The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Mr Major’s Speech at the Annual Barnett Lecture – 17 November 2003

The text of John Major’s speech at the annual Barnett Lecture, held at Toynbee Hall in London on Monday 17th November 2003.


My theme tonight is change.

We now live in a world without economic boundaries: crumbling for years they were finally smashed by technology.

As the global economy has taken root, the command economy has taken flight.

This economic wind is changing even the role of Government itself. Governments can wreck economies with bad policies, they can help build them up: but more than ever before the true engine of growth is private endeavour.

As the unfettered power of Government diminishes, the power of markets increase. And technology has ensured that markets never sleep. We are now into a continuing revolution that will not settle down into a comfortable pattern: it will accelerate and grow.

Much has changed in the last 15 years. Not only is the global economy a reality but one super power, the Soviet Union – for so long the glue that kept the West together – is no more. China has emerged from its chrysalis. World demand is tilting towards Asia and the economic challenges are more testing than even a decade ago.

During much of the 1990’s the world enjoyed substantial growth with rising investment and low inflation but in the last few years, we have seen the flipside of that boom. None of the economic motors has been driving the world towards growth.

There are bright spots. In the US, the economy is about to grow rapidly.

Japan is showing renewed signs of economic life, even though her days of massive external investment are gone. Her potential is still huge, although, for the moment, she is merely limping towards recovery.

China is a different case. She is enjoying rapid growth helped by massive inward investment and an inexhaustible supply of cheap labour. But China’s growth comes with a warning: so cost effective have they become that there is a risk that they will export price deflation.

The political structure of the world is changing no less rapidly.

When the Soviet Union collapsed we all rejoiced that the world was safer. It was: the threat of nuclear exchange between superpowers had fallen. But – in politics – the laws of unintended consequences can be harsh. What we did not realise was that this global security came at a price: it unleashed far greater regional instability.

For example, if the Soviet Union had not collapsed – and Tito had not died – would we have had the bitter civil wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. Probably not.

Other consequences were more benevolent. Freed from Soviet control Eastern and Central Europe re-embraced democracy and much of it will soon swell the free market of the EU which – within a few years – will stretch from Ireland in the West to the very borders of Russia herself.

For the moment, there is but one super-power – the US. America is the most powerful political, economic and military nation in the world: no-one can rival her. But, for America, this is not an undiluted benefit: it brings obligations as well as rights. Problems as well as opportunities.

History is instructive here. When Britain had an Empire, we were widely detested. Hundreds of millions resented our power and envied our wealth. Even as they paid polite lip service to our face, they rejoiced if we were defeated or embarrassed.

Today, that envy, that resentment, is directed against wealthy nations more generally – and especially against America and Britain, her closest ally. It will take wise and generous policy to turn that tide of opinion.

It is easy to rail against the mighty – and we may see much of that in London this week – and often a proper sense of perspective is lost. I strongly support the right of people to protect against policies of which they disapprove. But let them remember. America is our closest economic and political ally: without her might at a time of peril, we might not enjoy the right to protest at all.

In the post Soviet world, two military-political problems loom large: the threat of terrorism and the instability of the Middle East.

The war in Iraq was very controversial – but no-one should weep for Saddam Hussein and his regime.

They divided Iraq with terror and left fear, suspicion and hatred behind them. A once rich land became poor. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis – mainly Shia – were murdered and ten times that number persecuted and driven from their homes.

The aim of the coalition must be to bring stability to Iraq.

This will not be easy. Ancient feuds run deep and each day terrorist attacks seek to make a difficult task – impossible.

There are three main risks:

(i) losing the tacit support of the Shia tribe;
(ii) open conflict with Iran; or
(iii) getting bogged down.

All are possible.

Yet, having invaded Iraq, we cannot turn our backs on it. We must aim to leave behind a free nation with a stable government. No-one should suppose this will be easy. It will not. It will be costly in cash and costly in troop deployment. If we cannot find the troops now, I fear we will need them later.

But – and here is the conundrum – if it is later it may be longer before the security situation improves; longer before an Iraqi Government can be in place, and longer before we can leave Iraq. That equation – early troops and early withdrawal – or later troops and later withdrawal, is a harsh reality.

One growing concern over the last few years – pre-dating the Iraq conflict – has been the growing division between much of the Arab and the non-Arab Moslem world and the Western democracies. A prime cause of this is the lack of progress in the Arab-Israel dispute.


The question is: is a settlement achievable?

Certainly, both sides need one. Israel needs security and recognition and acceptance by the Arab States: and Palestine needs a future. An active peace process is vital – without one there is a vacuum into which terror and mayhem step too readily. We have seen too much of that in recent years as a low grade war has simmered, always at the risk of becoming a full scale war.

The outline of a solution has long been clear. And yet, prospects of achieving it have rarely seemed as grim.

During the last year, hope has been hijacked as attitudes have hardened.

Israel has faced a spate of suicide bombings that are part of a deliberate strategy. Wicked men have encouraged foolish young men and women to become human bombs in Israel. The carnage has been frightful.

