Wilberforce Lecture

- Wednesday, 8th October 1997

 

Public Library, Queen Street, Blackpool
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INTRODUCTION: WILBERFORCE

I accepted your invitation above all because this lecture is dedicated to William Wilberforce.

The name evoked potent memories from my early childhood which for years have lain dormant although, I hope, seminal.

Most summers, my parents would take me for a walk across the common a few miles from our home - ending at the Wilberforce Oak.

There my father would tell me that beneath this tree the young William Pitt had persuaded another young man called William Wilberforce to devote himself to the abolition of the slave trade.

It made a deep impression on me:

? that two young men could set themselves such a noble ambition;

? that such a vile institution as slavery should ever have existed;

? that, as my father explained, slavery had defaced every civilisation that ever existed, but at least we could proudly claim to be the first to have abolished it.

Wilberforce?s life is certainly an inspiring story with potent lessons for today:

? First, that faith and ideas are more powerful than numbers; one man?s faith could mobilise a whole nation?s conscience. As the Old Testament says, ?One can chase a thousand. Two can put to flight ten thousand.?

? Second, that a belief in human liberty should be fundamental to our whole vision of the world - and is deeply rooted in Christian principles.

? And, third, that freedom is not just about achieving economic prosperity, as those on the right sometimes seem to suggest (though it clearly is the most effective system). Still less is freedom a luxury that can only be granted once basic material needs have been catered for, as the left often argue. Far from taking a patronising view that slaves would not be able to cope with liberty, Wilberforce believed the underdog needs liberty more than anyone else.

Joshua Wedgwood produced a wonderful ?tract? in pottery for the abolitionist cause. It shows a negro slave holding up his manacled hands, surrounded by the words, ?Am I not a Man and Brother??. Shatter those chains and the black man is every bit the equal of his white brother.

The true value of freedom is that it unites the human family in dignity.

CONSERVATIVE VALUES

You have asked me to discuss Conservative values and their relationship with Christianity and morality.

Since you invited me to do so, we have suffered a chastening defeat and the whole topic has become of more pressing urgency.

In the first place, we need to respond to our defeat with that most central Christian value of humility. We also need to re-examine our core beliefs to ensure that we rebuild ourselves on solid moral and spiritual foundations. We have to recognise that perception or, I would hope, misperception of Conservative values played a greater part in our defeat than actual policies. And, finally, we have to decide how to respond to Tony Blair?s attempts to identify his government with religious and moral values.

HUMILITY

First, a little humility.

We were in government for an exceptionally long period. Particularly in the early years, we had to take some painful and difficult decisions. Indeed, government inescapably involves taking decisions which - even though they improve the general well-being - disappoint some people and upset others.

Nonetheless this seemed to have little effect on our electoral fortunes.

So we did not do enough to regain the respect, support and understanding of those who were upset by aspects of our policies.

Not suprisingly, people came to feel we were insensitive and unwilling to listen to their concerns. But as long as people feared Labour would undo our achievements, it did not seem to matter that they disliked us. We kept getting re-elected.

Moreover, because our policies were recognised as being successful overall, our opponents made little headway in attacking them. So, they increasingly attacked our motives and our values. They depicted us as greedy and selfish, and our policies as fostering greed and selfishness. We did little to repudiate this caricature which became almost unchallenged in the media.

Again, that had little effect while people feared Labour more than they disliked this ugly picture of Conservatives. However, once Labour allayed those fears, that accumulated dislike mattered a great deal. As we found on the 1st May. The popular verdict was clear:

? We did not seem to listen to what people said to us

? And we did not seem to deny what our opponents said about us

In my Conference speech, I discuss how we can listen and learn from people in the process of renewing our policies. Here, I want to start the process of rebutting the caricature of Conservatives and Conservatism as essentially greedy and selfish.

Of one thing I am certain: Conservative activists do not fit that caricature. Those I meet are quite disproportionately altruistic - they are deeply involved in community activities, charitable endeavour and church work.

