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Michael Howard speech: The British Dream

Speech to Policy Exchange

"Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today.

Policy Exchange is one of the bright new stars in the think tank universe. Its success, under the dynamic leadership of Nicholas Boles and Francis Maude, demonstrates that the centre-right is once again at the forefront of public debate, generating the ideas which will determine the direction of future policy.

When I applied to university in the late Fifties, I wrote an essay called "Why I am an Angry Young Man". I saw Britain as a country too stratified, too hidebound, where people tended to be judged on their background, not on their worth. I saw a country teeming with the most energetic, talented, compassionate and decent people; and it seemed to me that too few of them were able to make the best of their lives.

In lots of ways society has been transformed since then. Yet many of those constraints still remain. And today there are new constraints and frustrations. Too many are disenchanted with politics and government. Too many are cheated of the decent education that is essential for people to make the best of their lives. Too many are cheated of the first class healthcare that they deserve. Why? Because we have a State that does too much, that interferes too much, that is too unaccountable. A State that has grown so much that it diminishes the people it is meant to serve.

When I look at our amazing country, the more wonder I feel at what it could be. I see a people just as talented, just as energetic as we always were, with all the same virtues we always had, with a richer culture thanks to the greater diversity that Britain now boasts, and I'm filled with a passion to see us do better. I see so many missed opportunities.

I wrote my essay forty-five years ago.

Thirty-four days ago I published a statement setting out my beliefs.

My principles and convictions have remained the same throughout.

Today the contrast between what government does and the way people live their lives could not be more stark. Think what has happened over just the last few years. People have more and more control over more and more aspects of their lives. They make more and more sophisticated decisions every day of their lives. Cheap flights enable more of us to go abroad more often; almost everyone now has a mobile phone and soon, no doubt, will have a video phone. More and more people have multi-channel television and access to the internet. Many businesses are organised in completely different ways. Change happens at incredible speed.

This revolution in business, communication, travel and leisure has not been matched by a similar revolution in government. Government - and I think to a certain extent politicians of all persuasions - have sat on the sidelines and have failed to learn lessons from what is happening in the real world.

In the 1980s, the country had a clear path to follow. We were the sick man of Europe. Our economy was on its knees. Radical reform was required. So, taxes were reduced, many industries were returned to the private sphere and the trade unions were brought under control.

But there were many areas of life that needed radical reform and did not get it.

Take healthcare. The NHS is one of the biggest employers in the world. But it was established at a time when people thought you needed big organisations to deal with big problems.

By the time we got to the 1980s that mindset had changed but there were too many powerful obstacles that stood in the way of radical reform. Opponents of change assiduously propagated two myths. First, that no country had better health care. And secondly that there was nothing wrong with the system that just a little bit more money would not solve.

But now we have seen those myths blown out of the water. The current Government has spent a huge amount more of people's taxes on the NHS: they have set hundreds of targets and bench marks. But we still lag behind many of our neighbours.

So the reason this speech is relevant today is because this approach has been tried, it has been given time to work and it has failed. Public sector productivity has not increased. The public's expectations, raised by the rhetoric of politicians, have not been realised. There is now a fundamental imbalance between what voters want and what government is able to deliver.

That's what I meant on 2nd January this year when I said that the people should be big and the state should be small.

The growth of government has not led to any growth in affection towards government. Quite the opposite.

Extravagant promises about what government can achieve have not been honoured. Not through bad faith on the part of politicians. But simply because central government action cannot deliver the improvements, the growth in control over their own lives, that people rightly desire.

Because government has failed to make the improvements it promised, cynicism has grown - towards not just the Government but all politicians. Political promises are now treated like a salesman's patter - pious words not to be taken at face value. People think public service failures are inevitable - the consequence of politicians not knowing how to improve things. And they believe failure is like the weather - something they are powerless to improve, unless they emigrate.

The answer to this cynicism is not the replacement of one set of managers with another (though that would be a start). It is the transfer of power from politicians back to people - the handing of control over to citizens and the professionals who serve them.

Any government I lead will be guided by the principle that people should be given more control over policing in their local areas, the health care they receive, the schools their children are educated in and the way they get around.

It will mean more control for people, as individuals and families. So you're in charge, and you can follow your dream wherever it takes you. It means government should let people grow and be wary of taking control away from people.

I grew up in Llanelli, a small town in South Wales. Neither of my parents had been born in this country. They started with no advantages except the abilities they were born with and a readiness to work hard and make the most of those abilities.

They ran a small clothes shop. They started it from nothing. Too often, people talk about the economy in abstract terms. But in reality, it's nothing more complicated than the collective efforts of individual people. Businesses are run by people like my parents. They start them, grow them and nurture them for many different reasons. To make a living, of course. But also for the satisfaction of creating something, of leaving a mark, of making a difference.

