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 the Britain in the World Conference – 29 March 1995

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech at the “Britain in the World” conference, held in London on Wednesday 29th March 1995.


Ladies and Gentlemen, good morning. When I heard Jim was here chairing the conference I tore up my speech and prepared 32 interruptions.

The motto to this conference today perhaps is best epitomised by a leading British Ambassador, now retired, who kept what became a very famous plaque in the middle of his desk, and in capital letters it bore a single word upon it: “THINK” – not I think a bad motto. And these days when Ministers and officials, pre-occupied perhaps obsessively sometimes with the immediate issues of the day, find themselves constantly under pressure to react, and react immediately, perhaps thinking long-term thinking may be thought to be an optional extra, but in truth it is not, it is essential.

And thinking of course, thinking widely, perhaps quite outside the normal drift of thinking, is precisely what today’s conference is about. In its 75 distinguished years Chatham House has done a very great deal of useful thinking about foreign policy and in doing so it has provoked a great deal of thought amongst others, and I warmly congratulate it for that.

I congratulate also both Chatham House and Douglas Hurd in bringing together on this occasion industrialists, bankers, politicians, public servants, academics, journalists, non-governmental experts and specialists in a range of different fields. Britain’s place in the world, in a different way perhaps, is of concern to all of us present today and everyone else in the country.

And I am delighted also that later on today the conference will hear of how the United Kingdom looks from the outside from two very eminent speakers, Dr Kissinger and Dr Joffe, and I am delighted to see them both here today.

Mr Chairman, this conference might equally have been entitled Britain in the Wider World, because over recent years the domestic debate in Britain has perhaps too often focused, and too narrowly focused, simply upon the internal workings of the European Union. And of course they are vitally important to our interests in this country, but so too are the United Kingdom’s interests and responsibilities in the other four continents and the oceans between, to which the other half, and at the moment a growing half, of our international trade goes.

So I think it is right to widen the focus today, to ask whether this medium size country of ours of 55 million people really needs a global foreign policy, and if so, how we should operate it over the next quarter of a century or so. And I think the timing is right to look at that as well because there is a sense in which one historical period has ended and another is just beginning. It is surprisingly 70 years ago since Winston Churchill said: “What a terrible century the 20th Century has been”. Well a terrible 20th Century, savagely deformed by totalitarianism, by fascism, by World War and by Cold War, but marked also by astonishing technological progress, and yet it has ended sooner and more suddenly than anyone could have foreseen. And it is not merely, I believe, that the world is changing faster than ever before, it is at least as much that the rate of that change is accelerating. Events happen on a speed and on a scale which risks running beyond the control of governments and of international institutions.

Let me give you but one graphic example in the 24 hour global money market. Ten years ago daily currency flows were of the order of 300 billion dollars. Now, thanks to computerisation and space-age communications, 1 trillion dollars can cross the exchanges in a single day. So 10 years ago central bank intervention could be decisive. I suspect that can no longer be the case and a different approach is needed.

And change of a different sort has affected international politics and security. Today’s world is less predictable and perhaps more volatile than at any time in the past half century. The old known threats to stability, huge though they were say during the Korean war, the Berlin Blockage and the Cuban Missile crisis, they have changed, they have been changed, supplanted by new, often unknown and diverse risks. For example, international terrorism, some of it state-sponsored, must be high on the agenda of all responsible governments and so is the need to deny the most destructive modern technology to extremist regimes.

I would like this morning to divide my remarks really into two parts. And first, as a backdrop to your discussions today, I would like to describe in outline the British government’s broad approach to the world. And then I would like to pose some questions to you, questions about how we should respond to the challenges and the opportunities that lie ahead.

I suspect, looking at this audience, that I scarcely need to remind them of Dean Acheson’s famous dictum in the ’60s, that Britain had lost an empire and not found a role. It hurt, it hurt at the time because Dean Acheson was uncomfortably close to the truth when he said it, and that is why we hated him for saying it.

