The other day that splendid novelist, dramatist and very English man of letters, Mr J B Priestley, had a speech to make.
Like this one, it was due to begin at 12 noon.
Mr Priestley arrived punctually at the time and place appointed and walked onto the platform. The audience greeted him warmly, and fell silent, waiting.
Mr Priestley contemplated them with the practised eye of a born observer, and a Yorkshireman at that. Then he said: “All I can see before me are the faces of people wanting lunch.”
Ladies and gentlemen, let me assure you that I have the same thought firmly in the forefront of my mind.
But first, if you will allow me, there are one or two thoughts of an equally fundamental nature that I would like to put before you.
Let me begin where Government strategy has to begin: with cutting our spending of your money.
I know that ever since the war, successive Government's have constantly called on people to accept present sacrifices for the sake of future happiness. [end p1]
This is such a well-worn theme it does not surprise me to find that it now arouses a certain scepticism. “Jam tomorrow” has never made a very satisfying diet.
There has been a good deal of self-deception involved in these appeals for sacrifice. I'm not going to tell you that “you've never had it so good” , but it is perhaps salutary to remember that there have been many times when we have had it a good deal worse.
The unemployment we suffer today is a scandal and a challenge, but it does not remotely resemble the human misery which unemployment meant in the late Twenties and early Thirties.
Today, when you speak of cuts the first thing I would ask you to do is to put those cuts in the right perspective: to recognise that by the standards of past generations they would not seem draconian, but more like the necessary economies which every family is called on to make in time of trouble.
I know that it is not difficult to find, even today, tragic cases of individual hardship. But it is just not true to pretend that real poverty is a regular feature of our national life.
When politicians speak of the need for sacrifice, they often delude themselves and other people in another way also.
They pretend that if only the medicine they are offering is swallowed bravely, the result will be some kind of Utopia.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Utopia is an illusion. We shall never live in a society free from material worries. We shall never live in a land which will flow with milk and honey, regardless of our skill and industry.
The better and stronger Britain towards which we in the Government are striving is not Utopia.
It's a land in which individuals will have a fair chance, by their own efforts, of winning happiness and security for themselves and their children and, in the process, enlarging the wealth and strength of their country. [end p2]
Life in that kind of Britain won't be easy. It wasn't easy for our parents even at the best of times, for they had, by their own hard work and foresight, to do much that, today, is done for us by the State.
I passionately believe in a gradual and orderly return to this kind of personal responsibility—responsibility for the family, to the community, to our country—not because it is the only way to create material wealth—though it is—but because it is the only way—to give life dignity and meaning and self respect.
It is only a society like this, based on individual effort and opportunity, which will ever achieve sufficient wealth to care properly for those in real need.
Socialism has tried—and, in the early days, tried genuinely and with true compassion—to do this. It failed because the system it operated couldn't create the wealth necessary to cure the very social ills that gave it birth.
But if you ask “Will it be two years or ten before our policies have solved our economic problems?” , I have to tell you that no country ever solves all its economic problems.
We shall never be able simply to sit back, free from responsibility, free from the need to work, free from the duty of caring, and just enjoy the fruits of an automated industry.
Even if we could, how many of us would find fulfilment in such an existence?
For what then, are we striving? We are striving, I believe, for a Britain which will no longer be faced with these continual economic and political dramas: these endless calls for acts of sacrifice designed to rescue the people from the follies of previous governments. I will tell you what we are striving for. We are striving for a Britain at peace with herself.
We are trying to create a country in which the people look, not to Government, not to politicians, not to officials for salvation, but to themselves. [end p3]
A nation which grows and develops by means of countless decisions taken by ordinary people, in pursuit of their own hopes and dreams.
To a Conservative, Jefferson 's famous words about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are about “individual” , not “collective” happiness—but happiness to be pursued, not selfishly, but with a sense of common obligation.