CONSERVATISM: NOT A CREED OF GREED

By remorseless repetition, our opponents have established in the public mind, the belief that conservatism is a creed based on greed. Gordon Brown asserted this in typical form in his conference speech:

?British qualities have been ground under by a crude free market ideology based on the narrow pursuit of self-interest...........the dogma that worships greed.......?

It is a naked assertion unsupported by evidence. And a deeply offensive one.

I know of no-one in any party who worships greed (though there are greedy individuals in all parties). Nor have I every heard anyone promote ?the narrow pursuit of self-interest ?as an aim of policy.

I hope none of us is tempted to stoop to traducing the motives of our opponents in such a way. I have always been taught that Christians should attribute to their opponents the highest motives compatible with their words and actions, however much we may disagree with their policies.

It is time we asserted loud and clear that the whole Conservative tradition is based on the antithesis of what Gordon Brown asserts. It is based on a sense of obligation to others, particularly to those in need. My own personal Tory heroes are people like:

? Samuel Johnson whose household was a veritable welfare state of frail and unfortunate people in support of whom he spent the bulk of his income. From my first days at the DSS, I took as my mantra his doctrine that ?A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilisation?.

? Dean Swift who gave away a third of his income to the poor and who scrimped and saved from the rest to found a hospital for the insane (?).

? Burke and Coleridge who based their profoundly Conservative writings on deep Christian faith.

? Disraeli whose vivid descriptions of the ?two nations? of his time was a compelling appeal to the rich ?nation? to accept their obligation to alleviate the suffering of the poor.

? Lord Salisbury who epitomised a sense of duty, honour and integrity.

Moreover, there is no conflict between this Tory sense of obligation to those in need, and to our nation as a whole and a belief in the free market. Adam Smith and Edmund Burke are perfectly compatible. Indeed, Smith said Burke was ?the only man who, without communication between us, thought on these (economic) topics exactly as I do?.

Samuel Johnson said ?There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting (earning) money?. Of course, he added, ?Getting money is not all a man?s business - to cultivate kindness is a valuable part of the business of life?.

Dean Swift knew that the creation of wealth came before its distribution. He gave it for his opinion that ?whoever could make two blades of corn grow......where only one had grown before would deserve better of mankind and do more essential service to his country than all the race of politicians put together?.

Of course we should not go to the other extreme and pretend that Conservatives have a monopoly of virtue. The truth is that most of us who enter politics, whichever party we join, share some aims in common. We all want to make life better for our fellow men, especially the least fortunate. We believe that the rich must help the poor; the healthy care for the sick; the strong support the weak.

That is part of our common Christian heritage in this country. And it is wrong for any Party to claim a monopoly of it.

NO CONSENSUS ON MEANS

Although we all share common ends, there is no consensus on the best means of helping those in need. There remains a sharp divide between the parties in our approaches, our analyses and our policies for tackling need.

OPPOSITION APPROACH

The opposition approach is still based on a hostility towards, and misunderstanding of, the free market. Nothing illustrates that more clearly than Gordon Brown?s sneering remarks I quote above.

They see the market as based on selfishness and greed, generating poverty and inequality. They assume it is a zero sum game so that the well-being of some must have been attained at the expense of poverty for others. And they believe unequal incomes reflect the arbitrary selfishness of employers rather than the relative scarcity of different skills, efforts and abilities. So, they believe the state should intervene, not only to tackle need, but to impose a just and equal pattern of incomes. Indeed an obsession with equality often results in concern for poverty giving way to the politics of envy.

They fondly hope that the state can:

- raise earnings ahead of people‘s productivity without destroying jobs,

- impose burdens on employers without reducing employment,

- and penalise risk, effort and skills without affecting the amount of investment, enterprise, and training.

CONSERVATIVE APPROACH

By contrast, Conservatives see the free market as essentially positive. It releases and rewards human creativity. And it allows people to prosper only insofar as they satisfy the wants of others. Over time it has enabled the vast majority of people in Britain to achieve a decent income.

