The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Mr Major’s Speech at Cancer Research UK Event – 2 September 2004

The text of John Major’s speech at an event for Cancer Research UK, held at the Paris Restaurant, in Woburn, on Thursday 2nd September 2004.


When Steven Dixon invited, I was delighted to accept. Steven’s parents – Ian and Valerie – were good friends and Ian fought so bravely against the cancer that overwhelmed him.

And it was such a waste of a man who could – and did – contribute; who made friends and cherished them; who cared about matters beyond his own interests; and who had a loving family – and left much sadness behind him.

Ian was a vibrant man and someone you don’t forget. A poet once wrote: “no man is gone while his friends remember him”: on that premise, Ian is with us tonight and always will be.

Cancer has touched nearly everyone. It took my mother-in-law; my brother-in-law; my son-in-law (a young doctor aged only 30), and a very close friend and my brother are being treated for the disease now but with real hope of recovery.

And that, of course, is the purpose of research: lives can be saved that otherwise would be lost. It is why I’m pleased to be here amongst donors who have given generously to the charity.

We are making progress – but no room for complacency. Another close friend, a public figure, was diagnosed with a fatal cancer and given 6 months to live. That was 4 years ago: he received treatment overseas where more funds were available and more research done. We need to match that quality of treatment in the UK and that requires money – money is the root of all progress.

But, everyone here knows that, acts upon it and I need not labour the point.

Many years ago, there was a financial journalist, Patrick Hutner, who used to argue that “improvement means deterioration”.

One can see what he meant. Last week, my wife bought two volumes of the letter Elizabeth Barrett wrote to Robert Browning and his replies. Often they wrote twice a day and the letters were delivered the same day. Today – if we’re lucky – first class post takes two days. Likewise, the NHS often falls far short of our expectations.

So do politics in a grander scale. The League of Nations and the UN were founded to solve international problems and yet they’re as prevalent today as ever. It is ironic that it was the US who effectively founded the UN and yet these days Congress refuses to pay its subscription and the Administration bypasses it when it can.

Nor – if I may stick to a health theme – have we made the progress we would have hoped to make.

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 afternoon would hesitate in spending that sum on a cup of coffee. It is hard to imagine the disparity between 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 – often their only export – 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, surely we help ourselves as well. For, 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.

Because 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 is it really their problem alone? Hardly. Half the world’s population is under 24: can they be held responsible for the conditions in which they live? Surely not – 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.

Much the same argument applies to 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.

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 Botswana, life expectancy is below 40. 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.

The horror statistics roll on.

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.

We live, therefore, in an imperfect world. We cannot expect our Governments to solve all our problems.

Individual endeavour is important. Sometimes – as in research – it is the most important thing of all.

We cannot solve all the ills of the world in our time. But we can ease many of them which brings me back to where I started.

Cancer is one of the great scourges of our time. It induces private terror in those who fear they may have it.

We owe it to them to do all we can to find a solution: let me end by thanking you all for what you have done (and are doing) to bring this about.