But that was 33 years ago. Britain has found her role in Europe and around the world and has developed it more successfully than many people in this country appreciate. We have operated in that time as a leading member of NATO and the European Union, a Permanent Member of the United Nations Security Council, part of the Group of Seven Economic Summit countries, and of course as a founder member of the Commonwealth. The UK now has troops deployed or stationed in over 40 countries around the world in a wider variety of roles than ever before. The end of the Cold War may have led us to reduce the size of our Armed Forces, but not their quality which we believe remains the equal of any in the world, and nor their importance to this country for which the Armed Forces remain an outstanding national asset.

We have begun I think more than ever before to realise the power of our language and of our culture. We have built up a remarkable portfolio of investments overseas. Per head the United Kingdom’s direct investment is higher than that of the United States, of Japan, of France or of Germany. Our global investments are said to be worth around 300 billion dollars and only Japan and the United States can exceed that sum. And that very naturally gives this country a very lively interest in what happens practically anywhere across the globe.

I will not attempt this morning a full inventory of our national interests, but let me try and define some of the main characteristics of the United Kingdom in the world.

First, this is a nation state, a nation state in what I firmly believe will continue to be a world of nation states for the foreseeable future. We are attached to our independence, to our sovereignty and also to our national peculiarities. But there are numerous interests that we necessarily share with others. We work particularly closely with our partners in the European Union which remains essential to our prosperity and to our security. The world may no longer be divided into rigid blocks, and nations must act more closely together than ever before to deal with the global, economic and security problems that we all must face.

And second, it follows inevitably from what I have just said that we have at the moment a global foreign policy. Prescriptions for areas of concentration and inner and outer circles were floated in the 1960s and they were done then on a pessimistic analysis of the future outlook for Britain. We did not follow them at that time and I think the politicians of the day were right not to follow them for events have shown that that is the case.

Thirdly, no less than in past centuries, the United Kingdom remains a trading nation, but in a world where invisibles are now as important as visible trade, and one quarter of our GDP comes from external trade. Export success, investment success, have both helped our current account to go down dramatically last year from nearly 12 billion to more or less zero and we now have a current account surplus with Japan, a point perhaps not generally recognised in every part of the country.

Promoting trade is an important part of our activities, an important part of my own business abroad whenever I travel. The Indo-British Partnership which I launched in India has helped the surge in trade. Visits to other parts of the world that I have made and that other senior Ministers have made have so often taken with them large parties of British businessmen interested in trading with the countries abroad, investing in countries abroad and attracting investment from those countries into the United Kingdom.

Those of you who are here today who are businessmen will have noticed, I believe should have noticed, a cultural change in British diplomacy abroad. Carlton Brown has left the Foreign Office and the Foreign Office now devotes far more of its overseas resources to commercial work than to any other front-line activity, and rightly so. And that has made a significant difference to the way in which British commercial interests can be represented overseas.

And fourthly, the United Kingdom remains one of the world’s leading free market democracies. We actively promote democratic values and liberal economics in our foreign policy, not simply to proselytise but because in our view they are the best guarantors of peace and of stability.

And fifth, we have stopped taking for granted the English language, British science, education, training and broadcasting, we realise precisely what assets they are and what can be done with them both at home and abroad. Through immense good fortune the United Kingdom originated the world’s most valuable piece of intellectual property – its main international and business language – and we are now marketing it more aggressively than ever before.

Let me add one more characteristic. The United Kingdom is a conservative country, with a small ‘c’. We have enjoyed enviable stability over centuries and we cherish our institutions – Monarchy, parliamentary government, a rigidly impartial Civil Service, professional Armed Forces, an independent judiciary and churches operating within religious tolerance. It has become fashionable in some circles, some cynical quarters, to snipe at those institutions. I believe that is a destructive tendency, but it will pass because those institutions remain the bedrock of this nation and the bedrock of Britain’s place in the world and they will outlast superficial criticism.

