The Conservatives in Brighton: Major warns EC against browbeating: In his closing conference speech, the Prime Minister reiterated his commitment to European union. Stephen Goodwin reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR warned other European leaders yesterday that if they did not reverse the trend to centralisation they would cause the break up of the Community.

Restating his determination to bring the Bill on European union back to the House of Commons, the Prime Minister sought to persuade the Conservative faithful that the Maastricht treaty was the first move away from a centralised Europe.

The EC talked too much about European directives and too little about Europe's direction, he said in his closing address to the Conservative conference. Maastricht had begun to reverse that trend and at next week's EC summit in Birmingham, and at Edinburgh in December, that process would be carried further, he promised.

'Let me say to the European politicians: if you don't heed that, you will never build the European Community you want. You will break up the European Community you have.

'You cannot go forward by browbeating Denmark. And to those who offer us gratuitous advice, I remind them of what a thousand years of history should tell them - you cannot bully Britain,' Mr Major said.

Those in Europe who asserted that Britain or the Danes should sign up on their terms should keep their advice to themselves, he said. 'Sign up on their terms. Before I was born, if this country hadn't fought on our terms there'd be no free Europe to sign up to.'

The Conservative rank and file who packed the Brighton conference hall greeted Mr Major's entry with a rapturous standing ovation and stood again for more than six minutes, clapping, stamping, cheering and singing at its conclusion. The Prime Minister, who was speaking at the end of a week in which two extraordinary debates highlighted divisions in the party over Europe and anger about the impact of the recession, said that they had seen democracy in action and the party was 'stronger and healthier' for it. 'Politics is a rough, tough, unpredictable business - and troubles come in bunches. But you have to keep your nerve. And remember that when you come out of the teeth of the gale you're tougher, more battle hardened. Take my word for it. I know.'

Debates about Britain's place in Europe had always touched raw nerves, in the Conservative Party and in the country, he said. 'Gut issues' were at stake and it was right to speak plainly, even if for some it was uncomfortable.

'For many of you, I know, the heart pulls in one direction and the head in another. There is nothing that can stir the heart like the history of this country, and that is especially true for members of the Conservative Party.' But the Prime Minister said that it was a different age. 'We can't pull up the drawbridge and live in our own private yesterday.' Change was coming and he wanted to mould it in the national interest.

'That is what I mean by being at the heart of Europe. Not turning a deaf ear to the heartbeat of Britain. But having the courage to stand up and do what we believe to be right for our country - right for British industry, right for British jobs (and) right for British prosperity.'

Drawing prolonged applause, Mr Major said that 'come hell or high water' he would not let Britain's identity be lost in a federal Europe or accept a centralised Europe. But he said that the Maastricht treaty seemed to have become enshrouded in myth and legend. It did not commit Britain to a single currency and it excluded any community interference in immigration policy, education, defence or working conditions.

British citizens would remain British citizens. 'If I believed what some people said about the treaty I would vote against it. But I don't. So I'm going to put the real treaty - the treaty that I negotiated - back to the House of Commons.'

What should have been a ringing declaration of intent by Mr Major was drowned by shouts from the galley by Jacqueline Cohen, an environment protester, brandishing a banner: 'Our planet is dying'. As the woman was dragged out by stewards, the Prime Minister replied that no country in the world had done more for the environment and to help the people throughout the world.

Returning to his theme, Mr Major said that Britain had obtained the flexibility and freedom in the treaty negotiations which others had signed away. Likening the critics of the treaty to Don Quixote - tilting at windmills and fighting imaginary battles - he asked who would ever trust Britain again if he went back on the Maastricht undertakings. More than that, it would break Britain's future influence in Europe.

'We would be doing that, just when across Europe the argument is coming our way. We would be leaving European policy to the French and the Germans. That is not a policy for Great Britain. It would be an historic mistake. And it is not one that your government is going to make.'

The EC had given Britain jobs and new markets, he said. But the most profound reason for working together was peace. He wanted Britain to work for a 'wider and wiser' Community embracing the Efta countries and the new democracies of eastern Europe.

'It is a vision we will only make a reality if we're in there arguing for it, not out there, scowling in the wings, while other people make the policies for our continent.'

Turning to the economy, Mr Major said that inflation had to be kept down at the point where it no longer interfered with the decisions people and businesses had to make in their daily lives. With low inflation Britain could compete with the best in Europe. In the briefest of references to last month's devaluation of sterling, he said that there had been turmoil in the markets and rising interest rates across Europe. 'European interest rates were driven so high that the exchange rate mechanism was no longer the servant of Europe's prosperity.

'But let us not waste time looking back. We have to deal with the world as it is. With a lower exchange rate, we have a new competitive edge in Europe. And provided we don't blunt it with inflation, it gives us a real opportunity, in a single Europe of 330 million people.'

Mr Major insisted that public spending limits would not be breached and said that Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, was going to cut the 'burgeoning maze' of regulations on businesses.

Touching a series of issues which excite the Conservative rank and file, he said that there was going to be regular independent inspection of social work in every council to ensure vulnerable people and children were not at risk; the rights of trade union members were to be strengthened; the Citizen's Charter would give a right to take court action when public services were disrupted through unlawful strikes; and the whistle had been blown on 'one of the last bastions of the closed shop' - student unions.

Cheered as he restated his belief in 'old-fashioned' reading, writing, spelling and sums, he underlined plans to change teacher training and take over schools from failing local authorities.

'Primary teachers should learn how to teach children to read, not waste their time on the politics of gender, race and class,' he said. He predicted that the taking over of poor schools through new Education Associations would mean 'another colossal row with the education establishment', but 'it's a row worth having. A row where we will have the vast majority of parents - and the vast majority of good, committed teachers squarely on our side.'

He hoped the courts would join in a crackdown on crime and he dwelt on action to deal with the illegal occupation of land by 'so- called new age travellers'. If rejecting materialism meant destroying the property of others, then the Prime Minister did not understand them.

He added: 'If 'doing your own thing' means exploiting the social security system and sponging off others, then I don't want to understand. If alternative values mean a selfish and lawless disregard for others, then I won't understand. Let others speak for these new age travellers. This party will speak for the victims.'

Comments