People who start businesses are big people, every single one of them. Their enterprise and their readiness to take risks are the engine of our progress. We need them to succeed.

Their dream is a dream shared by millions. All those childhood ambitions, all those conversations with friends, all those secret thoughts about the sure fire business idea. Millions of people, countless ideas, boundless possibilities. Imagine if more of them made it. Imagine if more of those who made it, made it bigger and better - growing from small businesses, to medium sized businesses to large businesses. Imagine how much wealthier, more fulfilled people could be. Imagine how much wealthier in every way our country would be.

So why doesn't it happen more often? What stands in our way? Is it that we have lost our creative edge, our energy, our dynamism? Hardly. We are still one of the most creative nations on earth. These small islands have had a totally disproportionate impact on the worlds of commerce, music, literature, science, fashion, sport and culture.

No. There is no lack of drive, no want of ambition, no dearth of talent or creativity. What holds too many people back, is the one thing that's supposed to help them grow: the State. In attempting to try and solve problems, government creates new ones. All too often government is the cause of our problems not the solution to them.

I genuinely believe that politicians - almost all of us - start out with the best of intentions. We all think we're helping when we pass that new law, impose that new regulation, levy that new charge, fee or tax.

But these good intentions often make people's lives worse because they take power away from families and individuals. So it's the consequences, not the intentions, that really matter. And I will tell you today, in all honesty and as starkly as I am able to, that the size and scope of government in this country - and the means of its financing by the people through taxation - is quite simply too big.

Government officials may have the time to produce tortuously-worded, lengthy regulations. But people who work in businesses have to read them, understand them, implement them. The consequence is wasted effort and higher costs.

This is not an abstract point or the tired mantra of the free market. It's real life for millions of people. Only recently, I went to see a small firm that had just been instructed to fit emergency lighting at a cost of many thousands of pounds. That cost had a real effect - they had to lay someone off. Yet the year before, at a previous inspection, no such requirement had been made. In the intervening twelve months, nothing had changed. There had been no accidents and no change in working practices to justify the new requirement. No new machines had been installed.

I mentioned this when I spoke at the end of last year to the CBI's annual conference. That provoked a letter from Andrew Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. He was extremely concerned to hear about this. Do you know why? I was wrong to blame the Health and Safety Executive for this new burden on a small business. Apparently … I should have blamed the Fire Service.

Wouldn't it be better if we had a government that scrapped regulations instead of scrapping over who was to blame?

The Government I hope to lead will indeed set about the task of getting rid of unnecessary burdens. We want the total regulatory burden imposed by government to fall each year. We want sunset clauses in new regulations. We want proper scrutiny of any new proposed regulations. We want to lighten the load on small businesses.

This frustration with the constraints of an over-regulated society is not by any means confined to the business community. They are, of course, particularly important because they create the wealth on which we all depend. But the same principle applies to everyone.

When I was a boy my parents told me "It does not matter what you do when you grow up as long as you do it to the best of your ability". We should be a country which helps everyone to do what they do to the best of their ability, to make the most of their talent and their aptitude.

I want every family to have the opportunities that my family had, and better opportunities still. That means creating the conditions for a strong economy and then removing the barriers that hold people back. That's it. Not initiatives, strategies, targets, commissions, but the energy and enterprise of our people.

Why do Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians think that spending taxpayers' money is the solution to every problem? When taxes rise too high, they start to bring people low. There is a moral reason for government to take less from people in taxation. If people are highly taxed, they come to believe that their obligations to society and to one another are discharged just by handing money over to government.

Over a long period, that is corrosive. I want Britain to be a country where people, families and communities take more responsibility for one another.

Low taxes give people the opportunity to make their own decisions: decisions to save, to give, to spend, to keep more for their families and their children. People grow in confidence, and grow morally, when the state gives them the opportunity to do so.

So these are the reasons why I want to see lower taxes, less government bureaucracy, less waste, and a simpler, more transparent tax system.

I have asked David James, who had to be called in by the Government to help salvage the fiasco of the Dome, to investigate how we can cut government waste across the board. We call it Yard 10 Economics, after the now infamous yard in the Dome where £80 million worth of equipment lay in unopened boxes because it couldn't be used.

Oliver Letwin recently outlined our commitment to a simpler tax structure through long-term methodical reform. Tomorrow, we will announce a significant measure which will curtail the rise in government bureaucracy and waste. Next week Oliver will set out our medium-term approach to government spending.

These measures will make the State smaller. But to feel bigger, people want to feel more in control of their own lives.

Very few people want to lead a solitary life - to be alone. We come together in different groups of various kinds. Most of what we do every day is done together - with friends, with colleagues, at work, in our free time, as part of communities of every kind.