But the essential conservatism of the British, and I am not making a party political point here, it spans the political divide, should not be mis-read in any sense. We are rightly averse to revolutions but we are not afraid of change or of risk. And indeed I would go further. I think that our willingness to take intelligent risks, to act sometimes quickly and independently and to give a political lead, underpins Britain’s standing in the world. It explains why, despite nature’s inevitable limits on our size and resources, the UK is one of the five Permanent Members of the Security Council and has the world’s sixth largest economy. It is not a quality that we should permit to be submerged, it brings value not only to this country but to the international community as a whole. And let me perhaps put some flesh on that assertion, some illustrations from current policy.

One revolution we did back, and backed sometime before it became fashionable to do so, was Gorbachev’s revolution in Russia. We did not hesitate to support the reformers when they came under attack, both under Gorbachev and under Yeltsin, and we have no intention of changing direction now. It may take a generation, perhaps longer, before Russia has a full range of effective democratic institutions, more time still before its people enjoy the standard of living we take for granted here, but we shall continue to take the long view for I believe that is the wise view to take with the changes taking place in Russia.

There will inevitably be set-backs. Chechnya I believe is one such example. The Russians there faced an unenviable problem. But the response of Russian military commanders was wrong and it was brutal, as many Russians to their credit will acknowledge. The fighting there must be brought to an end, international conventions and norms of behaviour must be respected. We should not pull our punches at all over Chechnya, but that huge error does not toll the knell of economic and political reform in Russia, it remains in our interest in this country and in the West to encourage reform in Russia and to develop further cooperation in foreign policy. And that is why I stand by my decision to recognise our common sacrifice in the World War II by going to Moscow in May, as I promised President Yeltsin last September. And it is also why I continue to support Russian participation in the Halifax Summit later this year.

We have taken a similarly long-term view of China. No longer these days is China a sleeping giant. We have welcomed China’s advance on the world scene, we would like to bring China into economic partnership and political dialogue. But at the same time we have not minced our words about human rights and their abuse in China. We are fulfilling our vital responsibilities to Hong Kong. That approach has not been free of risk but I believe it has earned respect and we will continue with it.


When Yugoslavia erupted, the United Kingdom didn’t hang back. we sent in an emergency aid programme which remains the lynchpin of the international humanitarian effort. We convened the international conference in London against I may say a very unpromising background indeed and got a diplomatic process moving. The UK was amongst the first to deploy troops to UNPROFOR in Bosnia and our large contingent has performed outstandingly there. I am in no doubt whatever that the suffering in Bosnia would have been far worse without the steps that we took and that the war would almost certainly have spread perhaps southwards, perhaps wider to a full-scale Balkan conflict.

That Bosnian problem is still with us and may I fear be with us for some years to come. In the past few days, fighting flared up again in Tusla, in Kravnik, even though the cease-fire has yet another month to run and if there is all-out war in Bosnia, UNPROFOR’s position could become untenable but sooner or later the Bosnian parties will need to find a negotiated outcome and there will be no clear-cut military solution and the sooner that is recognised the better. But however hard the task, it is in Britain’s interest, working with Europe and the Contact Group, to edge the parties towards a settlement.

Two weeks ago, I visited Israel, Palestine and Jordan. It is an area fraught with political risk but the United Kingdom has huge interests and a longstanding affection for the Middle East. I was the first G7 Head of Government to visit Chairman Arafat in Gaza and I went because we have an interest in supporting the peace process. Yasser Arafat asked me on that occasion if the European Union would coordinate international monitoring of the Palestinian elections and the Israeli government, when I spoke to them, supported this request. I hope that the European Union will now agree to take on that task and thereby to engage more directly than ever before in the attempt to build peace in the Middle East.