Of course the market cannot directly help those who, through sickness, incapacity, caring responsibilities or temporary misfortune, are unable to participate in it. But it generates the wealth which enables us to meet the needs of those who cannot themselves participate in the market.

The obligation of a Conservative government, which believes in the free market, is twofold:

- to help those who cannot help themselves, and

- to provide a framework within which all those able to work can support themselves and generate the resources to help others.

In short: to help the helpless and to enable the able.

WE ARE HELPING PEOPLE IN NEED

Paradoxically, our success in raising general living standards merely intensified accusations that `Conservatives do not care about the less well off‘, that we have `let the poor get poorer‘ or even that we have `cuts benefits‘. These accusations misrepresent our motives, our policies and our achievements.

We do care - our policies aim to help the least well off. And the results prove they do work. In fact, even the least well off have seen improvements over the last 18 years.

I have always avoided sterile debates about how best to define poverty. But the people most of us normally think of as least well off are those who depend on benefits. No one should imagine that benefits permit a life of luxury. Yet in most cases benefits are higher in real terms than in 1979.

We channelled an extra ?1 billion a year into improving benefits for families with children. For example, benefits for an unemployed couple with two young children are now around 20 per cent higher than 1979 (on top of inflation).

Of course, a job is far better than benefits and we have been more successful in reducing unemployment than any other major European country. As a result, spending on benefits for the unemployed has been falling and now account for little over a tenth of the total expenditure on all benefits.

Far from `cutting‘ benefits overall, the Conservative met an 86 per cent increase in social security spending. The bulk of the increase in the social security budget has been devoted to help for pensioners and disabled people. We boosted our spending on poorer pensioners by ?1.2 billion a year. So the least well off 80 year old couple are now entitled to at least ?114 per week plus their rent and Council Tax.

We have also deliberately improved the scale of benefits for disabled people. In fact, we increased help for disabled people to four times the level under the previous (Labour) government.

Total welfare spending reached ?90 billion - 36 per cent of central government spending. That means that, on average, the social security system costs every working person ?15 every working day. On that measure the British people cannot be condemned as uncaring towards those in need. Of course, that level of spending has only been made possible because of the economic growth which our policies promoted.

IMPROVEMENTS FOR PEOPLE IN THE BOTTOM TENTH OF INCOMES

It is significant that claims that the `poor have got poorer‘ do not generally focus on benefit levels. Instead they largely relate to statistics for households with the lowest tenth of reported incomes. A growing proportion of them are self-employed many of whom report low or even negative incomes particularly in the early years of setting up business. The other group which accounts for a larger share of those on low incomes - is the unemployed, most of whom return to work after a while.

Whatever their reported incomes show, those in the lowest tenth of incomes enjoy higher real living standards as measured by their spending - which is 30 per cent up in real terms on that of their counterparts in 1979.

Over the same period the proportion of people in the bottom tenth of income owning consumer durables has risen enormously. For example fewer than a third had a fridge-freezer in 1979. Now the overwhelming majority (84 per cent) do.

Almost no low income household in 1979 had a video. Now nearly three quarters have one. Some 40 per cent had a car in 1979. Now 57 per cent have one. To most people the idea that well over half the group alleged to demonstrate ever-deepening poverty nonetheless have a car - at least gives pause for thought!

In recent years, two issues provided ammunition for the enemies of freedom to fire at the free market.

DISPERSION OF EARNING POWER IS INCREASING

First, there has undoubtedly been a widening in the dispersion of earning power in recent decades. Across the developed world, the earning power of brawn has fallen behind that of brain. Some think this is due to technological change. Others blame trade with developing countries. But whatever the true cause, a global phenomenon clearly cannot be the result of British Government policy.

