13 June 2023

Conservatives must build on the true legacy of Margaret Thatcher


This is a transcript of the Education Secretary’s speech at the Margaret Thatcher Conference on Opportunity, hosted by the Centre for Policy Studies

The CPS was first founded because the Conservative party needed to find a new purpose, and the work you have done to carry on that mission is truly remarkable.

A testament to your work and impact can be seen in our last manifesto, not surprising as your Director helped author it, and I hope he has his pen ready again!

When I was first invited to be Education Secretary there were two things that crossed my mind. First – that there are a lot of shoes to fill, especially recently, and second that there are some really big shoes to fill.

And none bigger than the namesake of today’s conference – Lady Thatcher, and indeed her co-founder of the CPS – Sir Keith Joseph.

Walking into the Department, it was clear we are grappling with many of the same challenges, and today, we need to take inspiration from the path that they walked.

That’s why I’m honoured to be addressing you, at the organisation where it all started.

I’ll confess – until I came to Westminster I didn’t know much about the CPS. Liverpool, and especially the part that I’m from, is not the place you’d normally expect to find someone, anyone, who was inspired by Margaret Thatcher.

My grandfather was a miner, my family staunch Labour supporters, and even a great grandmother awarded life-long membership of her local labour party. It’s fair to say, that when I stood as a Conservative candidate in Merseyside in 2015, I was an outlier. Indeed, I even changed my name to my husband’s to protect the innocent!

I did an interview with The Liverpool Echo last week and they were puzzled. How did someone from Liverpool with their Grandad’s old miners’ lamp in their Parliamentary office become Conservative? They asked ‘how did you go so wrong?’

And back when I started work in 1984 in a car factory, let me tell you – Thatcherism certainly wasn’t popular in Kirkby.

But in 1987, just three years later, as a young working-class girl from Knowsley, voting for the first time – I voted Conservative. Because I knew what the Conservative Government were doing made sense, common sense.

Mrs Thatcher used to often talk about the economy through the lens of her father’s grocery store. I also learnt a lot working in a shop on Saturdays in Liverpool aged 14 – it was my first job.

I learned even more when I started full-time work aged 16 in a car factory. I learned what not to do when I saw how militant trade unions downed tools at the drop of a hat in protest to any changes required to remain competitive against global threats. This had the entirely predictable result of closing that factory some years later, with the loss of many jobs.

I learnt that you need to make the sums add up. I learnt that to expand, or win new models or markets, you need to have the fundamentals in place, building on strong foundations.

To me – that’s the true legacy of Margaret Thatcher. Sound money, and solid economic foundations.

If I am to borrow a quote from her:

Pennies don’t fall from heaven, they have to be earned here on earth.

Our country, our economy, our spending, is built on the everyday hard work of people who apply themselves, seize opportunities and solve problems. We all contribute towards the running of this country, through our service, and through our taxes.

But it’s on us, as political leaders, to ensure that the taxpayer’s money is spent wisely, and to take the incredibly difficult decisions that are required to guide us to a brighter and better future. Much as any business might have to tighten their belt when sales are down, we too must show restraint when it is needed. Labour politicians have tried to redefine this as ‘austerity’. I prefer to call it ‘living within your means’. Perhaps it takes a simple northerner to call things by their proper names.

Nowhere is this more true than the Government’s commitment to halving inflation. It is easy to become blasé about that word.

But we all know first-hand what it really means. The value of each pound in your pocket being steadily eroded. The cost of essentials, of the weekly shop, or the small luxuries that make life worth living, are all rising. More stress for families, worrying how to make ends meet.

There is nothing sound, nothing good, nothing moral about tolerating rising inflation. The Prime Minister is right to commit to halve inflation as his number one priority, and I’m proud to be part of a government that is channelling Mrs Thatcher’s legacy by gripping inflation.

The same discipline extends to a responsible Conservative approach to borrowing, to spending, and yes to taxation.

Now let me be clear – nobody in this country doubts that we need more growth. Indeed it is the number two priority, after halving inflation.

But you don’t get growth just by saying it. If that was true even the Labour party could achieve it! You get it, like anything in life, by putting the work in. When I was growing businesses for many years, in many sectors across many countries, I didn’t just hope that customers would come along and the business would grow. I built a strategy to make it a reality.

Mrs Thatcher understood this. The painful medicine of sound monetary policy was later accompanied by prudent cuts in taxation.

An economic agenda designed to recreate the dynamism and strength that made our country a great economic power. To reward hard work, and to have the courage to take on vested interests.

However, whilst lower taxes are at the heart of Conservative economic thinking – Margaret Thatcher never thought that the way to achieve a low tax economy was by dramatically increasing public sector debt and borrowing. She knew that you had to deal with inflation first, otherwise every tax cut or spending pledge would simply be eaten by inflation.

That focus, that grip, that is what this Government is channelling. You see it in the Chancellor’s focus on restoring economic stability, and in the Prime Minister’s focus on driving growth industries where we can leverage a real competitive advantage.

Because you cannot have growth without stability. But stability is both hard won and easily lost. Mrs Thatcher understood that.

If you believe in markets, you must listen to them. Lady Thatcher surrounded herself with business heavyweights, she understood the importance of business and entrepreneurship to the economy. She knew you need to fix the fundamentals first.

And financing expensive projects or pursuing tax cuts without sound money and fiscal discipline is fairy-tale economics. Forget that simple lesson, and we forget Thatcherism.