We have had to take risks over Iraq. We took losses in the Gulf War and broke new ground promoting safe havens for the Kurds. When Saddam threatened Kuwait again last year, we responded very rapidly and in force. Now, Saddam Hussein is trying to blackmail the Security Council by causing his people to suffer. The world must not give in to such tactics, Saddam must comply with the United Nations obligations and must never again be permitted to threaten Iraq’s neighbours but we must also help the Iraqi people, themselves innocent, who are as much his victims as anyone else and we must do that by standing robustly against Saddam’s wanton abuse of human rights and declining any compromise or accommodation with him whatever his blandishments and of course by trying to get aid through to those who are today suffering. Britain is therefore launching a new proposal in the Security Council to allow Iraq to sell oil and thereby import food and medicines. We wish to see an end to malnutrition and deaths from curable diseases. Saddam must show whether he has any concern for his people and I hope he will take up the offer that now lies before him.

Neither, Chairman, has our commitment to the Kurds of northern Iraq diminished. I understand Turkish concerns about PKK terrorism but Turkey itself should remain within the rule of law. We look to Turkey to withdraw its forces as soon as possible and to avoid harm to non-combatants and to relief efforts.

South Africa, like Russia, is at the beginning of a long-term transition without a guaranteed outcome. It would have been wrong for the United Kingdom to hold back and wait and see what happened so we are doing all that we can to help this remarkable transition we see daily in South Africa move towards success. I believe the United Kingdom can be a tremendous power for good in South Africa provided we don’t shy away from taking risks and there could be no better demonstration of this than last week’s outstandingly successful state visit by the Queen in which the Foreign Secretary took part.

Finally perhaps Ireland. For the past four years, we have worked more closely than ever before in our history with the Republic of Ireland and we have done so to promote peace in Northern Ireland. In doing this, the British and Irish Governments had to overcome historic tensions and entrenched positions. It hasn’t been an easy process for either of us and many more difficulties remain to be surmounted but a lasting settlement will only come about if all concerned are prepared to risk a new approach.

That, Mr. Chairman, is the sort of country I believe us to be and that I wish us to remain, perhaps a little less cautious and a lot more hard-headed than many people may believe.

Now let me take the opportunity of speaking first at this Conference by throwing some of the difficult questions at you that governments will have to grapple with within the next quarter of a century and we perhaps may benefit from your advice today.

How should the United Kingdom respond to future challenges and opportunities? If the last quarter of a century is anything to go by, the world in 2020 will be a very different place from the one we meet in today. By then, the Asian tigers, once aid recipients bearing a Third World label, should be prosperous players in the economic first division. How is that going to change the balance of political power around the world?

Will China realise her huge potential and if so, to what effect? Will Latin America have consolidated democracy and taken off economically? Will South Africa have helped to generate an upturn not just in her own country but perhaps in all Africa south of the Sahara? What will be the consequences of the serious and mounting instability in North Africa? And in Europe we will, I hope, have embedded the new democracies of central and eastern Europe within an enlarged European Union but will we also have developed a close and harmonious relationship with the large states further to the east, with Russia and with Ukraine? How can we be sure of avoiding, as we must, a new dividing line down the centre of our European continent? Another question of some importance: to what extent will the United States still be engaged as an active partner in European security?

Technology has made a huge change to the way in which the world operates. Instant television reporting can move public opinion in an instant, easy air travel brings people together more frequently at all levels, telecommunications and computerisation have revolutionised the work of overseas outposts, heads of government these days can pick up the telephone and speak to forty or fifty other heads of government whom they personally know and have met in a way that their predecessors could never have imagined and how will the march of technology affect us over the next generation?

This is by no means an inclusive list but these are some of the variables in long-term thinking that are necessary for the present generation of politicians and businessmen and diplomatists to consider. Of course, we are often overwhelmed by short-term problems but how refreshing it will be to see some of these longer-term problems examined, considered and debated so that the public mood may be taken and the public wisdom gauged.

What policies should we now be shaping to equip the United Kingdom for change to take advantage of the new opportunities, to be ahead of the curve as events move on and what is going to happen to the institutions of which we are a part?

