The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Mr Major’s Speech at the Sue Ryder Care Centre Lecture – 29 October 2004

The text of Sir John Major’s speech at the Sue Ryder Care Centre Lecture, held on Friday 29th October 2004. The speech was titled “A World for Our Children”.


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

That is even more true today: true of life, true of international affairs; true of the sick; and especially true of those who suffer from progressive degenerative diseases.

Sue Ryder recognised this over 50 years ago and devoted herself to the care of those who could not be “entire of themselves”. Countless numbers – at home and abroad – have reason to thank Sue Ryder for her vision. Her remarkable innovation has grown and the high quality nursing care that is the hallmark of Sue Ryder Centres has become a practical illustration of man’s commitment to man.

We are lucky, most of us: we are fit, healthy, not crippled in mind or body and we have a life in which hope is always there – even in the darkest moments.

It is not so for everyone. Around the world there are millions upon millions who lead a life without hope – through sickness, or poverty or depression. To them – if only they did but know – the life of Sue Ryder is a beacon of what can be done.

The demands of life can be pitiless. Too many individuals assume Governments can foresee problems and solve them. They can’t. Nor can they cut taxes and spend more on services; or deal with today’s frustrations and prevent tomorrow’s arising; or focus on domestic issues yet, at the same time, keep the world’s problems at a distance.

Governments are not omnipotent: far from it. What Harold Macmillan once memorably called “Events, dear boy” shape the agenda more often than not with Governments limply following behind.

Sometimes they are too far behind – as they are with the two great social problems that may shape the world our children will inherit: Poverty and AIDS.


Poverty is not only an evil in itself: it also fuels despair, can motivate crime and even be a recruiting sergeant for terrorism. In some parts of the world it offers a ready ear for those who wish to foster hatred against richer and more developed nations.

Often you can see why.

A few months 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. It was almost as if no-one cared and the atrocity could remain unknown. But suffering exists and is no less tragic if the television cameras are not there to record it.

As we look forward, we will have to assess the political, social and economic implications of the rich developed nations continuing to get richer, whilst 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, bad Government, bad economic decisions, bad judgements made this problem. So, they did it – it’s their problem”. Well, may be – but they can’t cope with it. And who suffers? Just those who make the bad decisions? Hardly. Half the world’s population is under 24: many of them suffer yet in no way can they be held responsible for the conditions in which they live. And, if one looks at the larger picture, 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 between the life of these three billion people with the life of someone in America or Britain or Germany or France even if that someone was on the lowest levels of social support.

The rich nations do much to help – but do we do enough? I think not: far more is needed. Collectively we – the rich nations – 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, we help ourselves. In removing grievances, we cut away the resentment of the “have-nots” for the “haves”. In helping broken economies, we help build a future market.

Moreover, if we do nothing, or only a little, 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. And many of them will be in areas of urban deprivation. This is not sustainable if we wish our children to inherit a world free of conflict. Nor is it moral.

But if we act early, act out of conscience – 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.


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 charitable organisations. 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. 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.

Much is being done: but not enough. The world must focus on this problem or risk being overborne by it.

Let me turn to the political revolution that is already changing our world.

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.

Let me put flesh on that: 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 have just admitted to membership ten more Member States – many of them formerly Iron Curtain countries – that have spent the last 50 years effectively under Russian domination? Certainly not.

If the Soviet Union hadn’t collapsed, would we now be engaged in a War Against Terror knowing that – if we are to win it – we must force out terrorist cells from their safe havens in countries that were once in the Soviet sphere of influence. I doubt it.


In 1915 Britain invaded and occupied Mesopotamia to protect oil interests in Persia.

The British created “modern” Iraq out of Mesopotamia and the Governates of Baghdad, Basra and Mosul. It was nation building and yet we were regarded as “foreign occupiers” and faced widespread rebellion before we were able to establish an indigenous Government – and leave.

And, behind us, in a War Cemetery in Baghdad, we left the price of occupation.

Today in Iraq, we now have an interim Administration planning to hold an election in January to create the democratically elected

Government that must take Iraq into the future.

Many problems lay ahead, none of them easy.

The first is – whether the elections can be held in January?

To do so, we need:

– boundaries for constituencies
– electoral registers of who can vote.

And, above all, we must have law and order on the streets.

If there is chaos in Najaf or Fullujah – can they vote?

If not, would the elections be seen as legitimate?

Would the Presidential election be valid if Texas and California were disenfranchised.

An election in January is the right aim – but there are many operational problems to be overcome and it is by no means certain it can be done on schedule.

But – even if held, what then?

Who wins? Probably Shi’ites (70%)

Will Kurds accept that?

Will Sunnis accept? They have feared and distrusted one another for generations.

So – will there be a Government that is welcomed or will the election of an unwelcome Government lead to civil disturbance, even civil war?

If the Kurds are aggrieved – will they annex the oil city of Kirkuk and declare a homeland?

And, if they do, how will Turkey react?