In a bleak year, over 400 Israelis have been killed. Many thousands more have been injured. For the third year running the economy has contracted, leaving unemployment at 10% – the highest the State of Israel has ever known.

And Israelis notice that the Palestinians do not regret the violence of the Intafada.

It has been bleak for the Palestinians too.

They have seen:

– their society fragmented and collapsing;
– their economy all but destroyed;
– malnutrition in Gaza rising to a par with the Congo;
– 30% of Palestinians living on food handouts;
– 60% living on two dollars a day;
– and 87% of Palestinian families having one or more family members suffering from psychological difficulties.

And Palestinians notice that Israel is unrepentant about occupying Palestinian areas.

Out of that mutual despair, is there any scope for optimism?

The essentials of this conflict have been unchanging for a long time. There is no new proposal for peace that will suddenly be seized on by all sides. The biggest change needed is one of attitude.

No-one should expect trust to spring forth from suspicion. It will not be easy to wring out the compromises that both Israel and the Palestinians must make.

PM Sharon has spoken recently of “painful concessions”; “a Palestinian State”; and “no military solution”. What this implies is unclear – and must necessarily be so – but it must involve compromise on settlements and the line of route of any partition wall.

A reality check tells us also that the exercise of American power and American diplomacy is crucial to progress for history suggests it is unlikely that a purely bilateral deal can be done – especially now for the Palestinians are in disarray and there is no clear authority in Ramallah.

A solution to Iraq may change the whole face of the Middle East but a solution to the Arab-Israel conflict would assuredly do so.


This week there is unprecedented security in London. The fear is terrorism. Over many years terrorism has grown bolder and more deadly.

On 9/11 it over-reached itself and led democracy to declare War on Terror.

This cannot be a short-term war. It will not be won in this Presidency. Or the next. Or the one after that.

Terrorism isn’t a nation.

Terrorism is Al-Qaeda; Hezbollah, ETA, IRA, Hamas, Tamil Tigers, Kashmiri and Punjabi Separatists; … the list goes on. Groups that are secretive, diverse, with their money hidden as effectively as their men and weapons.

In the mind of the terrorist, no-one, nowhere is immune: not New York, not Baghdad, not London nor even – you may remember – Warrington, where a few years ago – on a sunny Easter Saturday morning I shall never forget – two young boys aged 12 and 3 left home to buy Easter eggs for their family. They never returned: their tiny bodies caught in the eye of an IRA blast.

The question is: is such a war winnable at all? With one proviso the answer is yes. The proviso is this: we are unlikely to eliminate terrorism entirely because as terrorist groups are beaten back they are likely to splinter into smaller, more radical groups, with more extreme agendas.

But what we can do is cut back their threat, and lower their potency to a wholly different level.

To do this, we need international co-operation: especially from countries within whose borders the terrorists take shelter.

Many of these are Moslem which is a further reason why we need to improve our relationship with them.

But we need to hurt the terrorists in another way too.

We need to cut off the flow of their support and, to do that, we need democracy to tackle the grievances that act as the Recruiting Sergeants for militancy.

These go beyond Iraq and the Arab-Israel dispute.

We should never lose sight of the political, social and economic long-term problems which will beset us if the rich developed nations continue to get richer and the undeveloped nations fall further behind.

In some parts of the world, corruption, poverty and the growing epidemic of AIDS condemn untold millions to a life of misery and hardship.

Some may say – well, it’s their problem. Bad Government, bad economic decisions, bad judgements made this problem. Maybe, but we have to live with the resentment, bitterness and political hostility this causes amongst those outside the circle of prosperity.

Self-interest joins with common humanity to suggest we should help. If we are right to wage war on terror – and we are – then it is right to wage war on poverty and hardship as well.

In helping others, we will help ourselves. In removing grievances we cut away the resentment of the “have nots” for the “haves”.

In the 1940s/50s, the US launched a Plan to deliver Aid and rescue Europe from the devastation of wars. It was, Winston Churchill said, “the most un-sordid act in history.”

In a world of growing global security – and wealth at a level undreamed of by earlier generations – the developed nations together would be wise to consider another such un-sordid act.

It will come – for it cannot be ignored. The question is when?

Too late – and much unnecessary suffering will have been endured. Too late – and there will be little political gain for grudging and delayed humanity.

But act early, act now, act out of conscience – and not only will we foreclose on misery and hardship to come but we will under-cut the breeding grounds of terror that, at present, are such a threat to our security and our prosperity.

Let me say a word about domestic politics.

We are at an immensely fluid time at present.

The old verities can no longer be relied upon. Every child is no longer – as W S Gilbert wrote – a little liberal or a little Conservative. Or even a little supporter of old or new Labour.

For generations our politics was largely based on a familiar combination of class, of background and an affiliation to one of the competing philosophies of socialism or the free market. For those political non-conformists who wished to plague both the main political houses, the Liberal Party offered themselves as a safe haven.

All that is going. The old politics is dying.

