In a 66-minute address, the Prime Minister responded to the main themes of Tony Blair's keynote speech last week, notably education and law and order, without mentioning the Labour leader by name. He said the National Health Service that saved his badly injured leg 30 years ago would not be damaged or privatised and pledged himself to making the peace permanent in Northern Ireland.
In a personal conclusion, he said he did not disparage the 'vision thing' but remained rather attached to the 'action thing' and the 'practical thing'. 'By all means listen to a politician when he tells you what he plans - but ask him, too, how will you do it. Take it from me. The very devil can be in the detail.'
There was sometimes merit in the old direction. 'Change for the sake of change should never appeal to any Conservative. In a world of sometimes bewildering change, this party must stand for continuity and stability, for home and for health.'
He said that to govern was to be engaged in a hundred themes and the everyday visions, sometimes conflicting, of millions of people. No windy rhetoric, pious cliche or ad-man's speak could conceal the infinite complexity of government.
'Take care not to confuse oratory with practical concern. Look for the achievements of government not always in bold plans or crude conflicts, but sometimes in mended fences too, and sometimes in the accretion of small steps whose pattern takes time to become clear.'
The time was ripe for grown- up politics, he said. The sound bites and the ritual conflicts might be the daily stuff of life for 'the upper 1,000 of politics' but to 50 million other people they were utterly irrelevant. 'My interest must be with them. It is said that actions speak louder than words. I hope so. For, in the end, and when it comes to a choice, I shall bend my energies always to work, not talk.
'My trade has never been in adjectives. I shall be patient. I shall be realistic. I shall ask for patience and realism in others. And I promise you this, I shall put my trust in results.'
Opening, Mr Major accused Labour of 'grand larceny' and said the language of politics was now Conservative language. 'Forget the hype, it is we who have changed the whole thrust of politics and moved it in our direction. We have won the battle of ideas.'
But he said that while Labour at Blackpool had filched two of the principles on which the Tories fought the last election, opportunity and responsibility, they had left out the two others - personal choice and private ownership.
'We believe in free markets. We believe in private ownership. It doesn't go against the grain for us to say so. It's not a 'new Conservativism' we've just discovered; its one of the oldest principles of our party.
''People who have earned well, people who have saved, people who have inherited the fruits of a parent's lifetime work are not the 'undeserving rich'. No, Mr Brown, they are the deserving workers - how does Clause IV put it? - 'by hand or by brain'.'
Mr Major said the Tories had built a recovery to last. Britain was making more and exporting more. The prize ahead could match that offered by Rab Butler in 1954 when he said that with the right policies and determination, living standards could double in 25 years. He was right.
But Mr Major echoed Kenneth Clarke's resolve to end the boom-and-bust cycle. 'That's why we will be prudent about what we spend, cut taxes where we can, and, above all, build up the long-term health and strength of our industry and our economy.'
On education, he promised teachers there would be no further significant changes in the curriculum for the next five years. But he said he was going to 'give bad teachers a bad time' and oppose sloppy experimental teaching that ignores common sense. Good schools could be a lifeline out of poverty and he wanted teaching in the weakest schools to be levered up. 'I've no time for those who are complacent and oppose improvement. All too often they are the high priests of the politically correct.
'They are the people who can afford the good things of life, who chortle away about our emphasis on basic standards and the 3Rs - and then move to a catchment area with better schools for their own children.
'They are the people I cannot take - the kind of people who have clambered up the ladder and then seem ever ready to kick it away from others.'
Mr Major said that after slimming down the national curriculum, the Government wanted to reduce much of the other paperwork that schools had to deal with. 'Teachers should be marking homework - not doing it.'
The conference saw the rare event of representatives sympathising with the teaching unions as Mr Major offered support for their efforts to combat violent attacks on teachers and false allegations against them.
To applause, he said the national curriculum would be changed to put competitive games back at the heart of school life, with at least two hours a week for sport and physical recreation. Sport would be played by children in every school from five to 16 and more time devoted to team games.
'I don't regard sport - especially team sport - as a trivial add-on to education. It is part of the British instinct, it is part of our character. Sport is fun and it deserves a proper place in the life of our children.'
He gave a 'cast-iron' commitment to phasing in nursery education for all four-year-olds whose parents wanted it. While giving no time-scale he made clear that some of the provision would be publicly funded.
On health, he recalled how, when a boy, his elderly and sick father and frail mother needed treatment regularly from the NHS. They had no money to pay, but were not asked to. Thirty years ago his leg was saved by the NHS after a car accident. 'Against that background, is it likely that I would damage the National Health Service, or privatise it? Believing as I do that the greatest nightmare for millions is that one day they may be old, sick, poor, and uncared for, is it likely that I would take away the security of mind that was such a comfort to my parents? I can tell you - not while I live and breathe would I take that away.'
On law and order, the Prime Minister reminded representatives of the changes already in train to toughen up the criminal justice system. 'If we are to change the climate against crime, then the offender and the offender's chums must know they will not be able to swagger out of court, untouched, immune, and boasting about getting off scot-free.'
Prison should be decent, he said. 'But it should be spartan. No one wants to alienate and harden attitudes. But prison is there to punish and not to pamper. I fear that is not always the case. And, where it is not, Michael (Howard) and I are agreed it will have to change.'
Turning to Europe he acknowledged there were enthusiasms, hopes, fears and apprehensions on both sides of the argument. The Government's position had been made clear last month at Leiden in the Netherlands, and would be the basis on which he negotiated at the 1996 European Union conference. 'If I am not satisifed, I will do as I have done in the past. I will just say 'no' to changes which harm Britain. But I hope I will be able to secure an agreement that we can accept if that is in the best interests of Britain.'
The Prime Minister confirmed that 'the big upheavals in our armed forces are over'.
He pledged that the search for the solution to the problems of the people of Northern Ireland was 'right at the top of the British government's agenda', and insisted that Northern Ireland was part of the United Kingdom. Progress might not be easy he said and warned that setbacks and disappointments lay ahead.
But Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State, would be pressing ahead with political talks with the constitutional parties. 'We intend to complete a framework document with the Irish government. We hope to restore local accountability and local democracy to Northern Ireland. We cannot let history freeze us into inaction. There is a chance, a window for peace. We will enter it if we can do so with honour and with consent.'
Leading article, page 12
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