The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Mr Major’s Speech at the Royal Commonwealth Society Dinner – 20 May 2004

The text of Mr Major’s speech at the Royal Commonwealth Society Dinner on Thursday 20th May 2004. The speech was entitled “Priorities for a Changing World”.


Delighted to be invited here this evening and especially pleased to be speaking under the Chairmanship of my old friend, Emeka Anyaoku.
Over the years, the Commonwealth has had many advocates but none, I think, more persuasive or more consistent. Both as Secretary General for 10 years – and since – the Commonwealth owes a great deal to him.

It’s not easy to explain the attributes of the Commonwealth: part historic, part commercial, part blood ties, part romantic and yet, overall, rather ethereal. But – whether the attributes are ethereal or not – the attraction of the Commonwealth is very real: once captured, it never goes away.

I came under its spell in the mid 1960’s when – as a young man barely in my 20’s – I went to work in Nigeria during the Biafran War. It was an odd introduction. I worked then for SBWA – now Standard Chartered – and, in the midst of the war crisis, they needed replacement staff. I volunteered and – as I was considered eminently disposable – was selected to go. Frankly, I loved it. I was stationed in Jos which was spoiling as it is lovely but I travelled the country and felt, at first hand the invisible ties of the Commonwealth.

Some say the Commonwealth is a rag-bag cast-off of the Empire and of little value. I could not disagree more. Such people believe our world is just about Balance Sheets, Treaties and Alliances; but it is not – it is also about tangible and intangible links, and the friendly relationships of nations with a shared history. That is why – even in the hard-headed world of today – the Commonwealth retains the special affection of those who understand what it is and what it signifies.

One indisputable fact about the Commonwealth is that it is very diverse – from powerful nations to weak, from highly developed to under-developed, from rich to poor.

Sometimes the poorer countries face their problems in virtual anonymity: they do not hit the headlines.

The other day I lunched with a senior Army Officer who told me a tale I should have known – and didn’t.

A few weeks ago, the world was rightly horrified at the slaughter of the terrorist bombs in Madrid. But at broadly the same time, Uganda lived through a comparable loss of life. The so-called Lords Resistance Army attacked a large refugee camp in Northern Uganda and killed over 300 people. They seized children between seven and fifteen: the boys were taken to be trained as soldiers and the girls were taken for the soldiers. Publicity was minimal.

Commonwealth leaders should consider how they can help with such problems.

Let me now look at our world as it is – and as it will be.

In the 17th Century, the English poet, John Donne, wrote: “No man is an island, entire of itself”.

Today, in the 21st Century, we are all inter-dependent. There is no hiding place from events – even from those in the farthest corners of the world.

And our world is turbulent. We can foresee some of the changes to come. Others we cannot. But we can be certain the world of our future will be vastly different from our world of today.

We now live in a world without economic boundaries: once crumbling they are now gone.

As globalisation spreads, the command economy has all but disappeared. As the unfettered power of Government diminishes, the power of markets increase. As technology grows, markets never sleep.

Nor does the march of politics.

In the last few years, we have seen a political revolution that is reshaping the political map as surely as globalisation has transformed business and economies.

The most significant event of the last fifty years was the collapse of Soviet Russia.

At the time we all believed the world was safer. It was: the threat of a nuclear exchange between the superpowers had fallen. What we did not realise was that this global security came at a price: it unleashed far greater regional instability and foreshadowed a shifting map of the world.

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.

If the Soviet Union had not collapsed, would the EU be about to admit ten more Member States – many of them formerly Iron Curtain countries effectively under Russian domination? Certainly not.

If the Soviet Union hadn’t collapsed, would a coalition of nations now be engaged in a War Against Terror knowing that – to win it -the coalition would have to force out the terrorist cells from their safe havens in countries that had been in the Soviet sphere of influence? I doubt it.

We are also in a world in which economic growth is tilting from West to East and yet – India and South East Asia apart, – the new wealth may be bypassing much of the under-developed members of the Commonwealth. The tilt from East to West is certainly not mirrored by a tilt from North to South, where the disparities in wealth and living standards continue to grow.

If one looks around our world, what are the problems that stand out?


I don’t want to delve into this contentious issue tonight, except to say that it is very divisive and may cast a long shadow for many years. Similarly, Palestine seems impossible to solve and sets Nation against Nation. These disputes unsettle relationships far beyond the Middle East. In particular, they divide Moslems around the world – Arab and non-Arab Moslems alike – from America and Britain and (to a lesser extent) other developed Nations too.

But these are issues for another time and place. Tonight, I want to touch upon two great social problems that are more costly in lives than Iraq or the Arab-Israeli dispute combined and will cause great long-term instability unless we do better in the future than we have in the past. I refer to poverty and Aids.


Poverty is not only an evil in itself: it also fuels despair and can be a recruiting sergeant for terrorism. At minimum, it offers a ready ear for those who wish to foster hatred against richer and more developed nations.

As we look forward, we should assess 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 yet further behind.

In some parts of the world, corruption and poverty condemn untold millions to a life of misery and hardship. Some may say: “Well, that’s their problem. Bad Government, bad economic decisions, bad judgements made this problem.” Well, may be – but their problem? Hardly. Half the world’s population is under 24: in no way can they be held responsible for the conditions in which they live. And, in any event, the world as a whole is having to live with the resentment, bitterness and political hostility that poverty causes amongst those outside the circle of prosperity.

