The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1996Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Speech at the 1996 Lord Mayor’s Banquet – 11 November 1996

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech given at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet at the Guildhall in London on Monday 11th November 1996.


You set out as the theme of your speech “Making Britain even Greater”. Not just – “great”. But – “even greater”. You acknowledge accurately what we are already and seek to improve it. That is exactly right.

There is a part of the British character that undersells our achievements and over emphasises our difficulties.

As a fault it is one on the right side. As a nation, we would not be comfortable with a boastful nationalistic posture, but we shouldn’t let our talent for understatement mislead others either about our prospects and abilities or our national character.

My Lord Mayor, let me develop your theme. Because it is my theme too.

Long gone are the days when the British economy was bedeviled by restrictive practices, strikes, high tax levels, runaway inflation and government controls.

It has taken over a decade and a half to make fundamental, lasting changes to improve our economic performance. But we have done it. Some of it was very hard. There have been setbacks as well as advances.

In the six years since I first spoke at this dinner, we have passed out of a turbulent recession, and emerged in vigorous economic health.

We have turned round our economic prospects. We are back in the first rank. We are building a prosperity that will last.

Too often, past recoveries were derailed by a yawning trade gap or soaring inflation. But not this time.

All the evidence is that we have moved from a country prone to erratic bouts of high inflation, to one where subdued inflation can be the norm. If that is so, it is a change of historic importance.

We now have a longer, more sustained recovery than any major European economy, with lower unemployment and inward investment flooding in.

As a result, we are pulling ahead of the European field. To stay ahead we will need to go on pursuing the policies that are giving us this advantage.

We have reined back public expenditure to well below the average of our European competitors – a difference worth £2000 to the average household in lower taxes. We now have the lowest basic rate of tax for 50 years, and a lower target still before us.

Strikes are now down to a twenty-fifth of the 1979 figure. And huge swathes of industry – telecoms, gas, water, electricity, airlines and the bulk of the rail network have been transferred to the private sector, where they belong and are prospering. Daily we see evidence of this in lower prices for consumers, more investment in the future, and increased success in overseas markets.

That is the argument for privatisation, and we shall look at more areas where private sector discipline can improve economic performance and service to the public.

My Lord Mayor, the truth is that we may have to brace ourselves to hearing an increasing chorus describing Britain as a success.

We are not going to throw away those hard won advances. The Chancellor of the Exchequer showed that when he acted on interest rates a week or so ago. And we’ll ram the message home with a prudent and sensible Budget – one that will keep us on the path of growth and prosperity for years ahead.

Next year our country will have the most secure economic base for generations. We can turn to the future and plan with confidence.

Ahead of us lie changes that we should embrace with enthusiasm because of the opportunities they bring with them.

I believe we can expect a tremendous growth in world trade and economic development. Around the world trade barriers are withering.

The dynamism of the single market is on our doorstep.

Newly industrialised economies are emerging in East Asia and Latin America.

The collapse of communism has opened up new markets and new competitors.

We are well placed to take advantage of these opportunities.

The world is turning to free trade. I welcome this. It makes countries more competitive, and more prosperous, and it gives consumers a better deal. It is in Britain’s interest, given our potential to win in the world markets of tomorrow. And it is the best way to help the developing world into long term prosperity.

I have always felt there is something rather objectionable about rich countries grandly handing out aid with one hand, while with the other they block trade access that would enable poorer countries to become more self sufficient.

Earlier today the Foreign Secretary and the President of the Board of Trade published a White Paper setting out our vision of global free trade by 2020.

This means free trade in services – especially important for the City – as well as free trade in goods. It goes together with our determination to secure free and open markets for investment and capital.

Day by day the very nature of trade is changing. It’s no longer dominated by freighters full of coal and steel. Now it’s as likely to be a service like broadcasting or tourism, or some tiny high tech component smaller than a fingernail assembled in four different pieces in four different continents.

We are well placed to prosper in this new trading environment. In the last great age of British enterprise, the influence of this small island was spread world wide by the efforts of countless men and women, who often risked everything they had to trade and invest around the globe.

That’s left the benevolent legacy that Britain has Links with nearly every corner of the world.

They aren’t nebulous links. They have real substance. Britain is second only to the United States in our ownership of overseas assets around the world. Those assets don’t just earn dividends. They give us a vital edge in overseas markets.

And the City of London remains an asset beyond price, as the dominant financial centre in our continent.

And, on top of all this, we have the great advantage of the world’s international trading language. Worldwide, one in five people speak some English and it is an official language in over 70 countries.

