The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Sir John Major’s Speech on Sport and the Nation – 24 April 2006

The text of Sir John Major’s speech on “Sport and the Nation”, held at the Professional Cricketers’ Association Annual Business Conference at the Oval on Monday 24th April 2006.


The theme of this Annual Business Conference is Building Partnerships. Sport and business have built partnerships and, I think, to their mutual benefit. More can be done – and I hope will be. But those of us who love sport should be grateful for the increasing involvement business has had. Long may it grow.

But – it is in the interest of sport and the nation for other partnerships to grow in parallel.

The essence of is two-fold: mutual dependency and the belief that the whole is greater than the component parts.

That has been true of sport and business and of sport and the nation – the combination of the two adds value to both.

Many historians would argue that the love of cricket in particular helped hold together an Empire and cement a Commonwealth. I saw some of this myself some years ago at a tricky Commonwealth meeting.

A charity match was arranged. The Australian Prime Minister, Bob Hawke and I opened to gentle bowling and began to settle down with Bob stealing the bowling towards the end of each Over. I didn’t mind: it was a joy to be there. We tapped the ball here and there and ran our singles. After a few Overs the wisdom of the Hawke strategy was revealed: “Off you go”, said the Umpire, waving us off the pitch as he added, rather pointedly, “it’s time for the real cricketers”. A roar of applause greeted our departure.

Hawke had scored over 20, whilst I had less than 10. “Did you know we didn’t have long?” I asked Bob as we trudged back to the pavilion.

“Jeez, yes,” he admitted, “didn’t you know, John? Arrh, heck – I thought you did”. Not for the first or last time, I noted that Australians play hard.

It was at that same Conference that Robert Mugabe talked to me about cricket. “I want Zimbabwe”, he said “to play cricket. It civilises people and creates gentlemen.” Subsequent events show that may not be entirely true!

2,300 years ago, Aristotle regarded politics as the most interesting profession of all.

No longer. Today, sport is more likely to be the consuming interest of the citizen. Indeed, as politics declines as a public passion, sport rises – and rightly so, for sport and recreation impacts powerfully on the lives of millions of people.

Sport is an instinct. Centuries ago, a rustic living in or around the Weald plagiarised an ancient game like Club Ball, or Trap Ball or Stob Ball – and cricket was born. Some misbegotten historians have claimed that the traveller Adam Olearius saw the Persians play cricket centuries ago. It seems to me unlikely that the Ayatollahs of old were any more likely to be cricket lovers than the Ayatollahs of today and I think we can safely dismiss that possibility. Whatever Adam Olearius saw – it wasn’t cricket!

Others have suggested that the French played cricket, referring to a particular text that, upon examination, turns out to say something quite different. Frankly, the concept of the French inventing cricket is double-dutch. On balance, I think it is safe to say that cricket is an English game.

The first secure reference to it was in a court case in 1598, when a local coroner gave evidence that, as a child forty years earlier, he had played cricket on a piece of common land. I conclude, therefore, that together with the English language and English law, cricket is our greatest export to the world.

People with stuffy minds may regard sport as a peripheral interest – but, of course, it isn’t. First and foremost, sport is fun. It brings enjoyment to millions. It promotes good health – physical and mental – and is a key component of a balanced life.

It is also a core interest: far more people are interested in sport than politics. Freddie Flintoff’s fitness and David Beckham’s latest haircut is of greater national fascination than any debate in Parliament could ever hope to be.

I have no wish to denigrate politics. It is of primary importance to our nation and our way of life – and, as such, it should be in the business of promoting sport, and never of disregarding it. As Prime Minister, I was concerned that leisure pursuits were being – if not ignored, sidelined – which is why I appointed a Cabinet Minister with specific responsibility for Sport, Arts and Heritage. I followed this with the formation of the National Lottery.

The genesis of this was that, at the Treasury, I saw at first hand that leisure pursuits could never expect to receive sufficient money or encouragement from public funds: in any race for resources, the demands of health, education, pensions and defence would – and perhaps should – always come first.

Yet sport mattered. So did the Arts: my solution to this was to supplement their funding through a National Lottery.

I saw it as a way to raise additional money – free from the control of Government – that could be used to improve the enjoyment – and the lifestyle – of many millions of people.

I had high ambitions of what could be achieved. Money is the route of all progress. I believed it could revolutionise leisure. I wished to nurture excellence and encourage the emergence of new icons similar to the Bothams, Beckhams and Branaghs who gave such pleasure.

I saw also a huge opportunity to upgrade the national infrastructure that supported our favourite leisure pursuits. And, above all, I saw the chance of providing grass-roots sporting facilities throughout the UK to encourage active involvement by children and adults alike.

It was – I planned – a partnership.

