The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1997Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Banquet in Honour of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh – 11 March 1997

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech at a banquet in honour of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, held at the Banqueting House on Tuesday 11th March 1997.


Ladies and Gentlemen

May I welcome all of you here this evening.

We’re here as part of the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the independence of India and Pakistan. On 15 August it will be fifty years since the last Viceroy of India hauled down his flag and new independent countries were born.

On 4 February next year Sri Lanka also celebrates 50 years of independence.

And we are here tonight to honour Bangladesh as well.

Looking back over the last 50 years, all these countries have faced many challenges. Today, they have much to be proud of. In all of them – the anniversaries will be celebrated with enthusiasm for what has been achieved and optimism for the future.

We share that. So we will also celebrate them here. Some might find that odd. I don’t. And I’ll tell you why.

Britain’s relationship with the sub-continent goes back four hundred years. It goes back to when the first British travellers gazed in awe at the magnificence and power of the Moghal empire.

The long years of the Raj followed. Views on that period are bound to differ. Tonight is not an occasion to dwell on it. We now have a modern partnership with the countries of South Asia. A partnership successive governments in all our countries have fostered and encouraged.

Upon what is it based – this partnership? It’s based on the values we hold in common: the values of;

– democracy

– parliamentary government

– the rule of law

– freedom of speech

– respect for human rights.

Democracy may have sometimes seemed a fragile plant in South Asia. But I believe it has firmly taken root. Pakistan and Bangladesh have had some turbulent times over the last year. But ultimately people have decided at the ballot box who should govern them. And I still marvel at the scale of the Indian general election last year, when a staggering 343 million people voted in the largest democratic exercise the world has ever seen.

English provides us with a common language with which to express these common values. It binds us together. As does our membership of a Commonwealth that has become more important as it has modernised.

But the most important bonding is the deep well of friendship built up over generations. It is a well that has never run dry over political differences. And never run dry in half a century of rapid change.

Some of those who took part in the events of 50 years ago would, I suspect, have been surprised by the depth and breadth of the links between the United Kingdom and South Asia today.

These links are being made and remade every day. By businessmen. By students. By tourists. And by people visiting their families and friends.

– There are more than three thousand Indian students studying in Britain. Literally, thousands more come from Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

– Fifty thousand British tourists visit Sri Lanka every year – more than from any other country. Another one hundred and eighty thousand go to India.

– Twenty-seven thousand British business people visit India every year.

These are just a few of the illustrations of the richness and vigour of the connections between Britain and South Asia today.

Nowhere are these connections more visible than among community life here in Britain. You only have to look round this room to see what a contribution people from South Asia make – today – to life in this country.

From the entrepreneur striving to make his business succeed, to the cricketer teaching us, cricket’s inventors, just how well it can be played, to members of the Houses of Parliament, there is a South Asian flavour to modern British life. A flavour that adds to the vitality and enterprise of this country. That enriches its culture and national life. I warmly welcome it.

Those of you here representing the arts make a particularly distinctive contribution to the cultural scene in this country. From achievements in music, in painting, and in literature to achievements on the, screen, on the playing field, and in cooking – British culture would be poorer without you.

But the contribution of the South Asian community in Britain goes beyond new ideas. It also strengthens the values that characterise the best in British society. Tolerance. Respect for the law. Enterprise. The efforts of ordinary, decent people to build their family life and do their best for their children.

The fruits of these efforts are already obvious. Young Asians are corning through the education system in large numbers. Their educational achievements outstrip other groups.

They get the best exam results in schools. They are maintaining that commitment at university. They provide an example and encouragement to others.

Britain’s Asian communities have produced some of our most successful entrepreneurs. There are over 100 Asian millionaires in the UK. I hope there’ll be many more. So too, I suspect, do you! South Asian talent and business flair is the bedrock of many British businesses.

I don’t say that everyone who has come to this country has had an easy time. They haven’t. For some, the going has been hard. But what I do say is this. The ledger is in credit and the British people value what South Asia has brought us.

This is why we celebrate these anniversaries. We wish to honour the contribution South Asians make to British life. And this is why we want to strengthen further our relationship with the countries of the sub-continent.

The political relationship has long been central. Although inevitably we have had our ups and downs with individual countries, our political links with each of the countries concerned are in many ways closer than they have ever been.

But relations have now taken on an extra dimension. Over the last few years, we have transformed the economic relationship between Britain and South Asia. Trade, in both directions, is booming and is now worth over four billion pounds a year.

Let me give you an example. In 1993 I visited India. P V Narasimha Rao, who was then the Indian Prime Minister and I launched what we called the Indo-British Partnership. It struck a chord.

