ON THE RECORD
RECORDED FROM TRANSMISSION BBC-1 DATE 16.1.94
JOHN HUMPHRYS: Good afternoon and welcome to On The
Record. After a string of scandals and deep confusion over the meaning of its
most basic policies, few Governments have been as unpopular as Mr Major's.
...David Hunt, the Employment Secretary,
and very possibly the next Party Chairman, so we're told, is one of the
Cabinet Ministers who've been trying to pour oil on those troubled waters.
Mr. Hunt - in trouble?
DAVID HUNT MP: No.
HUMPHRYS: None at all?
HUNT: The first point I would make is that we
are very much setting the political agenda - we're writing the language of
politics today, just as we did in the 1980s, so in the 1990s, and if you look
at that speech that the Prime Minister made last October, it's full of detail
about back to basics, and the one thing I'm sure of is people have heard of
back to basics. I don't know, John, how many times have you used that phrase
over the last week? People are talking about back to basics and what it means
and I very much welcome that.
HUMPHRYS: Well, except that you don't welcome what
"they" take it to mean, do you, because if they look at that speech that Mr.
Major made and they look at things like - basic values he talked about didn't
he - self-discipline and a greater acceptance of personal responsibility and
family obligations, and yet when he's been speaking about it most recently he's
said "this is not a question of personal morality", and that's why people are
confused because they can't separate personal morality from that sort of
self-discipline and a greater acceptance of personal responsibility. They
don't know what it means, you see.
HUNT: Well, he spelt out what it means in that
speech in October and what I welcome now is that people are talking about it
and what are its implications in each area of policy? For instance, one of
the key areas he highlighted in that Conference speech was law and order.
Well, last week we had an extensive debate about the new Criminal Justice and
Public Order Bill. The Labour Party decided they wanted to abstain on it, but
it was a good debate within the House of Commons about criminal
Now, this coming week, we'll be talking
about de-regulation - that's another basic Conservative principle, to get the
State of the backs of people. Now that's important. All these are very key
issues. I don't shirk the debate that's taking place.
HUMPHRYS: But you've seen - not you personally
perhaps - but everybody seems to be shirking the debate (at least every Cabinet
Minister I've been speaking to over the last couple of weeks seems to be
shirking, to use your phrase) the debate about personal morality. Now,
whether it should or should not be part of this debate, what's puzzling people
is that it seems to have been excluded and the sort of people - perhaps the
Shire Tories above all - are saying "Why not? What's wrong with it? Why
shouldn't it be in there?".
HUNT: Well, first of all, I think some
elements of the media have tried to reduce the whole thing to the level of a
Whitehall farce, but it's not about flapping nightshirts - we've been hearing
about all sorts of nonsense. Let's get away from all that. What the Prime
Minister's made clear is it's not about a crusade on personal morals.
HUMPHRYS: I didn't use the word "crusade".
HUNT: No. You were careful. But a lot of
people have suggested that that is what it is. It's not. And, therefore,
let's not only decide what it's not, but let's look at what it is, and what it
is is getting back to basic Conservative principles. And also in that speech
the Prime Minister highlighted economic policy.
What's getting back to basics? - getting
people into work, making sure that we have real money with value and we don't
return to those bad old days of high inflation. We stand on the threshold of a
sustained period of non-inflationary growth. The rest of the world looks on
with some envy and to some surprise at the level of debate that's taking place
in some aspects of the media. Let's really concentrate on the serious issues,
and one of the most serious issues for us is how to get the level of
unemployment down. We're being successful but we need to do more, by getting
back to basic Conversative, commonsense principles in economic policy as well
as social policy.
HUMPHRYS: But part of your problem now, isn't it,
that it has become a debate about John Major's leadership, and if he'd stood
there after all this fuss blew up and said "Look, of course it was about
personal morality - I'm not going to duck that - and any Minister who doesn't
behave properly and doesn't do this, that or the other has got to go, a lot of
people would have said: well, that is the smack of firm leadership; he clearly
knows which direction he's heading in and he's going to go in that direction.
But he didn't do that, did he? He seemed to back away in a way that left
everybody thoroughly confused and you would not pretend, would you Mr. Hunt,
that people aren't a bit confused about it?
