The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1991Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Speech to the National Sporting Club – 19 September 1991

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech to the National Sporting Club at the Cafe Royal in London on Thursday 19th September 1991.


I am very grateful for the invitation, I had to come, it was the only way I could keep the job I have got. So I am very grateful to be here, Bob, thank you very much indeed. And I would like to thank you, Lord Porte, and Henderson Financial Management who have sponsored this splendid lunch here today.

It is a long time since I first saw Bob Willis, he mentions when we first met at what actually did later in the evening turn out to be a Jeffrey Archer book signing session – I buy one every time, I am building an extension, it should help the recovery along just a little.

I have watched Bob Willis play cricket for many years, in those days when he played for Surrey and later when he moved to pastures new, and he was I think beyond doubt a very great bowler with a very remarkable action. But what I think is less well known about Bob Willis is that he was a very remarkable batsman. He had perfected what wisdom once called the curtain rail defence, it was an interesting proposition, it was an absolutely perfect mid-wicket lunge to an out-swinger. I believe he was taught by the same cricket coach as President Bush, who is taking a very great interest in the game.

Since Bob invited me to come and join you, what is now I think about 18 months ago, I have had some interesting travels – Headingly, Trent Bridge, Lords, the Oval – and I am very pleased that I was able to find the time to do that and support the very successful England cricket team that we are in the process of developing and they clearly had an absolutely excellent year.

It was not only me as an amateur watcher of cricket and a lover of it who spotted the great talent of Bob Willis. I remember sitting there one evening in the Oval with a great businessman, a magnet with newspaper and other interests, and we were looking at Bob Willis and I said: “He is a very fine cricketer”, and the magnet agreed with me: “A very fine cricketer indeed” he said “he will go a long way, I think the sky is the limit.” Thank goodness it was.

Lord Forte of course has had a very long and distinguished connection with the National Sporting Club and just to indicate his sporting interests over lunch he challenged me to a game of golf. Now I do not really want to take up this offer for I suspect I would lose, the last occasion I played golf I think was in 1966 in Nigeria when I gave up when I found a snake in the bunker at a moment when I was two down. And I think after such a gap that I am perfectly prepared to concede to you, Charles, that the game undoubtedly is yours.

One of the pleasures of being here at the National Sporting Club is what it represents, what it is, it is a place of very great tradition in the sporting world and some of those traditions I think could well be transplanted elsewhere. One of them for example is that they watch rounds of boxing in silence and then have applause at the end and I think Erskine May might well adapt that for Question Time in the House of Commons, but they probably will not do it until we have given up bear knuckle fighting so there may be a while.

It is also a very attractive tradition, I am not sure whether you are going to follow it today at lunchtime, but money, so-called nobbins, are thrown in the ring to acknowledge a good fight at the end of the contest. I have a note here from Norman Lamont…..

I explained some of these intricacies to the President when I was in Kennebunkport just after I gave him the cricket bat and I must say he was very fascinated by the cricket bat, he asked me a series of deeply searching questions about it, “Is it a mashie or a niblet?” he said.

I would like to just take a few moments of your time just to review some of the developments in sport in recent years and perhaps have a look at some of the things that may happen in the future.

I believe there is a great deal that we can look back on with pleasure over the past year. One event that I take particular satisfaction in is the reopening of sporting links with South Africa. The government has consistently taken the view that sanctions, including sporting sanctions, had a very limited role to play and that those whose regimes we disapprove of must be offered carrots as well as sticks. I think we must show that where changes for the better are made, those who bring about such changes have something to show for it and South Africa have sought to bring about those changes, they have taken political risks domestically to do so and I believe to that extent they are entitled to our support.

We have seen the dismantling of some of the main legal pillars of apartheid, we are now seeing the emergence of racially integrated sports, each under a single governing body in South Africa. believe it would have been quite wrong of the International sporting organisations and of this country not to have responded to those changes in sport that we are seeing in South Africa and those other changes in policy.

