are the vast majority, the creative, the responsible people. They work hard, they pay their tax, they don't demonstrate, they don't strike, they look after their children, they want a better deal and a better life for their children.

There are unfortunately some others. There are unfortunately few of the wreckers in society. They're the ones who, so many of them, do go on strikes. They're the ones [end p5] who indulge in secondary picketing. They're the ones who sometimes have demarcation disputes. Sometimes they're the ones who, you know, could get rid of restrictive practices and make us far more competitive, if only they would get rid of those restrictive practices so that we too can be as competitive as the Germans and Japanese. There's no magic, no secret about it. Some of those wreckers, with the strikes, the pickets, I'm afraid because of trade union law even have the law on their side and we can't get at them. Mr Chairman, the problem today is that the creative responsible people have too little freedom and the wreckers have too much licence [applause].

That is why we, as a top priority of our programme, have put reductions in direct tax, to encourage all of those who are prepared to work harder, to do so and to stay here and do it, and to keep our most creative people here. Every society has to have leaders and followers and those who in fact themselves can't build up businesses for themselves rely on others to do so. We want those others to stay here, and to do it here.

And on the other side of the coin, that is why we shall do a certain amount of change in the law on trade unions so that power and responsibility march together. That is the essence of democracy and as you know, I put a certain number of changes to the James Callaghanpresent Prime Minister—I now call him the present Prime Minister—and said, “Look, we will support you if you'll do these things.” Well, he didn't, and so we shall have to do them ourselves, but we must to restore that balance in society. And so that is one of our top strategies of how to create the extra wealth which not only in fact raises the standard of living, gives our young school leavers opportunities they wouldn't have otherwise, and in fact will give us extra resources to do the improvements in the social services that we need and want to have.

It's not particularly new, that strategy, but the thing about it is that it works. It's worked overseas. It worked during those thirteen years here when we had Conservatives in Government with Harold Macmillan, and it worked very well three or four times during that period, about a million extra jobs were created, the majority of them in the productive sector. No-one could have said where they were going to be created, but they were, and that is one of the reasons why unemployment was kept low and prosperity rose year after year.

But, Mr Chairman, having dealt both on some of the social services and on some of the economic side, you and I will agree that even if you get all the economics right there is still a lot else to do. There's not much point in having a prosperous and affluent society unless you can walk about it in safety and security and people observe the rule of law in this country. Now, James Callaghanone of our opponents came out with what I thought was a terrible phrase yesterday. Perhaps you heard it. “The quicksands of the law” —implying that once you get on to the law, you're going down and down into quicksands. Ladies and gentlemen, the rule of law has been the bedrock of freedom in this country, the bedrock of freedom [applause]. Every single community has to have a law. Unless it has a good law, it will have a bad one. Unless it observes the law it will soon dissolve into anarchy. That may be the objective of some of our extremist opponents. We believe in upholding that rule of law, in supporting all the [end p6] police and the judges in the decisions and difficult tasks they have to do and making it clear that all government and politicians do uphold them in carrying out their duty.

You know, we would have called ourselves a free country here long before we had one person, one vote. We didn't get one vote per one person until 1928 but we would have called ourselves a free people long before that and the reason was that we developed one of the finest systems of common law the world has ever known. We should be very proud of that and do everything we can to uphold it and to honour it. So, unless as a government we support the rule of law, unless we do everything we can to support the judges decisions which are impartially reached without any political interference at all, then indeed we shall be very much on the decline.

And let us be thankful sometimes, Mr Chairman, that there is a rule of law there. You know, when the parents in one of the local authorities found the schools closed day after day in term time, when they should have been open, it wasn't a Labour authority that helped those parents to get the schools open for their children again. You remember what happened, we saw schools closed this winter by strike action. We never expected to see them closed by strike action for any prolonged period, and the parents said “This won't do. A minister has a statutory duty to provide education. A local authority has a statutory duty to provide education.” And the present Shirley WilliamsSecretary of State for Education came to the House and said this was force majeure, the law could not be used. The parents went to the law. The law said government and local authorities have a statutory duty. The parents won through the operation of the law which was on the side of those statutory duties being carried out. Well, we have a Secretary of State for Education who is perfectly willing to bring in new laws to close good schools. She's not willing to use existing laws to keep existing schools open when they need to be kept open [applause]. And so we must uphold and observe that rule of law.