Let me here identify some of the key issues, turning first to the United Nations. The United Kingdom has supported the United Nations from its birth and played a leading role in it. Recently, we have been a leader of continuing efforts to reform the United Nations and make it more cost-effective and arguably – some would say unarguably – the need for a powerful, compelling United Nations has never been greater. The world is certainly replete with both man-made and with natural disasters and yet as we say that we see something else at the same time: the United Nations is in a profound financial crisis which is set to deepen; despite American arrears of $1.5 billion, the Congress has voted to reduce the United States contribution. Does the financial crisis present an opportunity for us to press for really effective reforms in the United Nations and if so, in what direction?

Second, that crucial transatlantic relationship. Britain has a vast range of shared interests with the United States which I shall be discussing next week with President Clinton. We have traditionally favoured both a strong Europe and a strong relationship with North America. How can we help promote ties between the two heartlands of democracy now that we are no longer bonded together by shared fears over the Cold War? We have seen the first stirrings of a debate in Britain and in Europe about a new transatlantic community, it is a worthy aspiration but how should it be developed?

Third, the United Kingdom and Germany have led the drive to extend western Europe’s security and prosperity to the east, to bring the countries of central Europe into the European Union and by forming closer ties with Russia and with Ukraine and this will require a huge political and economic effort over many years; it will require us to take the domestic strain of opening the markets of western Europe and of investing more in the east. Is this an attainable goal? Is western Europe simply strong enough to undertake that job?

Fourthly, is our diplomacy adapting fast enough to new international problems?

Some of the most acute threats to our interests and to our way of life are not posed by dictators, not posed by traditional conflicts but by terrorism and by crime, by the narcotics trade, by extremism in the name of religion, by diminishing natural resources and by environmental pollution. Do these problems receive a high enough priority? What new approaches to these problems should we now be developing?

Fifth, how do we play our proper part in tackling world poverty? Official development aid can point to some successes, for example in South Asia, but it is trade, investment, education and entrepreneurship which have fuelled the more spectacular development of South East Asia. Hundreds of millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa have seen little improvement in their living standard despite huge flows of official aid over many years. How can we promote investment and entrepreneurship there? Is there still a rationale for official aid, tackling emergencies, promoting reform and spreading know-how? We have in the United Kingdom a tightly-administered aid agency in the ODA, it delivers both value for money and I believe credit to this country but increasingly the British bilateral aid budget is being swallowed up by our contributions to the multilateral programmes of the European Union so looking into the next century, what kind of aid programme should we maintain?

Without pre-empting the many questions already on the agenda, let me just raise one final point. I am a firm believer in the Commonwealth. It is more of a family than an institution and it brings us together with nearly one-third of the world’s nations. Sometimes we make good use of its assets as in the Trinidad Terms initiative or the Harare initiative on good government but if we don’t keep using it, then I believe we will lose it. The Commonwealth needs a focus, it needs a raison d’etre; what should it be as we look at the years ahead?

Mr. Chairman, as the opening speaker, I have had a luxury perhaps denied to others, a luxury of raising questions and inviting you to debate and perhaps supply some of the answers but I hope in some way I may have done a little more than that. I believe that this Conference is about building on success. The United Kingdom, as an island with a trading and a seafaring tradition, has always looked outwards. I am sure that we should continue to look outwards. We cannot afford a “Little Englander” mentality and frankly, I see little danger of that but I do think we will have to work even harder in the future to maintain the United Kingdom’s influence and a healthy competitive position.

I hope that the outcome of today’s Conference will help to guide our way in the years ahead, I hope it will inject fresh thinking into our external strategy, I hope it will assess our strengths and our assets critically but fairly and suggest how they can be best applied to the greatest benefit. If this gathering of nearly 700 people with such wide experience at home and abroad can do that, as I believe it can, then Chatham House in the Institute’s 75th year will have made yet another invaluable contribution to national policy and for that we may all be grateful. [Applause].