So I was delighted this year to see South Africa readmitted by the International Olympics Committee and personally delighted to see South Africa come back into international cricket and I look forward to seeing them play at our great cricket grounds before too long.

The government may have done what it could to bring that about through quiet diplomacy, but cricket itself did a good deal more and I would like to say in his absence here today what a very remarkable job Colin Cowdrey did working so tirelessly with cricket administrators to help achieve the necessary consensus to bring South Africa back into world cricket. He had a good deal of help, he had a good deal of help from the African National Congress in particular which although in other contexts has resisted the lifting of sanctions, in the field of sport played a very positive role indeed.

And I was delighted just a few weeks ago to have a celebratory drink in Number 10 with Ali Bakher, the current and future Chairman of the new united Cricket Board of South Africa, and Steve Shwepi [phoentic] of the ANC. These I think are very encouraging developments indeed.

One other encouraging development that to a greater or lesser extent is mirrored elsewhere across the cricket team was the opening at the Oval by Her Majesty The Queen of the Ken Barrington Sporting Centre. I guess most people in this room will have their own memories of Ken Barrington as a cricketer and some of us, Bob Willis perhaps more than any of us, of Ken as a player. He was a very marvellous cricketer, those who knew him and knew him well say he was a marvellous man as well and I think it is a great tribute to his memory that Surrey have created this remarkable cricket facility in a deprived area of central London.

And it is part of a trend. So many of our county clubs, so many of our football clubs, so many of our rugby clubs, so many of our athletics clubs are increasingly running special schemes to bring out the best in youngsters and to try and give them the sporting encouragement and training that they need in order to turn them, not just into top class performers, important though that is, but to imbue in them the love of sport that most generations in this country have known and that does in my judgment so much good for our national characteristics.

We had this year a very remarkable roller coaster of a test series. I was in Spain during the final test, which is a tribute to two things, the inefficiency of my personal diary arrangements and the appalling fact that the MCC brought the final test forward from its normal resting place in late August to early August.

But I did when I was in Spain make certain arrangements to make sure that I was kept up to date with the score at the Oval. In fact I got the score almost on the hour, by the hour, whether I was actually at home in the house I was staying in or whether I was out. The system worked pretty well but it had a wonky moment or two, it was not always entirely smooth. I was in the village of Candeleda, a lovely little village in Spain near the Grados mountains, on the first day of the Oval test match and we had been walking round there for an hour and a half and up ran one of the Garden Room girls who work at Number 10 and she ran up and she said: “I have got the test score, it is 43 for 0”, “Splendid” I said, “Who is batting?” “Ah!” she said. The Civil Service in future, together with their conditions of employment … I do not think I need finish.

I have not myself played cricket since I injured my leg in a very serious car crash in Nigeria in the 1960s and I have found over the past two or three years that people will sometimes say extraordinary things to me that would not previously have happened. Mystics appear to predict all sorts of strange events in the future and re-write elements of the past, and not all the people writing elements of the past are journalists, and the mystic explained to me apologetically, very apologetically, that my accident had been a mistake – well I could agree with her about that – “No” she said “it was a mistake, the accident should have happened to the car in front”. So I was not quite sure how to reply to that. I said to her: “Well can fate put my leg back together again?” “Much too difficult” said the mystic “leg broken, ligaments torn, kneecap smashed, not a hope of putting it together again. But I can probably give you a wish as a consolation prize.” I thought I would take it, “Excellent” I said, “Please spare us an England middle order collapse in the next test match”. She paused and said: “Well let me have another look at that leg.”

There are often very odd things that happen in sport and life, England are off soon to New Zealand and then to Australia to play in the World Cup and there was after the team’s selection a certain amount of controversy about Ian Botham combining cricket and pantomime – I do not understand that, I have had no problems in my profession.