HUNT: Well, I think they would be a bit
confused reading some of the newspapers. Yesterday you had one newspaper
saying one thing and another headlining the opposite, so there's been a lot of
confusion in the media, but John Major, as Prime Minister, has written the
political agenda. He's laid down back to basics.
I must tell you, yesterday in a taxi, a
taxi-driver told me that they were doing T-shirts now with "Back to Basics"
baseball caps. He's got the people talking.
HUMPHRYS: Yes, but the trouble is what do they
think when they think back to basics now? When they see back to basics they
see "Ah, problems for the Government, embarrassment". What they ought to be
thinking about perhaps are those things that you've already outlined, but they
don't - they see that phrase now and they say "Oh, yea - John Major put his
foot in it with that, didn't he?".
HUNT: No. I don't believe they do say that
because if you look at what John Major's said, what the Prime Minister said,
what the rest of us are now saying - we've accepted the challenge of setting
the political philosophy for the 1990s and the key that John Major's always
stressing is to look forward to the year 2000 and beyond. What sort of society
do we want to create, what sort of schools do we want, what about law and
order, what about all these basic issues. And I welcome the debate and I
believe the Prime Minister's done just the right thing by triggering a debate
on basic political principles. What is it that makes us all Conservative?
What is it that makes the Labour Party Socialist? What is it that comprises
Socialism? There's a lot of confusion about that. Let's focus the debate on
these really serious issues.
HUMPHRYS: But you can't conceivably welcome the
kind of coverage you've been getting over the past fortnight?
HUNT: No. I've already said that I think some
elements of the media have tried to reduce the whole thing to the level of a
Whitehall farce. I regret that but, you know, there's a really serious
political debate taking place. Now that debate will continue. Everyone's
heard about back to basics now. I want us now, as Ministers, as Cabinet
Ministers, as a Government, as a Party, to set out our stall before the British
I know it's several years before the
next General Election, but we ought to do it now. We're very good at winning
elections. We're not good enough yet at putting across our message in language
that everyone can understand in between elections, and that's what the Prime
Minister is inspiring us to do.
HUMPHRYS: We are hearing a lot - now you've
mentioned it a few times yourself - about the way the media or other sections
of society are turning on the Government. Why? What's going on do you think?
DAVID HUNT: I don't know, you must ask the editors.
But you see, last week I announced the unemployment figures. They were almost
in all editions of all newspapers, sidelined somewhere lower down or perhaps on
inner pages, they were said to be overshadowed by other news, and yet people
don't report that in the UK we have more of a proportion of our people in work
than almost any other country in Europe, that we have.... you hear a lot about
temporary and casual work. We have one of the lowest rates of people in
temporary and casual work in Europe, so there's a lot going for us. The
British people are doing extremely well at the moment and the rest of the world
is looking with some envy on what we are achieving.
HUMPHRYS: But you say you don't know why this is
going on, why these attacks, not just on the Government but allegedly on the
whole British way of life, as it were. Michael Portillo seems to have the
answer. He talks about this self-destructive sickness of national cynicism.
Do you go along with that?
HUNT: Yes, I believe he's struck a chord. But
then don't forget he was just repeating what the Prime Minister said when he
said how confused people were becoming with the attacks week after week, month
after month, on some very important institutions in the UK. Now I don't know
what ... I remember Margaret Thatcher used to get pilloried and attacked all
the time on a personal basis. I think we need to get away from personality
HUMPHRYS: But Mr Portillo was quite clear about
it. He said this was a new British disease, something that's happening now.
HUNT: I think it's happening with renewal at
the present time and I regret it. What I'd like us to do is to focus on the
integrity of public policy, not on the integrity of individuals. We believe in
freedom in this country, freedom of the individual to make his or her
decisions. We've gone away from the old situation under Socialism where the
State used to dictate everything to people. Now, this freedom carries with it
responsibility as well as rights and I want the debate to focus on that.
HUMPHRYS: But if there is a new British disease,
doesn't that suggest that there is something wrong with the body, because
disease doesn't attack a healthy body. Doesn't it occur to you to say,
perhaps, maybe after fourteen years we have been in power for too long and
that's why there is this deep cynicism.
HUNT: No, I don't accept that for a moment.
We've always been rather self-critical in a way.
