The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Sir John Major’s Speech on Terrorism – 7 December 2005

The text of Sir John Major’s speech on Terrorism, given at Yale University, Connecticut, on Wednesday 7th December 2005.


Great pleasure to be at Yale – and also to see my old friend President Zedillo. When Stanley Flink invited me I was delighted to accept …. after all, since I left full time education at fifteen, an invitation to visit one of the great Universities of the world was irresistible.

And – in any event – America is a second home to me. My father was brought up in Pennsylvania in the 1880s.

Long time ago: when I was born my father was 65. My mother ….. was surprised.

[Indistinct, but about being very pro-American. Took the view we were two countries divided only by a common language.]

And – possibly – united by the fact that the first Lady Member of the House of Commons was … an American – Nancy Astor.

300 years of a male dominated Club – this sparky opinionated woman who took no hostages was controversial.

As a new Member of Parliament, she was speaking on Agriculture, when – across the Chamber of the House of Commons – another Member shouted: “You know nothing about Agriculture …. how many toes has a pig?”.

Nancy Astor never faltered: “How many toes has a pig? …. Take off your boots and count”.

Great friend of Winston Churchill. One of those enduring friendships: they would defend each other against all foes – to the end. But when together, socially/privately. they would fight like ferrets in a sack.

[Indistinct, but quotes from Winston Churchill].

Of course, Churchill’s world has gone forever.

Twenty years ago, until the collapse of the Soviet Union, we lived in a world of two super-powers. The end of Soviet Communism changed the world. If it had not collapsed, I doubt we would have seen the horrors and genocide of Bosnia and Kosovo.

Nor, if it had not collapsed, would the free market be so dominant or such a target for terrorist groups.

Today, we live in a world that is economically liberal – and yet this free-market liberalism – adopted by East and West alike – is very controversial. But why should that be so when it is geared to promoting wealth and well-being? Why should economic freedom and radical militancy have both grown at the same time?

For many reasons, but two predominate: the mal-distribution of that growing wealth, and because the free market is bringing about changes that disturb the absolutism of old faiths.

Here – exposed immediately – are the twin roots of terror: fear and hatred.

History is instructive here. When Britain had an Empire, we were cordially detested. Hundreds of millions resented our power and envied our wealth. Even as they paid lip service to our face, the rejoiced if we were embarrassed or discomforted.

Today, terrorists direct these same emotions against secure nations – and most obviously the United States as the most powerful political, economic and military nation in the world.

Sometimes, there is a tendency to think of terrorism as if it were a global conspiracy. Certainly, some groups have widespread and growing tentacles. It is true that sometimes there is co-operation between terrorist organisations: to take two far-away examples, those in the Mindanao region of Southern Philippines almost certainly have links to Malaysian and Indonesian groups.

And those in Southern Thailand seem to have sympathisers in Malaysia. Some terrorists are mercenaries for hire, unconcerned by any particular cause, and motivated only by hatreds and greed.

Certainly, they are fanatics without conscience: “I have no regrets. I acted alone and on orders from God”. Thus, the extremist who murdered Yitzhak Rabin, Prime Minister of Israel.

Sadly there are many like him.

But there is no worldwide conspiracy. Mostly, terrorist groups are close-knit, relatively small organisations, with their own causes however perverted, and their own ambitions, however ill-conceived.

Their causes may overlap – and occasionally merge – but they are not joined together in an over-arching organisation. It is important to understand this if we are to tailor a response to terror that will defeat it.

But, since the rise of Al Qaeda, there is a layer of peripheral groups who share the same ideology, seek the same ends and use similar tactics.

The Al Qaeda philosophy is out of kilter with mainstream Islam, especially the moderate Islam that is the basic character of the religion.

Al Qaeda’s objective is the unification of the Islamic community around the world; its purification and the imposition of the most literal translation of strict Sharia Law.

They wish to see the world divided between Islam – and everyone else. It is an isolationist philosophy, wholly out of tune with the modern world.

Their tactics we know: distortion of the Koran, indiscriminate terror; and the call for a Holy War – Jihad – against all who oppose them. It is an unappetising menu and it cannot be ignored.

For millions of people around the world, terror now looms as a widespread threat: the fear of global war has gone but it has been superseded by the fear of global terror.

When Kipling wrote these famous lines:

“East is East and West is West,
And never the twain will meet”,
he had not realised we would live in a global market, or face the common threat of terror.

None of this is new. Terrorism is not new: it has been with us since ancient times; but now, like the economy, terror is globalising. Terrorism is not a Nation. Terrorism is Al Qaeda; Hezbollah, ETA, IRA, Hamas, Tamil Tigers, Kashmiri and Punjabi Separatists; Pattani United Liberation Organisation; GIA … the list goes on.

Groups that are secretive, diverse, that hide their money, men and weapons hidden as effectively as they close their minds to any message but their own.

Today, terrorism is a threat to much of the world. It is not targeted only against the Governments of the West. Think of the bombs in Bali. Or Jerusalem. Or the school siege in Moscow. Or Sarin gas in Tokyo. Or atrocities in Kashmir. The signature of mass-casualty terrorism can be seen worldwide.