But soccer too has had a marvellous year. A close fought title race, an underdog win in the World Cup, a wonderful FA Cup Final of flowing passing football and only perhaps a smidgen of disappointment that by some malign trick of fate Chelsea yet again failed to win anything. I have spoken to Ken Bates about that, at some length, I then listened to him at even greater length.

Football of course, and its image I believe, and I am delighted to see it is very much on the upswing, I think its image is improving, it is improving to the extent that football managers can joke in many cases about the problems of football hooliganism that once they had. And one manager I think who had better be un-named for fear it might point the finger at his club and his fans indicated to me in this fashion the way in which things had changed.

“Some years ago” he said “a band of football fans arrived in an after life at the pearly gates chanting, singing, waving scarves. St Peter, a wise, prudent, cautious man, was in two minds about whether to admit them and decided to go off and consult a higher authority. Being a tolerant man he took the view that they were merely boisterous young men and should be let in. So he returned to the pearly gates, thought again, consulted again, consulted that higher being, and then came rushing back to the Almighty after he saw what had happened to the young men at the gate. And he rushed back and he said: “Lord, Lord, they have gone.” “Then your problem is solved” said the higher being. “No, no” said St Peter, “the pearly gates have gone.” It is why Charlie Forte had swing doors on all his restaurants, most of which survived.

But happily hooliganism, that scourge of football, now seems to be on the wane and I congratulate the football authorities for the way they have sought to deal with it. Arrests, ejections at League matches, fell very dramatically last year and I hope that we will continue to see them fall.

I have always held the view myself that the more successful our national teams are, not only is that good for the love of sport in this country, I think it engenders a much greater level of good behaviour amongst those people who watch those sports as well. The English team has improved, they not only do well in Europe but I think last year their fans acquitted themselves well in Europe also.

And a good deal of the credit for that must go I believe to the Football Trust which has financed amongst other things the installation of closed circuit television. I took the decision in the period I was Chancellor to augment the Trust’s resources by cutting Pools betting duty for 5 years to help finance the programme of conversion from terraces to seats.

And Norman Lamont, my successor, has taken that a good deal further, he has not only made a further reduction in pools betting duty but the 20 million that that yields, that will make available, will be supplemented by a further 40 million from the pools promoters. And yesterday, just yesterday, saw the formal launch of the foundation under the chairmanship of Tim Rice who, combining a love of sports and the arts, is the modern equivalent of renaissance man. Sports lover though he is I do hear that he has given up driving for a while – bang go my tickets to Evita.

Of the 60 million a year that will be raised, 20 million will be allocated to the arts, in addition to previous funding, and 40 million will be allocated to sport, again in addition to the previous funding. And the foundation I know is particularly keen to contribute to projects of lasting benefit to local communities.

But I do not think in our love of sport that we should forget the other sports as well, many of them are very popular, much loved and have a huge number of people who actually play them themselves. I daresay many people felt a sense of disappointment at the performance of our athletes at the world championships last month, but if they did I hope they will think again for I think that disappointment was not justified. We did see some magnificent British performances there, Liz McColgan particularly, the men’s 400 metres runners, and at the end of the tournament we finished fifth in the middle table, far ahead of 155 other nations who competed. And I was delighted to see amongst other performances Steve Backley returning to form after that disappointment in Tokyo.

And then in terms of participatory sports there is the enormous growth of interest in golf which I have no doubt, snakes apart, will continue in every part of the country. So let us send our very best wishes to our Ryder Cup team and to the European team.

The best of our sportsmen in the main sports become household names, they become role models, and I hope they always remember that responsibility. But in addition to them, I think we should not forget that it takes as much determination as skill, as many lonely hours in practice to be a world champion in a minority sport as it does in athletics or in golf. And when one looks across that wider vision of sport you can see how successful our country has been, Judy Laydon, the world champion in women’s hang gliding; Penny Way, the world sailboarding champion; and Wilf O’Reilly at ice speed skating – all those great skills, often without the glare of publicity that more famous sports attract but nonetheless tremendously important for the general sporting complexion of the United Kingdom.