Business took up the challenge. Trade between Britain and India doubled in just four years. And two hundred new Indo-British joint ventures have been formed every year since then.

And it is not just with India that we have been so successful. Across South Asia, British firms are leading investors and partners.

– In Pakistan, National Power are the largest investor in a joint project that will provide 13 per cent of Pakistan’s power capacity.

– When I was in Dhaka in January, I witnessed the signing of Cairn Energy’s one hundred and fifty million US dollar contract with Petrobangla. Sales over the next 15 years should be worth one billion US dollars.

– Sri Lanka is now the leading foreign supplier for Marks and Spencer. Many of these goods come from joint ventures between British and Sri Lankan companies.

At the same time, South Asian firms are increasingly looking to Britain for suppliers and markets.

They do so because they can find something more in Britain. They can find the enterprise capital of Europe. They can find access to the European Union’s Single Market. And they can find a country that is genuinely open to the outside world – open to her old friends and modern partners in South Asia.

I was last in South Asia in January, when I visited India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. It’s a continent that I love. There is such richness, such diversity, such vibrancy that one can never tire of it.

As Prime Minister on such visits, one has to wear many hats – metaphorically and literally. Some of them are more fetching than others? Have got more publicity than others! But it was striking to talk with South Asian leaders about economic reform.

This may sound like a dry subject. But I believe that it’s the single most important issue for the people of South Asia. We have learnt by experience that to compete in the modern world you have to change. This can be uncomfortable. But change that is made for a purpose is worthwhile.

All the South Asian leaders I met stressed, again and again, that their purpose was to realise their country’s potential. Their political potential. Their economic potential. And, above all, their human potential – by improving the quality of life of their people.

That is why they are committed to opening markets, to removing red tape, and to welcoming investors.

And that is why we in Britain are committed to responding. UK firms have the expertise, the experience and the will to help the economic transformation of South Asia.

The UK’s development assistance programme is also geared to helping change. We are working with the countries of South Asia to develop their human resources, through better education and health. We are cooperating to create the conditions needed for increased private investment. And I saw for myself in Bangladesh how Britain is helping to stimulate entrepreneurial skills by giving micro-credit to small and new businesses.

Each country faces different problems. They are at different stages.

I welcome the latest Indian budget as an important step on the road of fiscal reform. India can also think of the opportunities if infrastructure bottlenecks are removed. If closed business sectors are given the freedom to serve their countrymen. If, for example, the insurance sector is opened up to investment.

The new government in Pakistan can think of what can be achieved by pushing on with liberalisation and fiscal reform.

And Bangladesh and Sri Lanka can think of their potential if they make a success of privatisation.

Make no mistake. All are facing in the right direction. Towards open markets and liberal economies, where people are free to exploit their energy and enterprise. It is the direction that we in Britain are facing too. And because we all face the same way, our partnership has real meaning.

For India and Pakistan this year is the fiftieth of their existence as modern states. We know they’ll celebrate. It’s their party. But we would like to join in. To demonstrate that we are old friends. And modern partners.

I hope too that this year will see greater partnership between India and Pakistan. The prospect of talks between Nawaz Sharif and Deve Gowda is very welcome.

As I speak, the Royal Yacht Britannia is in Bombay, after a very successful visit to Karachi. With her are the Lord Mayor of London and many British business people, including representatives of the insurance companies who have generously sponsored this occasion. Anthony Nelson, the Minister of Trade, who is here this evening, will jet off tomorrow morning to join them.

The British Council is putting on an exciting programme of cultural events funded jointly by India, Pakistan: and British companies.

In India, the highlight will be an exhibition of treasures from the British Museum. entitled “The Enduring Image”.

In Pakistan, another exhibition “Traditions of Respect” will celebrate the contribution of the Islamic world to British culture.

I know there will also be many cultural events in this country. Some will form part of the programme of events the Government is organising to mark these anniversaries.

But I am delighted that there will also be many more unofficial events across the country:- Banquets. Festivals. Music, dance and drama. Sporting events. Exhibitions and displays in museums, galleries and historic houses. All reflect the friendship of our countries, the vitality of our communities, and the creative value of their meeting. All are a demonstration of the energy and enthusiasm of people m this country, for the countries of South Asia.

Finally, as 1997 draws to a close, two events will symbolise our enduring friendship.

Her Majesty The Queen will visit the sub-continent in October to wish India and Pakistan well in their anniversary year. And all of us – Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India and the United Kingdom – will participate in the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Edinburgh this autumn.

In celebrating the last fifty years, we celebrate a shared history, shared values and a truly modern partnership. And above all we can look forward to a shared future in which our roads, our cultures, our interests will be shared as never before. I wish the countries of South Asia every success over the next fifty years. I am sure they will achieve it.