Most people find violence abhorrent and yet, terrorism has never been short of apologists. Over many years, it has grown bolder and more deadly. Many nations have suffered.

But terrorism has not been effective in the post-Colonial world.

When Spain, Portugal and Greece dumped Fascism – it was not because of terrorism.

When Communism collapsed in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe – it was not because of terrorist pressure.

When Apartheid ended – Terrorism played no part in its demise.

Terrorism can claim none of these victories – it exposes frustration but it often entrenches what it wishes to destroy: it is – ultimately – immoral and unsuccessful in achieving its aims. Ghandi was far more successful in effecting change than Bin Laden will ever be. As we look ahead, it is vital terror fails in Iraq, too – for a success for terrorism would boost it throughout the world and every corner of the world would suffer.

What is the purpose of terror? It varies. For many Terrorist Groups the predominant aim is to radicalise Islam; to set Muslim against non-Muslim; to play upon prejudice; to foster hatred. For others, as in Northern Ireland say, or Thailand, it is to pursue specific political agendas or to unsettle democracies.

In Northern Ireland, the intent was to absorb the North into a united Ireland. In Thailand it was to create a Separatist Buttani State in the Name of Islam. Always, the effect is to create chaos.

And it does. The economic impact of terror is to de-stabilise markets. The political effect is to undermine Government by consent and civil order.

So, whatever reservations there may be about how this War on Terror is being fought – these are sound reasons why it must be fought – and why it must be won.

Terrorism and democracy are fundamentally opposed. They cannot co-exist. One must defeat the other. If democracy is to survive, terrorism must fall.

The characteristics of modern terror are becoming more apparent each day. Terrorism has developed a particular flavour: it has become a tool of religious fanatics and a vehicle to destroy the free market system.

One new phenomenon is the willingness of terrorists to sacrifice their own lives for their cause. We saw this in the 9/11 attacks in New York and have seen it since in Iraq and Palestine and London. A pattern is forming.

The oxygen for terrorism is hatred: hatred of specific countries and their values or – sometimes, resentment of long-standing grievances that go back over hundreds of years. We know, too, that social and economic marginalisation encourages political radicalisation.

As democracy and terrorism confront one another, one question must be asked at the outset: can a war against terror be won at all? Is it possible that such a shadowy concept as terrorism can be identified, isolated and defeated?

With one caveat, my answer is – Yes, it can.

The caveat is that history tells us terrorist groups are rarely entirely destroyed: they split and smaller groups, sometimes made up of the hardest of hardliners, replace them. It is not, therefore, a short conflict. But, over time, they can be beaten and the potency of their threat removed.

So, if democracy can win, how can it do so?

The answer to that question is complex. It involves action against existing terror groups now, and political measures to prevent such groups obtaining support today that will help them spread their contagion tomorrow.

To win, all those nations threatened by terrorism need to co-operate. This coalition of the willing must embrace every country that is – or wishes to be – democratic. These States must work together to deny terrorists their safe havens, cut off their financing, and stem the flow of recruits. They must deny them their causes.

And, to defeat the ideological threat they pose, we must understand the motives that drive them and re-educate the minds of those who have sympathy with them.

We must accept we cannot win by military power alone, but concede that we cannot win without it. Terrorism has been growing for many years – too many years – before democracy began to retaliate effectively after the terrorists over-reached themselves with the attacks on New York.

Now, many Nations are engaged in what will be a complex and protracted battle – not least of minds.

International co-operation is vital: we will win more speedily if we co-ordinate action against terror; inhibit the movement of terrorists; outlaw them in every respect; attack money laundering; penalise States that are known to fund terror; act to reduce their supply of weapons; agree worldwide extradition of terrorist suspects. So much, I think, is obvious – although not all of it is done.

But these measures are simply policing action against existing terror groups. Vital – but insufficient. We must go further. We must ask ourselves – what motivates terrorism? What encourages non-terrorists to tacitly support them? What can we do to make terrorism so totally abhorrent that terrorists are utterly isolated?

The answers to these questions are not always palatable.

In much of the world ideological radicalisation has fed the perception that the religion of Islam is under attack. Al Qaeda assert this every day. Radicals use this belief as a recruiting sergeant to fuel their cause. Events such as the Afghanistan and Iraq wars have fed this perception as has the failure to bring the Middle East Peace Process – or the Kashmir conflict – to a successful conclusion.

The Radicals case is crude propaganda, and wrong, but it is effective. To rebut it, democracy must lessen the chance of demagogues exploiting hardship to promote terrorism. They must fight for the hearts and minds of those into whose ears radical poison is poured. Words alone will not do: they must accept obligations that illustrate the morality of democracy.

One example stands out. 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. This cannot be acceptable. I daresay no-one here today would hesitate in spending that sum on a cup of coffee from Starbucks. The rich nations do much to help. At present, the rich nations spend US$ 50 billion in total 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.