And although we rightly recall those triumphs, although we are rightly pleased about the improvement in behaviour at so many sports, there is I think still room for further improvement which is why the government supported John Wheeler’s Private Members Bill, the Football Offences Act, which introduced new offences of chanting abuse and chanting racialist abuse, throwing missiles and invading the pitch. That is not what the people of our country wish to see when they go out to sporting grounds and I believe we are entirely right to take a very firm hand whenever and wherever it occurs.

I guess many of you will share my concern about the state of sport in so many of our schools. Much of it is excellent, but in many areas there has been an undoubted decline in competitive sports, in part I think this reflects the priority which education authorities place on sport and games, and it is to counteract that that the government has in very large part accepted the recommendations of the Physical Education Working Group and in future will require all pupils between 5 and 16 to take part in physical education, starting in September next year. This is the first time such a requirement has been placed on our schools and I believe it is entirely right for us to do so in the interests of development. And we have also accepted their recommendation that the national curriculum physical education itself should require all school children to be taught to swim at least 25 meters by the age of 11.

But I do not think it is just a matter for the government, even though I concede they have a role. Sport itself can help raise the facilities for other people to enjoy sport. I have been involved in the last year in Surrey Cricket Club’s Youth Trust, we have raised getting on for quarter of a million this year and we are now receiving applications from schools for facilities such as cricket nets and artificial pitches which so many of them now lack.

The problem I think in schools’ cricket, and some other school sports, may well reside in the changing structure of the teaching profession. If teachers feel society is short-changing them, they will understandably feel disinclined to put in extra hours after school or on Saturdays to coach teams and organise matches.

But I hope that we can, over a number of years, re-establish the status and the esteem and the self-esteem of teachers, perhaps by the establishment of the Review Body which we have set up to determine their pay, just as we have a Review Body for other professions as well. And perhaps when we have fully re-established their esteem they may be more inclined to re-establish school cricket and some other school sports, I certainly hope that will be the case.

I daresay most people, if not everyone in this room, will know that the British Olympic Association have nominated Manchester as Britain’s bid for the Olympic Games in the year 2000. This country last hosted the Games in 1948 and to host them again in the year 2000 would be a remarkable achievement which would provide a very valuable focus for the millennium.

With that in mind last week I had a meeting with the Manchester Olympic Bid Committee, the British Olympic Association and Manchester City Council to hear how they are progressing and to discuss what the ingredients of a successful bid would be. One factor I think did emerge clearly, to succeed it should be perceived not just as a Manchester bid or even as a north-west bid but as a national bid to bring the Olympic Games to this country in the year 2000.

I put to them the specific questions on which I would like a clearer view, including the issues that this bid raises for government itself, and we agreed that as soon as I have their more detailed proposals we would meet again to consider the way forward for this bid. No-one should under-estimate the competition, not least from Berlin in the West and Beijing in the East, but I am sure that those involved with the bid can build on the favourable impression created by their campaign to host the 1996 games and the experience they gained in that bid will be invaluable.

I look forward to our future discussions, I hope very much it will prove possible to develop a formidable bid for the Olympics 2000. We have the expertise to make the event a success and what a marvellous thing it would be if we could bring it off and have the Olympics here in Manchester in 2000.

Let me just finally say this. I have spent sometime this year at Trent Bridge, Old Trafford, Lords, quite apart from other cricketing venues like Kennebunkport – not a lot of cricket in Moscow and Peking yet I must say – and I discovered, if I needed to discover it, rediscovered perhaps more accurately I should say that a day’s sport is a wonderful opportunity for reflection and one message I have learned again from those days which I believe is relevant to all of us is that work and play need not be compartmentalised with work taking second best, with a little organisation one can combine the two.

I hope that is a message we can pass on not just from this generation to the next but from this generation to all succeeding generations and in the meantime I hope it is a message that we might take from this lunch.