Too many commentators have wasted their energies (revealing a partisan bias) in blaming the Government rather than focusing their efforts on finding a solution to the problem. For if the earning power of unskilled workers falls or stays still at a time when benefits generally have been rising, this can make it less attractive for people with limited skills to work at all. This ?unemployment trap? would be worsened by sharp rises in benefits. For example, if the level of means-tested benefits were raised by ?15 a week as the Rowntree Report suggested, not only would this cost an extra ?6.5 billion, but an extra 1.2 million would become newly entitled to benefit and pushed into dependency.

IMPROVING EARNING POWER OF LEAST WELL OFF

The best long-term response to the problem of low earnings for unskilled workers is to improve their earning power. That means encouraging job seekers to acquire the skills, training, education, motivation and experience that makes them attractive to employers and able to command higher pay. That is easier said than done. it requires continuing reform within our schools, colleges, workplaces and benefit system. It will take a generation to come to full fruition. But it is well underway.

In the schools, through the national curriculum, we increased the emphasis on technology and vocational skills. We tried particularly to improve the attainments of pupils of average or below average ability. Improved teacher training, systematic testing, the publication of school results and greater parental choice will all help raise pupils? attainments.

Already we have dramatically increased the numbers staying on at school or further education and going on to higher education. Only 20 per cent of children of unskilled parents stayed on after 16 in the mid 70s. Now significantly over half do so. Which is why I find proposals to penalise families whose children stay on in education by removing Child Benefit from 16 to 19 year olds so incomprehensible. Better skills, better training and better education offer the only chance of higher wages without higher unemployment.

THE IMPORTANCE OF WORK

Marketable skills are acquired not just through education. Indeed, most skills are acquired at work. At the most basic level what makes an employee more valuable to an employer are the habits of work, punctuality, motivation, adaptability and commitment. Those attributes are normally acquired, reinforced and rewarded in work. That is why we have put such store on encouraging people to take jobs. Because the longer people are out of work, the lower their earning power.

Our approach is threefold. First, to help and encourage people to take jobs. That is why we introduced the Jobseeker?s Allowance. Already, around two thirds of unemployed people to return to work within six months. We wanted to increase this. So our Jobseeker?s Agreement is tailored to the needs of individual people, and the efforts each unemployed person needs to make to get back to work. But right to the benefit is conditional on people genuinely trying to get back into work - as most are only too eager to do.

MINIMUM WAGE OR IN-WORK BENEFITS

Second, we need to make work attractive relative to being on benefit. It is here that there is the greatest divergence between pro and anti market approaches. Those who believe market wages are at best arbitrary and at worst the consequence of malign employers see a minimum wage as the natural solution to low pay. Indeed, if I believe you could force up wages without reducing the number of jobs, I would happily impose a minimum wage. But in practice a minimum wage would simply destroy low paid jobs. As John Prescott pithily put it ?any fool knows that?. But it is worse than that. For the jobs which would be destroyed are exactly the kind of jobs which give people their first step up the ladder out of dependency. The lowest paid workers tend to be employed in the most competitive industries. So a minimum wage would mean an employer could retain fewer workers and would force many firms to cease business altogether.

A minimum wage is also a very poorly targeted way of helping households with lowest incomes. A high proportion of those on low pay live in households with a higher earner. The IFS calculate that a minimum wage will actually help households in the top third of the income distribution more than those in the bottom third. A much better approach is to let pay rates for each type of job find a level at which the number of jobs equals the number of people looking for work. But then give in-work benefits to ensure people are better off in work than out. For that reason, we introduced Family Credit which now helps over 650,000 low income families. And that?s why I continually improved it. And we also improved the help we give people with their rents to smooth the transition back into work.

INCENTIVES FOR EMPLOYERS

The third thing is to give employers the incentive to generate more jobs - particularly ?starter jobs? - which will get the least skilled on the first rung of the employment ladder. Senior people in many companies began with starter jobs like these. Encouraging firms to employ more people means reducing the burdens and costs governments impose on employers. We have successfully reduced on-costs to British employers to a fraction of those on the continent. For the equivalent of every ?100 of wages a German employer has to pay ?32 on top for tax, insurance, etc. A French employer has to pay ?41, but the British employer pays just ?18.