Our world has six billion souls. Of these six billion, one-half live on less than US $2 per day, and one-fifth on less than US $1 per day. I daresay no-one here this evening would hesitate in spending that sum on a cup of coffee at Starbucks. It is hard to imagine the disparity with the life of even someone on the lowest levels of social support in the developed nations.

The rich nations do much to help – but not enough: far more is needed. Collectively they spend US$ 50 billion on overseas aid – an enormous sum: but less generous than it seems when you realise that Europe and America also spend US$ 350 billion on agricultural subsidies alone. A statistic that is even more bizarre when you realise such subsidies cut away the possibility of poor nations selling their agricultural produce into developed markets.

It seems to me that long-term self-interest combines with common humanity to suggest that – 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 help ourselves. In removing grievances, we cut away the resentment of the “have-nots” for the “haves”.

Moreover, if we do nothing, the problem will worsen. In the next 25 years, world population will grow from 6 billion to 8 billion. Of the extra 2 billion, 97% will be in that part of the world that has an income below US $2 per day. This is not sustainable if we wish our children to inherit a world free of conflict. Nor is it moral.

In the 1940s/50s – after a different sort of War – the US launched a plan to deliver aid and rescue Europe from the devastation of that conflict. It was, Winston Churchill said, “the most un-sordid act in history.”

Not even the wealth of America could do that these days. But, in a world of growing global security – and wealth at a level undreamed of by earlier generations – the developed nations collectively must soon 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 out of conscience – and not only will we foreclose on misery and hardship to come, but we will undercut the breeding grounds of terror that, at present, are such a threat to international security and prosperity.

I am conscious that many may say – but you (that is me) could have done more when you had the chance. I agree. I did a certain amount – especially in reducing third world debt – but not enough.

There are pleas I can make in mitigation – I inherited a recession, there was no money to spare and it was difficult to make the advance we did, I was distracted by squabbles over Europe and squabbles in my Party – but none of these is a sufficient excuse.

As I look back, I should have done more. I wish I had. But the chance is gone. Now I am an older and wiser man and I hope to persuade my successors to raise their game. The cause is good, the need is very great, and action is imperative.


So too with AIDS.

There was a time when untutored opinion thought AIDS was a self-inflicted disease that could never affect them. It was, many thought, a problem for other people. How smug that was – and how wrong.

We know better now.

To date, 20 million people have died of AIDS and around 40 million more may now have the disease. Of that 40 million, 6 million may be near-death without treatment, and the harsh reality is that the vast majority of them will never get that treatment. They will die without hope and, too often, without comfort or care.

It is a worldwide epidemic. The Caribbean, India, Europe East and West, China, Latin America – everywhere – has the problem. No part of the world is untouched but the poorer countries bear the greatest burden and have the least resources to cope with it.

The catalogue of catastrophe unfolds. In parts of the Commonwealth, the problem is acute. In Botswana, life expectancy is below 40 – but for AIDS it would be over 70.

In Uganda, one million live with AIDS, and one million have died because of it.

In South Africa, one in eight has the virus. Many innocent children are infected in the womb or through breastfeeding and are born only to die young; others are orphans having lost both parents to the disease. It is a truly desperate situation.

The horror statistics roll on. AIDS is the bubonic plague of our Age and – despite all that has been done – more is vital.
AIDS has many nightmarish qualities, but one in particular that bodes ill for the future. The virus is cunning: the time-lag between infection and full AIDS can be as long as a decade. As a result, nine out of ten sub-Saharan Africans who carry the disease are unaware of it: many with the virus can therefore – unwittingly – infect others and often those they care for most. The implications of that are horrific: imagine how a man or woman must feel knowing they have imposed a slow death sentence on their partner. It beggars understanding: no-one who understands that could fail to be moved by it.

What can be done? Much is in hand through the WHO, individual Governments, and the work of organisations such as the Clinton Foundation. It would help if the disputes between some of these bodies could be resolved – particularly over the efficacy of generic drugs as opposed to patented drugs.

This squabble reminds me of the legend of Buridan’s Ass. An Ass, faced with two equally desirable bales of hay, starves to death because he cannot find a reason for preferring one to the other – yet either bale would have saved him.

We must solve these disputes speedily and decide whether generics are effective. For while the squabble continues, the sick suffer and the sick die.

But much more is needed. The world must focus more on this problem or risk being overborne by it.

Money is the root of all progress but is insufficient. Education on preventative care, medical treatment, and support, is vital but so is a comprehensive approach. The G7 Industrial Nations should put this problem alongside poverty as a priority for all nations, and work with the UN to hold back and then reverse the tide of misery that is the legacy of AIDS.

I don’t wish to disparage what is already being done but piecemeal contributions could be made more valuable by a co-ordinated policy.


Sometimes – when we look at current problems we forget what has been achieved – not least in the field of human relations.

I was brought up in Brixton in the 1950’s – a time of mass Commonwealth immigration mainly from the West Indies. I lived in a multi-occupied, multi-racial home and I saw the fear of the unknown that affected so many people at close quarters.

How wrong they were. Now, 50 years later – despite the presence of the BNP, despite occasional unsavoury incidents, despite progress that still needs to be made – the whole social flavour is different. We now have non-white icons in business, television, politics, the arts and we take them for granted. Prejudice and fear is in retreat.

There is hope in that: and the Commonwealth can rightly claim much of the credit.