The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Mr Major’s Speech at the Hope and Homes for Children Event – 3 September 2004

The text of John Major’s speech at the Hope and Homes for Children Event held at Harewood House, in Yorkshire, on Friday 3rd September 2004.


Most of us are parents or grandparents or both.

Not only have children … brought them up.

Seen their vulnerability – shared their small triumphs and disasters; hopes and fears.

Even when they’re adults we still care for them – emotionally and, often, financially (against a Government that wishes to tax their inheritance out of its value).

Even so – our children are lucky.

But hundreds of millions are not … and it is children like these that Hope and Homes for Children cares for.

What are we doing for these children now and what will be the legacy of this generation to the next.

Before I turn directly to that, let me offer a sketch of the world as it is.

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 world. 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 with Africa falling further behind.

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


Of course. I don’t intend to delve into this contentious issue tonight, except to say that it 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. This evening, I want to touch upon two great social problems that are more costly in lives than Iraq or the Arab-Israeli dispute combined. They are both germane to the work of Hope and Homes: 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 is it really just their problem? Hardly. Half the world’s population is under 24: can they be held responsible for the conditions in which they live? Of course 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.

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. It is hard to imagine the disparity of existence in the undeveloped world with the life of even someone on the lowest levels of social support in the developed nations.

I saw it first forty years ago when I went to work in Nigeria during the Biafra war. The poverty and hardship was unimaginable as people lived in filth and squalor and without hope or help. I still see it in many parts of the world.

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 the EU and America also spend US$ 350 billion on subsidies for one industry alone.

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. That is why the work of charities like Hope and Homes is so necessary.


A related problem worsens the situation immeasurably – 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. So tragically do millions of innocent people: adults, children and babies.

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 poorest 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 poverty and 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.

It 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 charitable organisations and 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.

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.

I have run these two problems – poverty and aids – together because they afflict the same people: especially they afflict children.
Governments can’t cope alone. They need help. They need the commitment of charities.

Hope and Homes is one of them. It is why they deserve all the help we can give them.