These are the goals that we, the Conservative Government, not yet one year in office, have set ourselves. How are we going to do it? What solid hope can we offer that they will prove to be attainable?
Let us get one thing straight: the measures which the Government is now taking do not spring from some complicated economic theory peculiar to Conservatives.
They represent what any responsible Government would feel called upon to do in our present economic situation.
West Germany and Japan were obliged to take almost identical measures after the oil crisis of 1973.
Four years ago, even the Labour Government cut public spending drastically in order to convince the international bankers, to whom they had turned desperately for help, that Britain was capable of recovery. [end p4]
Today, we see the United States and Japan doing exactly as we are doing, fighting the same fight that we are fighting, with interest rates and public spending cuts, in the struggle to bring inflation under control.
The difference between what we are doing and what Labour did is that they acted under duress, as a condition for obtaining one of the largest foreign loans this country has ever applied for. And they lacked the courage to see the job through when they saw a general election coming.
This has been the story of Britain since the war. Over and over again Governments have been forced to act by impending economic crisis.
Too often, when the immediate danger was over, they have lacked the resolve to stick to the task until the job was done.
Madam Chairman, I am determined that this Conservative Government is not going to make that mistake. And if I am told that this would endanger the chances of a second term of office, then I tell you, here and now, that I will take that risk, rather than go that way.
What is the alternative? If we shrink from the task of cutting public spending, the result will be breakneck inflation.
Every year there will be more money about—but less real wealth. That is the last way to increase prosperity, let alone improve social services. It is the way to ruin for us all.
Once the flood gates are open wide, it would be no good trying to stem the torrent of bad money by price controls and wage controls.
We have been there before. Price controls don't work, as Labour's experience showed, and wage controls always break down in the end.
The Opposition knows this as well as you and I. It learned it to its own cost, and the country's cost. If it were acting responsibly, it would not be obstructing this part of our policy by a campaign which exaggerates the size of the cuts and misrepresents our motives. [end p5]
But cuts in themselves achieve nothing if they are cancelled out by huge unearned wage increases.
That is why, as every Government has known for more than a decade, it is essential to restore the balance of bargaining power in industry. Only when this is done will the trade unions once more find a positive and respected role.
Let me give you a practical and immediate example. The steel strike is now in its twelfth week. Like so many strikes in Britain, it has benefitted no-one.
Negotiations have been deadlocked because British Steel has no more money, the Government is not prepared to ask the tax payer to find more money and the unions have refused to accept the offer that management has made to them.
This strike by decent, honourable men, goes right to the heart of the problem facing our country.
It's not a conflict between good and evil, between exploiters and exploited, between those at fault and those who are innocent. It takes both management and workforce to build success or to fail. Neither can do either without the other.
There has been weakness by past Governments, which have constantly shirked the task of requiring the industry to become competitive.
This is the background to the steel dispute.
Many people, conditioned by years of Government intervention, have said, understandably:
‘Why doesn't the Government step in? Surely it's cheaper to settle for £50 million or so, rather than letting it drag on, costing far more and hurting innocent people.’ [end p6]
It's been tempting, it's always tempting, for a Government to buy an easy answer, especially when it can use the taxpayers' money to do it.
The politician steps in, the strike is settled, everyone applauds—until the bill comes in.
We could have done it. Nothing would have been easier. It would have been a weight off all our minds. But for how long?
Until the next strike.
It would not be solving the problem, it would just be postponing it. And it would be doing the very thing that helped us fall from second to twentieth place in the industrial league over the past 35 years.
Governments solve nothing by behaving in this way. In fact, they simply prevent people from solving the problem for themselves. Today, we are paying the price for years and years of Government intervention.
Some say that it is being unnecessarily rigid to insist that British Steel operates within cash limits.
But all of us have cash limits. Every family, every independent company, every corner shop faces the same blunt truth: cash is limited.