Today’s voters are less interested in ideology and more fluid in voting intention. They are bored with the old arguments and the familiar jibes. They are also puzzled because nothing is clear-cut any more.

This leads to the widespread (but mistaken) view that “they’re all the same” and “nothing makes any difference”. The result is a General Election with a turnout of under 60%: in which the “don’t knows” and the “won’t votes” score more highly than the winning Party.”

No-one should dismiss this turnout in 2001 as a “blip”, brought about solely because one Party was unappealing and another not yet seen to be ready for Government. The malaise is deeper and needs to be remedied.

An underlying problem is that the Commons has been losing status for some years. Some of this is inevitable. Some of the powers it had have been lost to the impact of the global economy. The world has changed and vital decisions must often be reached in wider fora: in the G7, the UN or – most likely – the EU. The Commons has also actively surrendered decision-making making internally to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Mayor of London, the Northern Ireland Assembly and – very possibly – a wide range of Regional Assemblies as well. Its decisions, therefore, are often less relevant to more people.

To balance this, the Commons must look seriously at reform: and by reform I do not mean the pale-pink changes that have been made to “modernise” it. Many of these are for the convenience of MPs and I have no intrinsic objection to that: but they are irrelevant to the need for Parliament to re-assert its authority over the Executive and improve its capacity to influence long-term decisions.

Our present and future Governments, face complex problems – the consequences of an ever more elderly population – especially upon Pension policy; the need for far higher education standards than we have been able to deliver; – the list is endless.

None of them are easy.

None can speedily be remedied. None benefit from the ‘yah-boo’ exchanges that so dismay the political onlooker or the character assassination that has swept into fashion.

All need a strong, virile Parliament and not a powder-puff legislature dancing to the party games of yore. If the institution declines; if respect is lost for that; if politics is seen as a game not as an essential bulwark of our constitution and our liberties, then we are in serious trouble.

My theme tonight has been one of change: let me try and bring it together.


In a world of bewildering change, the speed of medical advance is staggering and the demand for medical services is infinite. It will grow: the mapping of the human genome system will lead to an explosion of demand for preventative care and, where this is provided, to an increase in life expectancy. It will be common place for today’s children to live beyond 90 years of age. What changes may they see?

As so often, the past may give us an idea of the scale of change in the future.

Last year, I attended the funeral of Her Majesty the Queen Mother and, as I sat in Westminster Abbey I pondered upon the remarkable advances the world has seen during the 100 years of her life.

At her birth, no-one knew of blood groups, of hormones, of barbiturates. Primitive typewriters, vacuum cleaners and household detergents still lay in the future. Marie Curie had not discovered radium; nor had Einstein perfected his Theory of Relativity. As a child, she would have remembered the amazement – possibly even disbelief – at the news of Count Zeppelin designing a machine that would fly. It would be twenty-five years before Lindburgh would pilot the “Spirit of St Louis” to Paris. Consider what has happened, within the period of that one very long life:

In 1900, the Europeans were dominant.

The United Kingdom, France and Russia controlled 80% of the world’s surface. Only Siam had never been governed by the Europeans.

Even the United States was still a debtor nation, financed largely by the City of London.

How things have changed.

The Ottoman Empire has gone.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire has gone.

The French Empire has gone.

The British Empire has gone.

The Russian Empire has come – and gone.

The US is now the most powerful nation in the world with China – after 3,000 years of isolation – on course to become her greatest rival. Europe is building unity on the back of 1,000 years of war and establishing a free trade area from Ireland in the West to the very borders of Russia in the East.

Children born today will see the conquest of the stars.

They will live longer, see more, do more, know more than any earlier generation.

They will see the deserts bloom.

See a genetic rebuilding of failing bodies.

Live with technical innovations beyond our present imagination.

It will be a world unrecognisable to their forebears.


Against the enormous changes that are taking place, we need a longer term approach to policy and an end to the travesty of “sound-bite politics”.

Soundbite is quite simply a fraud: falsely promises an easy solution to a complex problem. Easy – no problem. Problem – not solved by soundbite.

The events of 9/11 are giving us a masterclass in consequences. We need politics that confronts the uncomfortable. Politics that rises above the short-term and the soundbite; politics that is long-term; politics that knows it no longer controls all the pieces on the chequerboard; politics that adopts common ideals and rejects common abuse; politics that is directed to issues and not to personalities.

I will read you a poem you may know and I learned as a child:

For the want of a nail the shoe was lost.

For the want of a shoe the horse was lost.

For the want of a horse the rider was lost.

For the want of a rider the message was lost.

For the want of a message the battle was lost.

For the want of a battle the war was lost.

For the want of a war the kingdom was lost.

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Benjamin Franklin, 1758

It is the classic illustration of how a chain of events can be triggered by one single incident.

If it was true in the world of 18th century – it is even more true in the hectic global world of 21st century.

This world is competitive. Complex. Confusing. And always changing. This is our world, and we would be wise to reflect with care upon how it is and plan for how it could be – for the possibilities are infinite and constrained only by our imagination and our endeavour.