SPEECH BY LADY THATCHER AT A DINNER FOR BROMLEY CONSERVATIVE ASSOCIATION ON 20TH JULY 2001
Mr Chairman, Eric, Ladies and Gentlemen.
Thank you for inviting Denis and me to be your guests this evening.
It is always a pleasure to see Eric. There is no one who brightens up our lives more. His famous sartorial flourishes mean that he, anyway, can never be described as one of those “men in grey suits”.
The saying goes that clothes make the man – so I’m not sure what some of his ties tell us about Eric. At times he seems a one-man Rainbow Coalition. But I do know, from my years in the House of Commons, that Bromley could not wish for a finer, more conscientious, or more steadfast Member of Parliament.
Looking back over the past few months, it would hardly be surprising if most Conservatives were reminded of the lines from the old Noel Coward song:
There are bad times just around the corner, There are dark clouds travelling through the sky And it’s no good whining About a silver lining For we know from experience that they won’t roll by.
Well that’s not altogether true. The Conservative Party has been quietly reviving. In the last four years we added about 3000 new councillors, took control of nearly 100 councils and doubled our number of MEPs. So anyone who tells you that those four years were just wasted is plain wrong. And I want to pay tribute to someone who hasn’t received that many tributes recently – William Hague. William picked the Party up from the worst defeat in its history. He did something that the pundits said was impossible – he united Conservatives, with just a very few exceptions, around a clear policy on Europe. And he fought valiantly against terrific odds. I believe that, as time goes by, his achievements will be increasingly valued and he will be accorded the credit he deserves.
But the fact remains that we lost. Not even the most die-hard optimist would claim that for us the election result was anything but a deep disappointment. With only 166 Conservative Members of Parliament, we have a long way to go to get back into Government where we belong.
I expect that many of us had the same experience in the campaign. It wasn’t that the electorate actually liked Mr Blair and his government. They found them arrogant. They didn’t think they had kept their promises. And they had little expectation that they would do so in future. The trouble was that the electorate wasn’t as yet convinced that we Conservatives would do any better.
There has been an awful lot of discussion about what needs to change if the Party is to win. And some of this is helpful. But let’s not forget one basic fact that doesn’t change. The Conservative Party will regain power when – and only when - it convinces the broad mass of the British people that we alone have the policies to give them a better future. That doesn’t mean policies which are like Labour’s, only less so. And it doesn’t mean a few bright wheezes. It means a clear, principled and convincing alternative based on our beliefs.
We should take heart. Our core values are also those of the great majority of the British people. That is why it makes no sense to try to move towards what the media tell us at any particular time is the middle ground. Somehow their centre always seems to shift leftwards. As Keith Joseph used to remind us, it is not the centre ground but the common ground – the shared instincts and aspirations of the nation – on which we should pitch our tents. That ground is solid – whereas the centre ground often turns out to be as slippery as the New Left politicians who have colonised it.
In the weeks ahead, every member of the Party will have the chance to decide which of the two candidates for the Conservative leadership is better qualified to take us on our journey. But may I make just one observation. In Opposition, qualities of leadership are tested to endurance. And though leadership requires just that – taking a lead – you must have, and know that you have, the confidence and trust of your supporters. If you are not in tune with them, you cannot hope to inspire them.
Today the Party is lucky to have two strong characters offering two clear alternatives. We will all have the opportunity to decide in which direction we want our Party and our country to go. That is how democracy should always work – by empowering the people through choice.
And just as we in the Conservative Party now have a clear choice so should the people of Britain.
It is sometimes said that New Labour has succeeded because it stole our policies, and there is some truth in that. After all, having seen the total failure of socialism and the resounding success of conservatism, the Labour Party would have had to be very stupid indeed not to realise what worked.
Free enterprise. Free markets. Incentives. Wider ownership of shares and savings. The Labour Party disliked all these things. They fought our reforms every inch of the way. But they eventually accepted them. And in the end they even pretended to welcome them.
But there is another reason why Labour has been politically successful recently. It is not so much that they’ve taken over our positions, but rather that they have managed to shroud the whole political battlefield in an impenetrable fog.
One of Dickens’ greatest novels begins by describing: “Fog everywhere. Fog up the river. Fog down the river. Fog on the Essex marshes. Fog on the Kentish heights.” Actually, in Essex and here in Kent we dispersed some of the fog, and our Conservative message shone through. But in most of Britain politics was as blurred as that scene from Bleak House. So New Labour were able to be all things to all men.
To please one group they pledged to raise spending – to please another they pledged to keep down taxes.
To please one group they promised more for the NHS and state education – but to please another they offered a wider role for the private sector.
To please one group they hog-tied the police with political correctness – to please another they promised crackdowns and tougher sentencing.
Today’s Labour Party has, in fact, no discernible principles at all. It is rootless, empty and artificial. Its focus groups focused and its spin doctors spun – but its only real purpose was to leave the electorate in a daze.
It is no surprise that Labour had as their election slogan “Ambitions for Britain”. Well they were at least half right – they were ambitious, but not exactly for Britain.
They were certainly ambitious to extend the power of the state. That’s why, year after year, they have piled on taxes by stealth. The British people are paying a billion pounds a week extra for the privilege of keeping Messrs Blair and Brown in Downing Street.
Labour are also ambitious to draw more and more people into dependency - diminishing liberty and throttling choice. And that is why they have systematically withdrawn the tax reliefs which helped families to provide for themselves.
The Chancellor ended mortgage tax relief. That made it more difficult for people to buy their homes. It was a body blow to the Conservative ideal of a property owning democracy.
The Chancellor ended the married couple’s tax allowance. In doing so, he has weakened the financial basis of marriage at the very time when most people believe that the family must be strengthened.
He ended the tax relief for private health insurance for the over-60s. Can you imagine anything more daft than forcing older people back to complete dependency on the NHS, when it is under such pressure? But that’s socialist spite. And it’s not the only attack he’s made on pensioners.
In Mr Brown’s first budget he changed the tax system to disadvantage pension funds. In effect, he took six billion pounds a year from those who put money into private pension schemes.
And, finally, his proposed Minimum Income Guarantee scheme, operating alongside the basic retirement pension, will lead to more and more means testing of pensioners’ incomes. This is demeaning. It penalises those who prudently save for retirement. And it gives us a glimpse of the ugly face concealed behind Labour’s mask of compassion.
What all this amounts to is socialism by the back door. This Government just can’t stand people being independent.
We Conservatives fundamentally reject that approach. We believe in personal independence, just as we believe in an independent nation. Above all, we believe in an independent Britain, with its own currency and sovereignty, not a Britain doomed to become merely a province of a European superstate.
It is sometimes said that we must talk less about Europe. I don’t mind that. In fact, from some people I don’t want to hear anything about Europe at all. What matters to me is that the Conservative Party should remain faithful to our calling. We are, as Disraeli said, a national party or we are nothing. We plant our flag of personal and national independence – or we retreat. I do not like retreats.
As Rudyard Kipling put it in his poem The Heritage:
“Dear-bought and clear, a thousand year, Our fathers’ title runs. Make we likewise their sacrifice, Defrauding not our sons”.
My friends if we remain true to our beliefs, our Party and our country, we shall not fail.