Plus selectively choosing bits of the legacy, dressing it up as Thatcherism, is a betrayal of her great legacy. It’s not enough to look the part, you need to play the part – understanding how the real economy works to deliver lasting change.

That’s why we are holding our nerve and maintaining a relentless focus on what matters to the British public. After all, to quote this conference’s namesake again:

‘Much as we would like to do many things in the public sector, there is nothing sound or moral in spending other people’s money that we haven’t got’.

For this Government, education is a vital part of the answer. As the Prime Minister says – education is the closest thing that we have to a silver bullet.

This is true and I don’t just believe it. I have lived it. I got my break, through my apprenticeship, and young people, across the country are getting their breaks every day.

Go to any one of the schools, colleges, Institutes of Technology, or universities that I tour every week and you can see it. Young people taking T-Levels training in high tech facilities to be the next generation of medical professionals.

Apprentices learning how to make video games and films through the latest digital motion capture technology – which I saw in my home city of Liverpool last Thursday.

Workers re-skilling to install heat pumps or upgrade our electricity and broadband networks.

Across every challenge and opportunity this country faces – I hear one consistent thing from businesses: we need more people with the right skills.

Now that’s not just the job of government. Businesses need to take a lead as well especially as 80% of the 2030 workforce is already in work – we all have a part to play.

And this Government is playing its part. There is a quiet revolution going on in education – we’ve done it in schools, from phonics to free schools – transforming the outcomes for children, who can now claim to be ‘the best in the west’ at reading. Our dramatic improvement in maths is also a very real achievement both for our teaching profession and our students helping them find high quality, high skilled jobs in the future.

But we’re also seeing it within our skills system – where we are getting rid of the soft bigotry that says that courses in technical education are not equal to academic education.

We’re introducing new technical qualifications; we’re pushing apprenticeships, including degree apprenticeships so that full-time courses at universities aren’t viewed as the only ticket to a good life. Learn and Earn is a fantastic choice and route into the workplace. And we’re introducing the Lifelong Loan Entitlement, building on the legacy that Lady Thatcher started when she supported the Open University, ensuring that people can constantly reskill for changing times.

In schools every child in every school should be benefitting from a high-quality education. We shouldn’t look across the country and accept or except less just because of where they’ve come from.

If that happened, I’d have been written off 40 years ago. I don’t want that for any child.

And we’re at a critical point. Our children have suffered so much from the pandemic. Whilst we’re clawing that back, bit by bit. It’s more important than ever that children are in school. And the last thing they need are strikes by their teachers.

Now we’ve made a fair and reasonable offer to the Unions to end the strikes and provided more funding to pay for it, but sadly this was not accepted by the unions and therefore by teachers.

It is clear to me that our teachers do a fantastic job. Without mine – Mr. Ashcroft – I wouldn’t have been standing here today.

But if we don’t get inflation down then we will all suffer. Teachers, parents, children. It’s a spiral that makes us all poorer.

But it appears that some Unions are more focussed on their narrow interests and not our wider well-being as a society. Sadly, this isn’t new.

From phonics to academies, SATs to inspections, they have consistently resisted the steps that have driven up standards and improved life chances for our children.

Growing up in Knowsley I’ve seen with my own eyes what a local education system destroyed by Labour and their Union backers looks like. Failing schools, low expectations, no accountability, no ownership, no standards… and ultimately no hope.

Aided and abetted by a Labour party that historically alternates between parroting the Unions’ asks, and promising to spend money that they don’t have, to fix the problems that they have created.

We can see this again, today, from the Labour Party. What is their big education policy?

Tax changes that will close down many independent schools, that analysts have said will raise little or no money and may even cost money as the state needs to provide more state school places for displaced children.

Next! Changes to the apprenticeship levy that will cut the number of apprentices in half. Two ill thought through policies.

They just don’t get it.

But then Labour never did do numbers – they do the politics of envy instead.

The improvements we have made to our education system have been so hard won. Thanks to this Conservative Government children today are reading better; they are more numerate. Their options are wider, their futures are brighter.

We cannot put that at risk.

Mrs Thatcher was spot on in 1979 when she said ‘in the name of dogma, the Labour Government has destroyed many good schools and has lowered academic standards.’

We cannot let this happen again.

So today, it is an honour to speak at the Thatcher conference, and to consider her remarkable legacy.

Once again, this country will soon face a time to choose. Freedom, economic stability, competence. These are things that are easily taken for granted.

But let me tell you – seeing Liverpool’s local government collapse in the 1980s when I was growing up taught me that lofty progressive ideals can quickly result in real misery for real families.

In 1979, Lady Thatcher asked us to reject socialism, and to unite the country with the ‘politics of common sense’.

We did it then, we are doing it now. We will do it again. That is what the Conservative party does. All those years ago, it was common sense that brought me to the Conservative party.

It is what has kept me here, ever since. It is what makes me proud to be standing here as a member of this Government.

Because Conservatives are not tribal – we are not weighed down by decades of dogma and hate like the Labour Party. We are inclusive, pragmatic, listening, adapting, whilst always seeking to conserve the best of our unique country.

So, it seems fitting to end my remarks with a quote from the great lady herself, that seems particularly apt to the circumstances we find ourselves in today:

‘The Labour Party scheme their schemes. The Liberals dream their dreams. But we… have work to do.’

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Gillian Keegan is Secretary of State for Education and MP for Chichester