They don't have a right, the company doesn't have a right to come and get extra money from the Government if they mismanage their affairs. Why should a nationalised industry be different?
If Government does not insist on firm financial disciplines, refusing to intervene with one inflationary settlement after another, those industries will go on using up the wealth the rest of the country desparately needs. [end p7]
Post-war Governments have spent billions—not millions, but billions—trying to help state industries perform better.
What we are seeing at British Steel is the painful process of change. Our task is to change the things that need changing in Britain. That was the job you gave us. That is the job we are doing, and will continue to do.
If there is any consolation to be found in this damaging and unnecessary strike, it is that the vital process of changing attitudes may, just possibly, have begun.
Let us hope that today's news will result in a satisfactory outcome.
But we still have a long, a very long way to go before a sense of reality becomes a permanent part of the industrial scene. On 14th May some unions are planning to bring Britain to a halt for a day. What in the world is the point of a national `day of action'—or rather inaction? How can you possibly keep customers if you constantly strike against them? How do you win jobs by refusing to work?
Marching peacefully across London and demonstrating in Trafalgar Square is a basic democratic right. Unfortunately, it puts nothing in the pockets of the people who march or in the pockets of the people who don't. [end p8]
Of course, the great majority of the British people, indeed the great majority of trade union members don't strike, will never strike. But too often, certain groups in a few nationalised industries or public services, with monopoly power, threaten to bring daily life to a halt, if they don't get their way.
We saw a perfect example of this last winter. Those people, who shocked the nation, did not talk the language of negotiation. They went to the limit, inflicting hardship, regardless of the consequences.
Civilised society depends on restraint: on not using the power you possess, if ruthlessly using it injures others.
Those who urge the use of such power are only a small minority. But they have influence among their fellows out of all proportion to their numbers. That is why we are proposing that public money should help to pay for secret ballots before strike action. It is a sad comment on our trade union movement today that its leaders have rejected this proposal. But the people have not rejected it.
They believe, as we believe, that men and women on the factory floor must be protected from intimidation. That it is wrong for those not involved in a dispute to be dragged into it and made to suffer by union action.
And they know, as we know, from experience, that mere understandings or undertakings, solemn and binding or otherwise, between unions and Government are not enough.
So, as we promised at the Election, we have begun the task of embodying in law the kind of rules to which even Labour paid lip service in the fearful crisis of last winter.
The task is a delicate one. It involves getting exactly the right balance between the fundamental right to strike and the power to hold society to ransom. Others have tried and have been frightened off.
Ladies and Gentlemen, we are not going to be frightened off. We are resolved that what happened to other Governments shall not happen to us. As soon as the present Employment Bill is approved, we shall be making proposals for further reforms. [end p9]
You might expect the Labour Party, which actually led the way along this path with Barbara Castle's “In Place of Strife” , ten years ago—you remember who it was ditched that exercise—to show some understanding of what we are trying to do.
Alas, it seems that, as usual, they are unable to rise above party politics. No matter. It would be helpful to have their support as we offered ours to them, but we can manage without it.
But there is one ingredient in our policy which the Labour Party cannot be expected to support, because it runs counter to everything they believe in.
National recovery can come about only by the efforts of individuals. Those efforts will only be forthcoming if scope is given to the personal ambitions and enterprise of every citizen.
Of course in times of crisis a nation can fairly be asked to make an act of sacrifice as a nation. But in a healthy and free society men and women should be allowed to get on with their own lives, to do the things they believe in, and so to add to the wealth and happiness of their country.
We see personal freedom, not as a reward for recovery, but as an essential part of the process of recovery and that means bringing back incentive.
Today, scope for doing that is limited, because our resources are limited, and because there is another equal claim upon them—the duty of ensuring that no citizen—through age, infirmity, or misfortune—is allowed to fall below a reasonable standard of life.
So once again we have to strike a balance.