FAT CATS

Another issue which provided ammunition for the critics of free enterprise was ?fat cats?.

When people who had been hired to work at ?x,000 in a nationalised industry raised their salaries as soon as their industry was privatised, it gave privatisation a bad name. John Major rightly condemned it. There is no defence of such behaviour from a free market point of view. Their market value did not change overnight. They were not likely suddenly to receive tempting offers to move elsewhere. It was a different matter where new managers, who could command higher salaries, had to be brought in to manage privatised companies. That gave rise to little or no resentment.

But should the Conservative government have acted to remedy this abuse? And if so how? The true but uncomfortable answer is that this was a matter for shareholders. The way these monopolies? prices were controlled meant that the money came from shareholders not consumers. In most industries, overall prices were fixed by a formula. Any unnecessary increase in the cost of directors salaries could not be passed on in higher prices. So it meant less profit and dividends for the shareholders. If I had been a shareholder, I would have demanded to know why costs were being unnecessarily inflated in this way.

It is not, however, at all clear what the government could have done to remedy this public relations disaster. Indeed, even this new government seems to have no plans to act to remedy the situation about which they complained so vehemently in opposition.

The horse has bolted from the stable and it is little use debating how to shut the door. But it does lead on to a more general issue.

The freeing up of markets, restoration of incentives and changing technical trends over the last decade have enabled more people to gain large, sometimes huge, fortunes. How such people use their fortune rightly or wrongly affects public feelings about the free market system.

In the US they are more used to people making fortunes and less prone to the politics of envy. But above all, the cultural and religious climate in the US creates an expectation that the rich will plough back large portions of their wealth into their communities, the arts, charities, churches and universities.

Indeed, one of the motives for success in the America is to be able to do such things.

In Britain, we are wont to sneer at the flamboyant generosity of our American cousins. But should we not foster similar attitudes in this country? In his epistle to Timothy, St Paul wrote, ?As for the rich of this world, charge them to be liberal and generous.?

Wilberforce set as his second objective the ?reformation of manners?.

His efforts had a tremendous impact in promoting a sense of obligation among the middle classes in Victoria England to use their wealth to benefit others. I am not keen on Party politicians starting a similar crusade in this day and age. But rather than condemning the rich for their fortunes, the Church might well remind people that they are but stewards of their wealth.

TONY BLAIR?S ATTEMPTS TO MONOPOLISE MORALITY

Finally, how should Conservatives and Christians respond to Tony Blair?s attempts to identify his government with religious and moral values?

We should certainly not impugn the sincerity of his religious convictions. They are genuine and admirable.

But he is very unwise to allow his media manipulators to exploit his genuine faith as a cynical marketing ploy. Above all, we should rebut, and Tony Blair should repudiate, any attempt to portray New Labour as the exclusive embodiment of Christian values. No party has or should claim a monopoly of Christian faith, moral values or personal virtue.

I know many people are also concerned by the deliberate use of quasi-religious language in political speeches. My own view is this is more likely to bring New Labour into disrepute than to be a cause of offence to believers. Concocting speeches by the random permutation of agreeable buzz words like modernity, new, giving, etc. is an insult to the listeners? intelligence. Including a few words with religious associations scarcely constitutes blasphemy, though it probably invites ridicule.

Indeed, the sanctimonious style of the Labour Leader is already attracting ridicule. I am told, for example, that if you get through to the answerphone at No 10, a recorded messages says ?Please leave your answer after the high moral tone?.

More positively, Conservatives have a lot of ground to make up in our relations with the Churches. It, alas, became fashionable in Conservative circles to dismiss the entire clergy as incorrigible lefties. A few of the clergy did echo Paul Tillich, the theologian, who said that ?socialism is the only possible economic system from the Christian point of view?. But most do not.

It is true that many assume that the free market is somehow tainted with greed. But that is simply because the moral case for free enterprise has gone by default. We have only ourselves to blame for that.

It is time we put it right.

 

 

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