The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1995Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Speech at Downing Street Reception – 22 February 1995

Below is the transcript of Mr Major’s speech at an arts reception held in Downing Street on Wednesday 22nd February 1995.


Can I just firstly welcome you all to Downing Street. There are I know amongst you, one or two people who are quite familiar with this building, but I suspect there are a number of people who may perhaps be here for the first time. When you see that little narrow terrace on the television, it’s quite surprising to pass through the door and see how it opens up rather like the Tardis. It gets bigger and bigger wherever you go.

The Cabinet Room downstairs, all sorts of rooms you couldn’t possibly wish to know about on the ground. These reception rooms here, and upstairs a tiny, measly little garret. It is the sort of place where Fagin used to send out his boys from. But we have, thanks to the generosity of art galleries and museums, some rather lovely things on display. Modern art inside, a Hockney and others, and unless the Tate have been back today – and you never know with the Tate – there may even be a Turner or two here.

And through there, I don’t know if you’ve been in those rooms, but it is possible the silver display is available for people to look at. We have a national silver collection gathered here at Downing Street. Naturally, at the insistence of the Treasury it is privately sponsored. And they are beautiful displays and I was showing one of the items a while ago to a prominent Frenchman. And inscribed around the rim was a list of English Kings and the prominent Frenchman was an anglophile. A lover of English history, and he said to me, tell me, who is the greatest English King, and I looked at the list and I said Henry II. Why Henry II? Well I said he conquered most of France and married the rest. In the corner over there is that lovely portrait of a little girl, who in reality is a little boy and of whom my daughter was heard to remark, was a fearfully unlucky start in life.

You will find a little table which looks as though it might conceivably have been smuggled in from Selfridges or Harrods. It is in fact if you go and look at it, William Pitt’s desk and Pitt would have sat at that desk from 1780 to 1800 right the way through the French Revolution and the wars with France. You may have heard of Pitt. We drank a bottle of port before breakfast, a second bottle before tea and a third before support. And I have to tell you, there are moments when I know how he felt.

I’m delighted to welcome you here and delighted to see you here. I suppose in a sense there are many affinities with the occupants of this house and the acting profession. Unemployed a lot of the time. There are always a lot of people who want your role. I don’t think I need to elaborate. It’s self-evident. When I said you were genuinely welcomed here, I mean that. The Arts Festival is a very remarkable event which is growing, but beyond that the sheer breadth and depth of the arts in the United Kingdom in their broadest aspects, is truly remarkable.

I have the opportunity of travelling all around Europe and the world – 60 countries in the last four years. I know of no other country in the world, no other town or city that has the sheer range of top quality arts in all its aspects that is available here in London. And I think when one looks I don’t believe there is another nation in the world with the sheer talent available year after year after year after year in the United Kingdom.

One of the aspects of the arts of course it is often a matter of controversy is funding. When I was Chief Secretary to the Treasury – the one known in film parlance as the guy in the black hat – job way back in 1980 something or other it seemed to me then that given the range of the arts, however benevolent one was and however much they deserved the funding, they were never going to win the battle against health, social services, pensions, defence and a range of other areas that had very heavy guns indeed. And it was that thought that was the genesis of the lottery that is now beginning to provide resources on a scale few would have guessed.

Very shortly the first few tens of millions will be available from the lottery, but as the lottery comes fully on stream, the amount that is going to be raised by the lottery every year for good causes is around 1.8 billion pounds. If that one fifth, something between 300 million pounds and 350 million pounds will be available for the arts. Not as an optional matter, but as a matter of legislative requirement. That money will be made available to the arts year after year after year.

That is going to revolutionise the position of the arts in this country. And if one wonders whether that is really true, concentrate (as you are now) on what could have been done if you had had three and a quarter billion pounds to spend on the arts in the last ten years. In addition to the money that has been available from the Government will continue to be available from the Government.

That is the scale of the opportunity without asking for a single penny from the taxpayer, that is going to become available as a result of the lottery. I am pleased about that because I think it will entrench the privacy of the arts in this country for a very long period indeed. It has the talent, it has the skills, it has the enthusiasm and I think the way the money will become available in the years to come will make a remarkable difference to what can be done.