The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Sir John Major’s Speech at the Leonard Cheshire Leadership Dinner – 3 November 2005

The text of Sir John Major’s speech at the Leonard Cheshire Leadership Dinner, held at Goldsmith’s Hall in London on Thursday 3rd November 2005.


Earlier this evening, Nigel Broomfield – and the video he showed us – set out the ambitious plans the Leonard Cheshire charity has for the next ten years. They are very impressive.

But as with other charities, they depend upon the leadership of what we now call civil society. At the moment, all developed countries – including ourselves – need, as never before, leaders at all levels who can make a difference to the communities in which they live. The belief that a benevolent Government can cure all the ills of society – and provide all the services it needs – is wrong; it never has and it never will.

And, in a free society, it never could.

Of course, this is anathema to those who believe in the “Fuhrer” principle of political leadership: yet the belief that one Leader can change the world to – as Voltaire put it – “the best of all possible worlds” – is wrong. And, actually, dangerous too.

Often, those with such ambitions are monsters: Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun, or, in living memory, Hitler, Stalin or Mao.

My own experience has led me to prefer political leaders who don’t believe in their own infallibility. Gorbachev and Yeltsin were heirs to a long line of monsters – but they themselves were very human.

[Indistinct, anecdotes about Gorbachev and Yeltsin].

I think of Jacques Delors too. Delors was not heir to a long line of monsters although I did know some people who – wrongly – thought otherwise.

I sometimes fear we live in a world in which personality and glamour is over-praised and solid worth is over-looked. The Father of cynicism is Diogenes – who, you will remember, travelled in daylight with a lantern to find an honest man – and failed. He would have understood how our society is often portrayed.

Let me explain what I mean. In the 19th century, William Gladstone would walk around Soho collecting down-trodden ladies and take them to Downing Street for a Prayer Meeting with Mrs Gladstone. It was a well meaning piece of civil responsibility but rather open to mis-interpretation. Can you imagine The Sun headline today? I’m afraid I can – and it would not be flattering.

And yet, underneath this worldly cynicism, something altogether better exists in our society: a willingness to care for others. Diogenes, were he here, would have danced with delight and thrown away his Lantern.

Certainly, Leonard Cheshire would have met his ideals: he is an outstanding example of someone who was honest to himself, to his conscience, and bridged different forms of leadership – in his case, military and civil leadership.

As a young bomber pilot exposed again and again to extreme danger and won a VC for outstanding bravery.

Towards the end of the War, together with Dr William Penney, he was an observer of the atom bomb dropped on Nagasaki. They saw at first hand the enormous destruction of life. It was a chilling moment that changed the world – and it left an indelible impression on Leonard Cheshire himself.

Perhaps it shaped him as well. Because, after the War, he sought an outlet for his courage and humanity in caring for others.

He started by taking one man, Arthur Dykes, who was suffering from incurable cancer, into his own house at Lee Court in order to care for him.

From that small first step, and through his own example and leadership, has grown the biggest charity in the UK, offering help to disabled people.

All of us can remember the effect on our lives, our outlooks and attitudes made by the influence of unsung people contributing to their communities. Not inspired by personal gain, but by conviction and humanity.

One of the things which makes me most proud of being British is the amazing willingness of people in all walks of life to contribute: sometimes to sudden highly emotive appeals such as the Tsunami or the South Asia earthquake. But more often, people give time and effort to local organisations. Some big – most small.

In charities up and down the land this means people are prepared to take on the duties and obligations of Trustees, to accept responsibility, to offer care, to devote their time and talents – often for years – to causes close to their heart.

It means people willing and able to run homes for the disabled, the elderly, young people’s clubs and many other organisations. Leading by example, day by day, year after year, often unrecognised, sometimes with little thanks.

These people are not Saints. They are ordinary people moved by a special compassion or commitment, or, more prosaically, by a simple acceptance of duty, of obligation.

They are motivated by a belief that, in some small way, they are their brother’s keeper and they do have a responsibility beyond their own interest and those of their family. I never cease to be in awe of the contribution made by these remarkable people. They do it because they can and because they believe they should.

In a world that has become globalised and more impersonal, we will need more of that commitment. We live at a time in which countries like India and China are becoming major influences in the “New World Order”. Trans-national threats and challenges are increasing. As a result of these changes, decisions affecting our lives often seem to be taken ever further away from our influence or our understanding. As this unfolds, the more we need to nurture our communities, to find and encourage leaders who will make a difference.

If we fail in this endeavour, our countries may become wealthier in aggregate; our GNP may rise and per capita wealth increase; but our society will fracture. “What shall it profit a man if he wins the whole world but loses his soul?” mused Sir Thomas More.

It is not only a good question – but, in our modern world with all its pressures, it is an appropriate one.

So I hope that charities like Leonard Cheshire and others will continue to attract leaders at all levels; that Leonard Cheshire itself will be a leader in its field and will continue to prove again the old dictum that not everything which is un-quantifiable is unimportant.

In today’s world – in today’s society – what the charitable sector is doing is becoming more, not less, important. We should all take our lead from their example.