Six years of being Prime Minister has shown me these are real assets that can help us to realise our potential as one of the leading global trading nations of the 21st century.

We are living in a world where the economic centre of gravity is shifting to the massive populations and economic growth of Asia and the Pacific Basin. In the global marketplace, we must compete with these countries in their markets and match their competitiveness round the world.

We need to raise our eyes to this wider horizon. Some fear the development of global markets. They think it breeds insecurity. They believe that by shutting themselves off they can somehow be stronger. But history shows they are wrong. No country has ever prospered behind closed doors. The free movement of goods, people and ideas has always been a source of wealth.

Our future economic security and prosperity will come from our success in competing in the free market, not trying to cocoon ourselves from it.

So I am determined to develop further Britain’s position as the most competitive, low tax, enterprise centre in Europe.

We have the lowest tax burden on business of any major European country. Low social costs, no Social Chapter and no minimum wage.

This is what is making us more competitive and marks us out as a prime target for inward investment.

Today’s investment is footloose and fancy-free. It will go where tax is low and opportunity is high. So it is coming to Britain.

That’s why we’re bucking the trend and creating jobs, not dole queues.

So we will continue with those policies and resist proposals that would damage our competitiveness, cost us markets, and lose us jobs.

That is why the Working Time Directive, on which a European court judgement is expected tomorrow, represents an important point of principle.

We are in favour of good working conditions in this country. They are very important. But the basic employee protections are long established in domestic law. There’s no case for extra prescriptive legislation from Europe – imposed by qualified majority voting against British objections – on matters that are now best resolved between employer and employee.

That is why, if the court rules against us, we will require changes in European law to reinforce Britain’s protection from such legislation. Our partners know that. And they know that we shall insist upon these changes before we can conclude any new agreements at the Intergovernmental Conference next year.

In the next decade the speed of change may worry some people. We British love progress. But we hate change. We shouldn’t – it will bring greater prosperity.

We must look forward. No one ever reversed into prosperity. Progress will certainly change our lives. Information technology will bring new services available at the touch of a button in the home – banking, buying groceries, booking a flight, access to almost unlimited information and entertainment.

We will see medical consultants diagnosing and even treating patients through information and pictures piped possibly hundreds of miles to their surgery.

Dealings with government will be transformed – with services available on a terminal in your library or post office or even in your home.

Children in schools may be coached at their own pace through a new generation of interactive software.

These changes will happen. We’re making them happen. And this is a revolution where Britain is well placed to stay in front.

Our telecommunications and media markets are amongst the most competitive and developed in the world. They will be able to take the new opportunities because two decades of deregulation and privatisation have enabled them to become market leaders.

We are already one of the leading countries in the use of personal computers at home and in schools. And, by the end of this century, most households will have access to a range of new hi-tech services through cable, satellite and the telephone network.

We’re becoming one of the laboratories of the world in the development of information technology. All of this means that the new, global information and media industries are truly industries in which we can win – and win handsomely.

My Lord Mayor, the prospect before us is to become one of the world’s most successful global trading nations in the 21st Century.

We have been through an industrial and economic revolution. We haven’t been beaten down by that effort. We’ve shown we have the skills and strength to win. But the last crucial ingredient for our future success is national self-confidence. There are always people prepared to write Britain off. They are always wrong.

Listening to the political debate, you might sometimes get the impression that confidence is something we don’t have as a nation, or even that it’s something that we can’t have.

But if you lift your eyes beyond the charmed circle of professional pessimists, you get a quite different picture.

The City of London has the greatest concentration of foreign banks in the world.

Britain has won more Nobel prizes than any nation except the US.

As you pointed out, Britain has won a third of all Oscars in the last 30 years.

Our streets are bustling with foreign tourists.

Our pubs, clubs and restaurants are packed.

Our television programmes are in demand worldwide.

Our education system attracts half a million foreign students a year.

Our theatres give the lead to Broadway.

Our pop culture rules the airwaves.

Our country has taken over the fashion catwalks of Paris.

And our capital is described in an American magazine as “the coolest city on the planet”.

So, my Lord Mayor, you are right. We have every reason to believe in ourselves.

It’s time to parade our virtues as a country. To show – at home and abroad – how far Britain has come in economic progress and in the quality of our life and culture.

We can surprise others as well as ourselves.

We have a nation of talent in a world of opportunity.

Not for a very long time have we been so well placed for future success.

The fact is: Britain is back in business – and it’s back to stay.