I want to make one other point, Mr Chairman. I make it in almost every speech that I make. It is about the defence of our free society and the defence of our country. This Government has cut expenditure on defence to the bone. I think it's one of the first Governments that's ever had to be told off by our allies, by our NATO allies, for letting our defences go down to much, both in men, materials, and equipment. That is not the stance for a proud country that has done as much for freedom as this country has, and when we are returned, we shall say our first duty to freedom is to defend our own. Our first duty to those who fight for us or who are willing to risk their lives for us is to see that they are properly, adequately, and fully equipped. We shall in fact increase expenditure on defence, and I believe that we shall have the support of the vast majority of our people [applause].

Mr Chairman, we have a choice at this election between two totally different party philosophies. The Socialist party, which as you know becomes more extreme after every election, is taking this country to more and more state control, less and less rights left to individuals and citizens. We don't think that's right for Britain. The alternative is the Conservative way which says the state should do the things which only a state can do. It should look after the maintenance of the value of the currency, it should look after defence, it should uphold a rule of law, it must do things like [end p7] providing road systems, it must provide schools, it must provide a health service. When you've done that, for heavens sake let people keep as much of their own earnings as they can, make as many of their own decisions as they can, build up as many of their own businesses as they can, look after their own farms, be able to pass them on from one generation to another, and for heavens sake let's build up a society where people have the ownership of some private property, their houses, their savings and let those savings retain their value. That way, we shall get a responsible society, an independent society, because you only get those things when you have a society of responsible people and a society of independent people. That is the right road for Britain and that is the Conservative road [applause].

Now it's being said to you, “Don't you think it would be safer to carry on as we are?” , in that old, tired way. Do you know what carrying on as we are means? It is carrying on with the present rate of inflation, and I can tell you that every single housewife would not have that for one single moment. Or they've got a target, or they've got a target for three years time, but I say they haven't really hit any of their targets yet. It means carrying on with governments spending too much of the people's money and carrying on with a spendthrift policy of government which I'm afraid would be bound to lead to inflation and therefore I'm afraid it would mean that we should have the kind of financial policies that we ought to introduce delayed. It would mean carrying on in a way which doesn't create wealth but which stands back and watches our continental rivals create wealth.

You can't go on letting a country decline economically without finding something else: that it declines spiritually and morally as well. If you no longer have confidence in your country to solve its economic problems, very soon you begin to lose confidence in the spirit of your country and you find all kinds of other things happening as well. I believe that's what happened this last winter. None of us ever expected to see some of the strikes we saw. We said those things can't happen in Britain, but I believe it was because some of our economic failures had so demoralised us that we got a decline of a sort we never expected to see here.

All right, we can go on like that, steadily declining by our neighbours. Now you don't have to take my word for it. There was a very good survey produced in the Bank of England which showed this. For every extra unit of production that we produce here the very least efficient of our competitors, Italy, produces two. The very least efficient of our competitors. Germany and France produce far more and Japan produces six for every extra unit that we produce here. Now that is steady decline for us compared with them. So carrying on as we are means carrying on in decline.

Mr Chairman, I'm not prepared to do it. I'm not prepared to say to our young people, “Well, we may be not doing very well, but I'm afraid you've got to put up with it, we're in decline and we're going on that way.” We do not accept that. We believe that the talents of these people are as great as they ever were, our potential as great as it ever was, and we're determined that those talents and that potential should be put to good effect both to the service of our people and to their service as individual men and women. So we do offer a change, and we believe in this country it is time for a change [applause]. [end p8]

As I came down here, stuck in the inevitable traffic jam, a lorry-driver banged on the window and said, “Get 'em out, won't you, Maggie, get 'em out, all right!” [applause]. And I went round a factory one day, going round it to see exactly what they were doing shortly before the election campaign began, and we couldn't go into every single part of the factory and I was passing one group of buildings and a sort of hand appeared at the door in a blue overall and said, “You've got to come in here, Maggie, we're the differentials.” Ah, well, all right, you see, so I went in there, Maggie went in there, because they were the differentials, they were the skilled people on whom industry depends and they knew that under the present Government they were getting a raw deal and they knew that under us they'd get a fair deal. And they knew that if they got a fair deal under us that the whole of industry would be very much better off, because how many are held up because in fact they can't get the skilled labour.

So all of this people know, all of this we have to get across to them, and I believe, as Reg Prentice has done, that a large number of people who've never supported us before will be prepared to do so this time if we make contact with them. And I must say, they'll have a jolly good Member in Tim Brinton when he's returned to the House of Commons [applause], and I wish you all well, both for him and for me and for you. There is no substitute for victory, so let it be a good one [prolonged applause].