HUMPHRYS: But Mr Portillo's was saying - and
you've agreed - that this is different, this is a new British disease.
HUNT: We've always been self-critical, though.
What has now come about is that you get sort of unsubstantiated allegations
appearing in newspapers without any proof at all and then they suddenly slip
away and then further unsubstantiated allegations. But you know ...
HUMPHRYS: That's the stuff of journalism and
politics and has been since time began, isn't it? You know that. Charles
Dickens probably made the occasional unsubstantiated allegation. But the point
that your Government....
HUNT: No, John, you're quite right to remind
us about all that because sometimes we think it's only just happening. But I
sense it's happening more than it has for some time.
HUMPHRYS: Well, that's the point. And why should
it be, you see, unless there's a reason for it? What's different about now?
HUNT: Well, I don't know the answer to that.
But what I will do is to respond to the situation by emphasising the positive
rather than the negative, by getting down to the detail of policy. Everyone's
heard, as we've said before, and I think we agree - everyone's heard now of
"back to basics" but what I want to do is to focus on those parts of the Prime
Minister's speech last October to develop them ourselves in my own area,
developing the concept of new, modern apprenticeships which, again, I believe
have struck a chord with the British people. Let's have a really good, healthy
debate now about the issues rather than about the personalities.
HUMPHRYS: Well maybe the reason the debate is not
as healthy as you would like to see, maybe the reason for this new, deep
cynicism that Mr Portillo talks about is because you've been in power for a
long time; because you've made promises that you either haven't been able to
keep or never intended to keep - to take the cynical view - and that suggests
that you are - to use that terrible old cliche - 'past your sell-by date'.
HUNT: No, not at all. We decide those issues
as to which Government should be elected at General Elections and just eighteen
months' ago we won a General Election with the biggest vote ever recorded for
the Conservative Party.
HUMPHRYS: And there were various promises during
that election that haven't subsequently been followed up.
HUNT: But the recession has been tougher and
deeper than most people expected. Look at the rest of the world. But the fact
is we are going to be the fastest growing economy in Europe this year and next
year and that's opening up great opportunities. What I want us to do is not
only seize the economic opportunities by getting back to basic Conservative
principles but let's just define what Conservatism means.
For me it means the market has to be
justified, there has to be a moral case for the market and it's justified in
terms of the prosperity it creates, then enabling us to have the social
policies we want to concentrate the greatest help to those in the greatest
need. We need to talk about these issues much more.
HUMPHRYS: Well, you might want to talk about those
issues, but people have long memories, don't they? And they do remember the
kinds of things that you've been saying over the years. They remember the last
election, they remember you saying - Mr Major saying - there's not going to be
VAT on fuel, for instance, no reason to extend the scope of that. And then it
happens, and it happens in a way that dismays and surprises them because you
don't subsequently then say: "Well, yes, we did promise that but we had to
change our minds". You tend to suggest that actually you never did promise
that, and so people become cynical. You see, what a lot of people would say
is, after this amount of time in power the temptation is to blame everybody
except yourselves and not ever to accept responsibility for what's going on.
HUNT: But wouldn't you allow me to claim
credit for the achievements we've had. You mentioned earlier the British
disease. Well, the British disease in the seventies used to be unparalleled
industrial strife. Last year we had fewer working days lost through strikes
than we've had since records began. Now don't forget also, at election time we
lay down our present plans. People are used to that, they then judge us at the
next General Election. I think what has happened is that we have had a pretty
tough economic situation. I believe when we come to be judged on what we have
done, people will see in the 1990s we set the political agenda, we set the
basis of prosperity in the '90s just as we had those successive years of low
inflation and high growth in the 1980s.
HUMPHRYS: Doesn't it worry you that John Major is
looking increasingly an unlucky politician, quite apart from anything else?
HUNT: No. He's a brave and courageous
politician. You only have to see what he's.... the initiative he's taken over
Northern Ireland. There are a whole series of other examples I could give you.
But we come back to basics. I hope we'll get back to basics of reporting the
truth rather than fiction. We come back to what is the political issue at the
moment. It is "back to basics" and that's a challenge for the Conservative
Party and for the Government to spell out exactly what that means.
HUMPHRYS: David Hunt, thank you very much.