If we put all the emphasis on rewarding initiative, we may get rich quickly, but at the price of inflicting scars on the innocent and the weak. [end p10]
If we put all the emphasis on state welfare, we shall simply not produce the means to pay for it. This is the tightrope we tread. And there are those who seem bent on pulling us off.
Madam Chairman, we in the Government are not going to be dislodged—though no doubt we shall have arguments in plenty about precisely where to put our foot at every point along the wire.
What hope, then, can I offer you for the future—for we must deal in hopes not certainties?
As economies in public spending take effect, as a new spirit of reasonableness and compromise in industrial negotiation comes into play—and already there are signs of it—as inflation begins to diminish, more real, honest money will find its way into industry.
The process will develop its own momentum, but at every opportunity we will urge it on by reductions in direct taxes.
At every opportunity, we will reduce the burden of bureaucracy and shed those functions which are better performed by private effort than public direction.
We are under no illusion. The task is immense. Even so, I cannot help feeling that an occasional touch of optimism would not come entirely amiss.
I sometimes think that as a nation, we tend to embrace despondency and gloom almost as though we had an appetite for such things.
But, we have vast national resources. [end p11]
Alone among major industrial nations, we have the prospect of self-sufficiency in energy immediately ahead of us.
This crucial asset, at a time of acute energy shortage throughout the world, makes this a uniquely attractive country for international investment.
This may not be the way we see ourselves, but it is the way others see us.
Look at Britain from the outside, and you are looking at a land of hope, poised on the brink of a great opportunity.
We can throw it all away by losing our nerve—or, by a huge effort of national will, we can sieze it, as we have seized it so many times before in our long history.
Our opponents used to boast that socialism was irreversible.
What they didn't control by nationalisation, they controlled by regulation. They thought the effort to undo it would be so great that no-one would dare to try.
Well, what is a leader for?
These things are reversible, and we shall reverse them. And after several years we shall have a different kind of irreversibility from the socialist kind.
Having tasted new challenges, having had the resources to care for their families, parents and the disadvantaged, our people will not willingly return to a fettered life of socialist dogma. Running their own lives, in their own way, will have become so desirable and worthwhile that they won't want it reversed. [end p12]
When owner occupation for council tenants is a reality —and what a world of difference it will make to those families—
When tax on the pay packet is much lower and people can build their own security.
When trade unions have less power and have come to consider the needs of others as well as their own—we shall all be better off.
In this country, there is a sense of what is right and proper, and what is not.
It is shared by all people, irrespective of income or party.
It is not written down in any document.
It is not posted up on walls.
But it is there.
You flout it at your peril. [end p13]
No-one has quite mapped out the course the people want. But we share views of what it should achieve; honest money; thought for others; scope for fruitful initiative: a fair balance between unions and society.
We Conservatives did not invent these ideas, nor did we find them in books. This is the sense of the people, which we simply accept and try to clothe in laws and policies.
There are difficulties. We warned you of them. But we are strengthened by the knowledge that there is no other way—and by your unfailing support.
Let me take you ahead for a moment to 1984.
Not George Orwell 's 1984. To the new Britain of the re-elected Conservative Government of 1984.
In the new Britain, the Government is seen to speak the truth. A new and realistic arrangement with the unions has been reached. Businesses are growing again.
The British way has been adopted and praised as a model for a society in transition—a society that has learned to face up to its problems.
Of course there are still problems. There will always be problems.
At the next Election, we shall not be claiming to have built Heaven on earth.
But when we go to the country this we shall, I believe, be able to say:
‘We have pointed the way. We have set our people at long last on the right path’.
At the end of this Parliament I look forward with confidence to another period of Conservative Government. And at the end of that period, we shall be approaching our goal.
The goal of a country in which free people, under the law, can cope quietly and confidently with the changes and chances of life, without being continually asked to engage in vast acts of national sacrifice for the sake of some Utopia which is always round the corner.
The goal of a country in which ‘Jam today’ is actually on that menu.