The family remains the most immediate and important group within which people share responsibility for one another's well-being. But families are changing. Not all conform to the traditional pattern. I continue to believe that the conventional marriage and family is the best environment within which to bring up children. But many couples now choose not to marry. And more and more same sex couples want to take on the shared responsibilities of a committed relationship.

It is in all our interests to encourage the voluntary acceptance of such shared responsibilities - but in some instances the State actively discourages it. That should change, and I will support the Government's Civil Partnerships Bill that makes some important reforms, on a free vote in the House of Commons.

But it is important to be clear about this. Civil partnership differs from marriage. Marriage is a separate and special relationship which we should continue to celebrate and sustain. To recognise civil partnerships is not, in any way, to denigrate or downgrade marriage. It is to recognise and respect the fact that many people want to live their lives in different ways. And it is not the job of the State to put barriers in their way.

The frenetic pace of modern life also makes people concerned about the balance between work and the rest of their lives. These responsibilities often compete with each other. They are difficult to juggle. The pressure on time is huge, often squeezing out the chance to see the wider family or to contribute fully to the life around you.

The way we work is changing. More and more companies are introducing home-working or part-time work. The 9-5 office, an invention of the early twentieth century, is now far from universal.

Business is adapting to this changing environment, but government is still getting in the way. We must remove the obstacles for families - to finding the best childcare, to getting access to the best schools, to creating the best working environment. Very often it is the State, through misguided regulation, that puts these obstacles in people's way.

I will make sure that the next Conservative Government will do all it can to help families achieve the work-life balance that is best for them. I have asked David Willetts and Caroline Spelman to review the current framework for providing childcare, which we believe has led to a narrowing of the options available to parents.

For many of the best people in Britain, their dream is to become a doctor, a nurse or a teacher and dedicate themselves to healing the sick and educating the young. Every day, they go beyond the call of duty to perform extraordinary feats, far beyond what any politician could ever achieve.

But many of them feel small, because the big State interferes so much in the way that they work. The burden of regulations and form filling, of initiatives and targets and task forces make it impossible for them to do their job well. It is not only the general public who fall victim to an interfering state. So do its own employees.

The way our schools and hospitals are run has not kept up with the way that the rest of Britain works today. They remain poor relations not because of lack of funding but because of the lack of real reform. The people who work in them are dedicated and committed. But they work in a system which hinders and hampers them when it should be doing all it can to help.

Parents want the best education for their children because they know that education opens the door to much greater opportunities.

When I was a teenager, I went along to an election meeting in the town in Wales where I grew up. It was addressed by the town's MP, a great man of his day, the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. I asked him why the Labour Party was proposing to abolish grammar schools - including Llanelli Grammar School, where I was then a pupil. He said that they weren't going to abolish grammar schools. They were going to make all schools grammar schools. Which perhaps goes to show that political spin has a very long history.

You may possibly have noticed: that hasn't happened. There has, indeed, been a rush to uniformity and a levelling down from excellence. We must reverse that trend. We need an education system that is rigorous, that suits every child's talents, that helps people to achieve their best.

The best schools, whether state or private, selective or comprehensive, offer the things which every parent has the right to expect for every child - discipline and the pursuit of excellence.

No-one can learn - and few can teach - in an atmosphere where shouting, loutishness and actual or threatened violence prevail. In many schools a disruptive minority have been allowed to hold back the majority who are eager to progress. So our first priority will be to restore to teachers unambiguous control over the classroom. Heads must have the final say over expulsions. Schools should be allowed to offer legally-enforceable, tough home-school contracts, giving teachers the clear right to impose discipline.

The pursuit of excellence in all its forms - academic, vocational, sporting, musical, charitable - should be the aim of every part of our education system. Few can excel at everything, but no-one should be condemned to an expectation of mediocrity or underperformance across the board. Schools should be free to specialise. Mixed ability teaching should be the exception, not the norm, in classroom teaching. Literacy and numeracy should be bedrock skills for all, and exams made more rigorous - never again must we hear from employers that even some school-leavers with A-grades in GCSE Maths have functional innumeracy.

By giving parents the ability to exercise control over their children's education, and by making it easier for popular and successful schools to expand - even to take over neighbouring schools - we will give opportunities to thousands of children. The opportunity to find out what it is that they can do best and develop the talent to realise their dreams.

The values of the NHS - the chance to offer high quality care, free at the point of use and irrespective of the ability to pay - are enduring. But the way in which those values are delivered must change and do so at a much faster rate than this Government intends, if it is to respond to modern demands. The NHS is too impersonal, too inflexible, too centralised, too bureaucratic. These shortcomings can't be changed without a new approach, a new philosophy.

For all the chipping at the edges of monopoly, the State still controls healthcare in Britain. Our vision is that this control should pass to patients. They must have the opportunity to choose where and when they are treated.