A series of questions arise from this: should not commercial sport pay for itself or, if it cannot, fade away? Should not individuals bear all the cost of their leisure activities? In particular, should the taxpayer provide any funding for sport? Many thought not. I disagreed. I thought – beyond a doubt – the taxpayer should contribute … and not only because the Treasury receives far more in taxes from sport than it distributes to sport. Socially, the expenditure is good value. To me, the case for it seems to grow each year – not diminish.

Taxpayer funding should continue and should be increased. But there is one aspect of media and public debate on funding that focuses on a more serious criticism: the independence of the funding. Direct Government funding is always going to have strings attached – taxpayer accountability ensures that. But when the Lottery Bill was wending its way through Parliament, the then Opposition was at pains to stress the importance of Government keeping an arms-length relationship from disbursement of the funds and, in particular, grant distribution. I agreed: I shared that view. I still do – but in Government, the Labour Party do not.

From the moment they took power, they have diverted funding into areas away from sport that have, historically, been funded by the Exchequer. Their action has been explicit. Indeed, the so-called “Big Lottery Fund” has a specific remit to fund health, education and environment projects when taxpayers would rightly expect many of these projects to be funded direct by Government. This may be worthwhile expenditure – I have never denied that – but they diminish funds that sport had reason to expect.

This loss of revenue for sport leaves it vulnerable and forces it to spend more time and energy raising money from commercial sources. That is difficult at any time and will become more so when the economy turns down – as, I believe, it is. The Lottery should not be Ali Baba’s cave and the Government should not raid it like the Forty Thieves. If larceny of sporting funds continues; if sport – and other good causes – are continually raided in order to boost the Exchequer, there will be less and less available for schemes that can enhance the quality of life for many people.

This is happening now. In 1997, 20% of Lottery funds went to sport. In 1998, it was cut to 16.6% when the New Opportunities Fund was established. When that fund was rolled up into the Big Lottery Fund, 50% of all proceeds were lost. Although this Fund can distribute money for sport, its record is poor.

The overall figures for distribution to sport are opaque but we know Sport England’s share of Lottery Receipts fell from a high of £280 million, in 1997/8 to £125 million in 2004/5 – and is projected to fall further. As a result – today – Sport England can meet only a fraction of worthwhile applications – and often with only partial grants.

Is sport a frivolous expenditure or is it socially justified? I have no doubt it is justified.

What gives more pleasure than sport? Very little.

Does sport give a love for life? Yes, it does.

Does sport enhance fitness? Yes, it does.

Does sport provide interest and involvement for young people? Yes, it does.

I could continue – but there is no need. The nation benefits from sport – imagine no Test Matches, no soccer or rugby, no athletics, no Wimbledon, no golf – what a dreary outlook.

Let me turn to a partnership every one in sport should lobby to bring about.

Sport in Schools and the establishment of Sporting Academies can be a great benefit socially and to sport. Socially, the case is compelling. Children benefit from sport in many ways – not least in improving their health in these days of sedentary entertainment such as computer games. Obesity is becoming a serious problem. I want children to be fit not fat. We should be encouraging a generation of team players, not home-aloners. Even more, we should be helping children enjoy themselves on playing fields, not misbehave on street corners. School sport should, once again, become an integral part of a child’s education.

My intention had been to divert money from the Millennium Fund (which wound up in 2000) to the Education budget to put sports teachers back into mainstream schools. It would have delivered around £300 million a year – sufficient to provide a sports teacher at every Secondary School and a peripatetic teacher covering several Primary Schools. Instead – sadly – the money was siphoned off for other expenditure.

I believed – and still do – that such an initiative is essential if we are ever to force physical recreation back fully on the school syllabus. I bitterly regret that I did not legislate to this effect before 1997 but, of course, even if I had, it could have been negated by the incoming Government. Their alternative priorities certainly suggest it would have been. Even so, I regret my oversight – and I shall lobby to put it right.

School sport is part of a wider canvas. Schools can be the base of a pyramid of sporting opportunities. The love – and need – for sport does not stop when pupils exit the school gates for the last time. If we are to maximise the role of sport, we need partnerships all the way up: school links to Clubs and Club links to higher levels through all the tiers of ability up to national level. I set up such a scheme in the mid-1990’s with Colin Cowdrey but it fell away after 1997. All this is achievable – and should be achieved. It does need money – and enthusiasm – but the latter is available and the former should be.

We need a change of culture at Whitehall: it does undervalue sport – but that mindset can be changed. Sport should lobby harder, more frequently and use national icons to highlight their case. Governments respond to stimuli. Sport should provide that stimuli.

And the case is good: on health grounds, on social grounds, on educational grounds, on grounds of national pride, on grounds of providing pure enjoyment – the case for more people playing sport, being coached in sport, watching sport, on grounds that are well-equipped – is overwhelming.

Our nation loves sport: so do many politicians. So do many policy formers. Use them. Tempt them to help. To do so would not only be right: it would be popular!

That is a campaign that must be fought – and can be won.