These are questions to which we do not yet know the answer.

Any new Government’s first job will be to draft a New Constitution.

The dilemma here is evident:- if the Constitution is a federal one – with power devolved to the regions – and Shia, Sunnis or Kurd governors running their own regions – will Iraq break up?

– alternatively, if the power is held centrally, will any Government obtain the consent to govern?

And then: of course – the concern in most people’s minds.


Can they leave Iraq? They are on the Morton’s Fork of a dilemma.

If America and Britain go – what if chaos breaks out after the leave?

What will they do then?

And, if they stay, will this radicalise Islam even more?

I set these questions out – to emphasise we are not yet near the end of this saga – or even near the beginning of the end.

Our children’s world will have a different economic perspective as well as social and political.


The economic event of the age is the rise of Asia. It began

– with Japan.
– then Asian Tiger economies.
– then China.

We should not be surprised at the change unfolding before us.

One thousand years before Europe, China invented an iron plough for agriculture and modern paper for writing.

In the 10th century, China developed inoculations for smallpox. Europe got there – eventually – in the 19th century. China manufactured steel from cast iron 1,800 years ago: Europe, only two centuries ago.

The Chinese were making silk – and using a potter’s wheel – before the Egyptians built the Pyramids and before ancient Britons built Stonehenge.

They perfected suspension bridges when the British still lived in mud huts, and North America was undiscovered.
China’s decline as a world power started in the early 19th century when she failed to have an industrial revolution. Now, she is having one, and we are seeing the re-emergence of a once great power.

Over the last eight years, China has accounted for one-quarter of all the world’s growth: rather more than America at one-fifth or non-Japanese Asia and 18%.

China has space, raw materials, an inexhaustible supply of cheap labour, and is importing technology skills daily. She is becoming the manufacturing centre of the world, easily more cost-effective than her closest rivals.

She is buying up oil fields, petro-chemical facilities, technology, mineral and natural resources and is buying in Western expertise wherever she needs it.

It is therefore no surprise that Asian countries will no longer take any important decision, without considering how China will react. For China is a rising power and – if China slows down – so too will much of Asia.

It is a wondrous sight: a once closed Communist economy marching out into the Capitalist world.

But all is not rosy. You cannot adopt quasi-Capitalism without facing Capitalist problems and – for all its success – that is what is now facing China.


And, of course, Russia. The 20th century was a nightmare for Russia. Tens of millions were killed in the First World War: millions more in the Revolution and the Civil War that followed.

Then came the famine of 1921; Stalin’s terrors of the 1930s; and the Second World War – which alone cost 30 million lives including 70% of young men between 18 and 22.

Post-war came the Cold War; then stagnation, farce and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The 1990s began reform but was marked also by crime; the Russian mafia and economic collapse. It was a bleak Century even in Russia’s turbulent past.

Today the Black Sea fleet may be rusting – but the Russian economy is beginning to perform. The Russia of the past – has gone – largely unlamented.

Russia – now has Parliament supporting the President.

Very novel.

– lifts more oil than Saudi Arabia.
– has large hard currency Reserves.
– the best performing Stock Market in Europe.

It is time to look again at the Russia that will be – and to put aside old stereotypes.

The economy is now doing far better. Growth averages 7% and foreign investment is rising sharply. Reform is continuous. Taxes are being reformed. So is housing, pensions, education, health care and privatisation is on the agenda.


Wherever we look, there is change.

We have a global economy. The political map is fluid. It is difficult to keep up with new developments in technology and communications.

The speed of medical advance is as bewildering as the demand for medical services in infinite.

There is a pattern here in all aspects of our life. Science and technology is accelerating change which already takes place at break-neck speed.

If we look at our own past – we can judge what this might mean for our future.

Two years ago, 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. 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, the Queen Mother would have remembered the amazement – possibly even disbelief – at the news of Count Zeppelin designing a machine that would fly. It would be twenty-seven years before Lindburgh would pilot the “Spirit of St Louis” to Paris.

When she was a child, the Europeans were dominant.

The United Kingdom, France and Russia controlled 80% of the world’s surface.

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 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 what I call “grown-up” politics. For one small gesture can create a global impact. We need an end to “sound-bite politics”.

The events of September 11th 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. We need joined-up commonsense politics.

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 the 18th century, when Britain had to wait months for a ship to sail home and tell them the French had helped America become independent – (and often they regret it – so do we, but we’ll be back!) – it is even more true in the global world of the 21st century.

We have, heaven knows, enough long term domestic problems.

How to improve health care and education.

How to modernize our infra-structure.

How to provide security in retirement when people retire earlier and live longer.

These are big issues – but only a part of the wider patchwork. Our children will be affected by the world beyond our shores far more than any earlier generation. We must prepare for that.

Our world is competitive. Complex. Confusing. Sometimes it is brutal. But it is our world, and we would be wise to understand how it is so we can shape how it could be.

We have the ability to do so – let us hope we do not lack the wisdom or the will.