The benefits of control are not only for individuals, but for the whole NHS.

Doctors and nurses, managers and lab scientists - all those who work in the NHS - believe in caring for patients. They want to respond to the needs and preferences of patients. But they can't - because interfering ministers, bureaucracy, central directives, targets, plans, quangos and waste rob them of resources. They deprive them of the freedom to deliver the quality of care they want to offer. Too often, we have first-class medicine trapped in a second-rate system.

This has to change. The reason I came back into frontline politics two years ago was because I became so angry about the decline of health care in my own constituency. Why should any of us put up with a system in which our families, our friends, my constituents, die from illnesses which would not kill them if they came from countries not very far away from us?

So we will bring reform. We will be open-minded and learn from the systems that work so well on the continent. We will give control to patients. Under a Conservative government everyone will be free to choose where they want to have an operation within the NHS. If an elderly frail woman wants to have an operation in a hospital that is near where her son lives, she will be allowed to. If an informed patient wants their operation in a hospital which they think is better than their local one, they will be allowed to. If someone wants to go to a hospital with shorter waiting times, they will be able to. We will begin to implement the system necessary to make this work from the moment we come into office.

The last time the Conservatives were in government, the country faced very different problems than those of today. In 1979 we were being drowned by a flood of high taxation, militant trade unionism and rampant inflation. We spent the 1980s fighting to reverse these tides. It was not easy. It meant taking tough decisions. But we stuck to our principles and delivered.

When I was working as a barrister, I had to advise a man who had lost his job. He had refused to go on a march organised by his union against Edward Heath's Industrial Relations Act. He had been fined by his union, and he had refused to pay the fine. The union kicked him out, and because of the closed shop he was sacked. Our law gave him no redress.

That made me very angry. I became convinced that the closed shop should be abolished. It was a monstrous restriction on people's rights. So I argued for the end of the closed shop, but because I wasn't an MP there was little I could do. In 1983 I became an MP, and devoted much of my maiden speech to this question. But because I was not a minister there was little I could do. In 1990 I became Employment Secretary and I was finally able to abolish the closed shop. Even under a Conservative Government, it had taken eleven years to abolish completely one of the most iniquitous restrictions on freedom in recent times.

Today we face new challenges. As the country's economy has strengthened and stabilised, the failings of our public services have become clear. It will not be easy. The journey will be hard. But our principles will be our compass. As I said last October "power to people" - the people who use and run our services, not politicians and central government.

At the heart of my approach is a fundamental belief in fair play. No one should be over-powerful. Not trade unions. Not corporations. Not the Government. Not the European Union. Wherever I see bullying by the over-mighty, I will oppose it, and stand up for people's rights and freedoms.

Britain's history shows that when you give people the opportunity to succeed few of them choose to pursue a ruthlessly selfish path. Most of them want to put something back, to help extend the opportunity that worked so well for them to others. Think of some of Britain's largest benefactors and you find some of our most successful entrepreneurs - Sainsburys, Westons, Wolfsons and Clores.

One of the worst ways in which people are denied control over their own lives is through discrimination. I loathe it. Every one should be given the same opportunities that I was given - those who are born in Britain and those who settle here as immigrants. Discrimination against people because of their origins, their colour, their beliefs or their sexuality must become a thing of the past.

Britain is a free country and should be free for all. A genuinely free Britain is one where people respect one another for what they do, not for what they are.

I passionately believe that we are put on this earth to make the most of whatever talents and abilities we have - to fulfil our potential, to make the best of our lives.

My belief in small government is not some academic exercise. Only when the State is small will people be big. It is a means to an end, and that end is opportunity, giving people power to control and run their lives as they see fit.

Government often runs as if it were on a treadmill. It just carries on going and never questioning its direction.

That era is coming to an end. Government must be much more responsive, much more clear-sighted and have a much more defined role.

This is the framework for the visions and the policies that we will put before the British people at the next election. After I left university I spent a year in America. I admire many aspects of American life. In America, they talk about the American Dream. They talk about the ability of someone born in a log cabin to make it to the White House. As it happens, in America this is the exception, not the rule.

In Britain it actually does happen. There are countless examples of people from humble beginnings who make it to the top: who live the British Dream. So we should talk about it. We should embrace it. We should celebrate it. I want everyone to live the British Dream.

My family and I owe a huge debt to this country. I owe this country everything I have and everything I am. I have now been given a great responsibility by my Party. I shall do my utmost to discharge it to the very best of my ability.

That means convincing the British people that there is a better way. A better way that gives them back control. A better way which makes it easier for them to fulfil their potential. A better way to make the most of their lives.

Today, I hope that we have set about creating the framework for the vision and policies that we will put before the British people at the next election.

The opportunity for every one to live bigger lives.

Thank you."

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