Speeches recovered from the Conservative party’s online archive More…

Hague: The challenges of a new century

Speech to Conservative Party Conference 2005

"Well we have now heard the speeches of all five of the candidates for the leadership of our Party. And I will tell you this. Any one of these five makes Gordon Brown's lacklustre speech in Brighton last week pale into obscurity.

Do not be afraid of a leadership election that lasts eight weeks when Labour are having a leadership election for the next three years with only one increasingly discredited candidate.

And do not be afraid of it when the Liberal Democrats have now entered a leadership crisis for the next four years even though there are no candidates at all.

It is true that our Party needs to change in many ways. Realism about that is justified.

But defeatism is not.

That the Conservative Party can change and win without losing its enduring qualities has been demonstrated time and time again, by Disraeli in the 1860s when he enfranchised the Tory working man, by Macmillan in the 1950s when he turned to housing the nation and away from Empire, and by Margaret Thatcher in the 1970s when she overturned every orthodoxy and, to put it at its simplest, saved our country.

So let us this week be inspired by the spirit of those who were custodians of our instincts for freedom and national prosperity before us; people who moved from the dilemmas of defeat to the responsibility of thundering victory.

For I prefer the optimism and stubbornness of the Yorkshire farmer I met in this year's election. Breezing up to his gate I asked "Have you lived here all your life?" He thought for a second and then said "Not yet".

And so when you ask me whether the Conservative Party has completed its role of extending the freedom of the hardworking but responsible citizen and the pride of a strong yet generous nation, I say 'not yet'.

Or if anyone wishes to know whether it is for the last time that we have driven from office an incompetent, spendthrift and discredited administration, as this one will surely be, I say 'not yet'.

Or whether this Party's task is clearing up after a government which has spent too much, borrowed too much, and interfered far too much is over, I say 'not yet'.

I am an optimist. Having led the party when I did, I would have to be.

But today I can be an optimist with reason. First, because I sit on our backbenches with our new MPs, and I can tell you that when the doors opened in May to the 54 new members you sent to parliament, the contents of several future cabinets walked in. I believe that our drive to make our party more representative of the nation, in all its glorious diversity, must now be accelerated, but I am delighted that that the discovery of the leaders of the future has clearly begun.

Second, because although we may wish we could have in one person the experience of Ken Clarke, the passion of Liam Fox, the freshness of David Cameron, the debating skills of Malcolm Rifkind and the determination of David Davis, do we not have the makings of a formidable team - and all of them can be deployed to advantage if the election of our leader is approached with the generosity of spirit our nation expects and deserves.

I know the job they seek to do, and I salute them all. For however long I live and whatever else I do, I will never stop being proud of having been leader of our Party. And I can tell them this: when you have done it for four years mere personal ambition becomes not only unsatisfying but irrelevant, and all that remains, faced with a Government whose words are so twisted and distortions so profound that they have debased the very coinage of politics, is the ambition that our country will once again be served by a Conservative Government.

And I am also an optimist because in the last four years since ceasing to lead our Party I have travelled more and seen more than ever in my life before, and wherever I have seen the quality of life being improved it is the ideas of centre-right and conservative parties that are doing it.

Whether it be better health care in Sweden, plummeting crime in New York, real welfare reform in Australia or simpler taxes in the liberated nations of the Baltic, it is the product of ideas based on decentralisation, private ownership and local accountability which are the spirit of our age.

The twenty-first century will belong to the well-educated individual, the flexible business, and to the quick-footed nation which makes the most of its own natural advantages. It is the tragedy of New Labour in office that although they have abandoned some of their old agenda they have not embraced this new one. As they dragged themselves into the late twentieth century, the twenty-first began.

This is the Tory opportunity.

Blair last week, pathetically calling for reform after eight wasted years, was banning junk food while being the master-chef of junk policy himself: a sprinkle of free market reform; a heap of state intervention, such as £1 billion wasted on failed truancy policies; a dollop of welfare reform, like the failed New Deal; a portion of meddling such as the botched tax credits; a dash of social engineering, like the multi-billion Sure Start flop; a spoonful of grand pledges like 'saving the NHS'.

All mixed together with a handful of preposterous nonsense like the ban on cooing at newborn babies, glazed with an artificial, saccharine New Labour dressing - and producing a foul-tasting failure of a kitchen nightmare that Gordon Ramsey couldn't sort out, let alone Gordon Brown.

He tries a bit of everything because he believes in nothing.

While China builds its factories, India trains its engineers, America, Australia, Ireland and the whole of Eastern Europe cut their taxes, our Government drifts on with all the targets, budgets, taxes, and payrolls of the ever more bloated state.

You may all know that Gordon Brown has let our country slide from 4th to 13th in the world league of competitiveness. But far worse is that for government regulation we are now ranked a dismal 51st, and for the efficiency of our tax system we are an appalling 67th - lower than Nicaragua and 28 places behind Cambodia.

The urgency of our task is this: the longer into the twenty-first century that Brown is in office, the less prepared our country will be for its dangers.

The judgement of history on a Government which, by destroying our pension system and attacking our ability to compete, has undermined this country's greatest advantages in an uncertain world, will be unforgiving in its harshness.

But let the judgement of history on our own party in 2005 be this: that we raised our gaze from our navels and braced ourselves to prepare our country for the great economic, social and environmental challenges of a new century.

That we moved on from the issues of the 1970s and eighties and leapfrogged Labour into the future. That we asked ourselves why environmental issues should belong to the left, why the scourge of drug abuse should go unaddressed, why the crime of human trafficking should become the unacceptable face of globalisation and that we understood that our own modernisation depended on dealing with these and similar issues with substance and seriousness, rather than on the fake and cosmetic change of a new label, a new colour or new clothes.

That we resolved to recreate a savings culture, which only a party that believes in ownership can do; to bring communities and races into a common sense of national pride, which only a party that believes in British identity can do; and to end the adoption of yet more of the laws and rules of the slowest growing part of the world economy, which only a party that knows we should be in Europe but not run by Europe can do.

That we decided to sum up our vision for the nation in a single sentence which would be something like this: to give this country the educational excellence, economic freedom, national self-belief, and social cohesion, yes social cohesion, to make it the best place to live in the world.

And that tired of being defeated by a Government which no longer commands the confidence of the nation, we drew strength from our past as we did what it took to uplift and inspire our country for the future.

That is our daunting mission. And if we fulfil it, the judgement of history will truly be on our side."

Keyboard shortcuts

j previous speech k next speech