To put that into context: we spend seven times as much subsidising cheap food for those already well-fed, as the whole world spends on all the needs of those with no food in their bellies at all.

I believe that common humanity suggests 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.

And it is in our interests to remove grievances, to cut away the resentment of the “have-nots” for the “haves”. Moreover, as we act, we foreclose on misery and hardship to come and undercut the message of hate that fuels radicalism.

As we combat terrorism, we must realise that specific events or conflicts will always be used to promote the cause: a moment ago I cited the Middle East Peace Process as one such illustration of this.

The Arab-Israel dispute is heartrendingly difficult to solve.

Palestine has become the issue that is, above all, the poison in the well of relations between Islam and the rest of the world.

The strong support that many countries have given to Israel over many years is based on admiration for a talented nation whose whole history is one of persecution. In my experience, support for Israel does not imply an anti-Palestinian bias.

And yet, it is not seen that way: in the eyes of many in the Muslim world, pre-occupied with the truly pitiable living conditions of their fellow Muslims in Palestine, that support for Israel rankles.

A solution would transform relationships. And it is vital for both sides. Israel will never be truly safe without security and recognition and acceptance by the Arab States: and Palestine needs a future. An active peace process is vital – without one there is a vacuum into which terror and mayhem step too readily.

We have seen too much of that in recent years as a low grade war has simmered always at risk of becoming a full scale war. In Gaza, wicked men have encouraged foolish young men and women to become human bombs in Israel – and another such horror occurred just a few days ago.

Often, this has provoked retaliation and counter retaliation. It has been a playground for the terrorist. Hope has been dashed for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Over the years, terror has so unsettled the political climate that trust has gone and a lasting solution is elusive. This plays entirely into the hands of the terrorist for it gives this dispute a much wider fuse: it is used to justify terrorism elsewhere.

Sometimes, it has been difficult to see how this could ever be brought to a peaceful solution. It is depressing beyond belief – but it forces us to face the reality: in Palestine, as elsewhere, political progress remains the only way forward.

I want to say something here about politics and terror. It is based on my own experience in dealing with the Provisional IRA.

For years, the IRA had bombed and murdered in Northern Ireland – and on the mainland of the United Kingdom. Successive Governments reacted strongly and gave no ground to terrorism. But – whilst not conceding their objectives – we did look for a peace process to wean them off violence and to undercut their support in the community.

It took a long time – and there were many setbacks – but it was right. We are now near a political settlement, without conceding the united Ireland that the IRA sought through bomb and bullet.

The lesson is clear: to paraphrase Kennedy in another context, never negotiate from fear, but never fear to negotiate. It is tempting just to denounce terrorism. But if you wish to save lives, you must sometimes engage with them as well.

Let me return to Palestine – for there is more we can learn from it. We can learn that economic revival is vital. For a land without hope breeds only resentment.

We can learn that no-one should expect trust to spring forth from suspicion. We can learn it is never easy to wring out compromises from entrenched positions. And we can learn that – sometimes – international diplomacy is essential, where trust has collapsed. These lessons are eternal.

And so is the fact that the leaders of democracies must never despair and – in their frustration – leave the future in the hands of the war mongers.

What else can Governments do? A great deal. Islamic Governments can speak out about the true nature of Islam, in order to counter the message of the Radicals.

All Governments can work together to encourage inter-faith dialogue. They can modernise the curricula in their schools.

They can address marginalisation in their societies.

All these actions are part of the anti-terrorist campaign: it needs to reach out far wider than military and security action alone.

I spoke earlier of how our world – as a whole – has changed.

We have a global economy. The political map is fluid. Each day, there are ground-breaking new developments in technology and communications.

The speed of medical advance is bewildering. The demand for medical services infinite. Yet it will grow: the mapping of the human genome system will lead to an explosion of demand for preventative care and, where this is provided, to an increase in life expectancy.

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.

Are we to let all this be put at risk by terrorism?

I think not. We all have too much to lose.

Consider what has been achieved.

At the beginning of the 20th century, 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.

There would have been amazement – even disbelief – at the news that Count Zeppelin was designing a machine that would fly. At that time, could anyone have ever imagined that – one day – it would be possible to breakfast in London and lunch in New York?

The US is now the most powerful nation in the world – although the majority of economic growth has now tilted from West to East.

The impact of all this is not simply on economics and politics.

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.

Are we to let this be undermined by radical terrorism, whose ideas are rooted in attitudes from many centuries ago?

Surely not.


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.

Three and a half years on, we can see that the events of September 11th, 2001 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.

[Indistinct, but about when Yeltsin was asked to describe the political situation in the former Soviet Union in one word he said “good”, and when asked to describe it in two words, he said “not good”].

Our task in this generation is to look critically at our world and see it how it is – so we can try and shape how it could be.

We certainly have the ability to do so. Only time will tell whether we have the wisdom – and the will – to channel that ability into action.

Upon that outcome, lies our future – and one of the challenges is to confront and defeat the spectre of terrorism that threatens so much.