The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Sir John Major’s Speech at Washington University – 19 May 2006

The text of Sir John Major’s speech at Washington University, St Louis, held on Friday 19th May 2006.


Chancellor Wrighton, thank you for that warm welcome. I often come to St Louis but it is a special pleasure to be here for this wonderful occasion.

I would like to direct my remarks specifically to the stars of today – the graduates who will soon be awarded their academic degrees.

For all of you, today’s ceremony is not only the result of years of study and hard work – but also the beginning of the next phase of your life.

I envy you. I never attended university. I left school at the age of 15. Circumstances compelled it. My father was sick and blind and bed-ridden. My mother was chronically ill. They had many needs – and no money. In 1959, the US $8 a week I could earn was crucial to our family finances.

So the choice to leave was easy. But I can still see the tears in my father’s eyes when he realised there was no alternative.

I began my working life with employment that had no future, while I studied morning and evening, in an Aladdin’s Cave of literature and reference books that served also as my bedroom.

I gained some academic qualifications and joined a bank. Once there, I took a banking degree and applied to work overseas. My employers must have felt I was disposable, because they sent me to Nigeria during the Biafran Civil War. Whilst there, I witnessed scenes that I wish I had not. As a young man starting out in life, it made me realise how lucky I was to live in a civilised democracy.

I mention my own background, only to point out that learning continues well beyond academia. In the University of Life, it never stops.

My own experience has taught me that a good education benefits not only the recipient, but everyone influenced by them. It is a priceless asset.

Socrates taught Plato. Plato taught Aristotle. Aristotle taught Alexander the Great. Three of the great minds of the ancient world shaped one of the great Commanders of history. In just such a fashion, knowledge accumulates and is passed on through the generations.

That is one reason I am confident about the future, despite the myriad problems confronting our world. It is likely that many of today’s graduates will be tomorrow’s leaders. By leaders, I don’t just mean statesmen and women, or captains of industry, or military heroes. I mean leaders in the professions, our communities – in all aspects of life – who will look at the resolution of long-term dilemmas.

“Soundbite” leadership will not do. You know what I mean by soundbites: a glib phrase that is supposed to cure a serious problem. Such statements are a fraud. If it’s a serious problem, it can’t be solved by a soundbite. And if it can be solved by a soundbite, it’s not a serious problem.

It is an odd concept, leadership.

There is no template for it. Abraham Lincoln was a leader who we revere. So was Stalin – a psychopathic monster – who we emphatically do not.

Genghis Khan was a leader. He laid waste to half the known world. So was Mother Theresa – who laid waste only to poverty and hardship.

As you take leadership roles you will discover leadership has many facets. It cannot easily be defined.

Is it winning personally … or is it taking long-term action to benefit others – perhaps beyond one’s own lifetime?

Is it achieving something worthwhile … or heading off something damaging?

Is it defeating an aggressor, or preventing the aggression in the first place?

It may, of course, be any or all of the above.

Sometimes, successful leadership brings odium.

Take Mikhail Gorbachev:

Changed face of Russia. Hero in West. Not in Russia – very unpopular.

Stood for election as President. Polled only 1% in election.

[Indistinct, anecdote about Gorbachev].


Two of the daunting problems we face today may need leadership beyond one generation:

The fear of global war has gone; only to be followed by the fear of global terror. Terrorism has been with us since ancient times: but now it is globalising. Thus far, the worst atrocity has been in New York, but Bali, Jerusalem, London, Madrid, Moscow, Tokyo all bear the mark of terror. Moreover, terror has developed a particular flavour: it has become a tool of extreme religion, and a vehicle to oppose the free market.

But we should put terror into a proper context: so far, it has failed to gain any of its political objectives.

The threat before us is the attempt to radicalise Islam; to set Muslim against non-Muslim by playing upon prejudice and by fostering hatred.

This campaign can cause mayhem – but often it merely entrenches more securely what it most wishes to destroy: it is – ultimately – ineffective. Gandhi had far more success at changing minds than Bin Laden ever will.

Terrorism and democracy are polar opposites. They cannot co-exist. One must defeat the other. If democracy is to win, terrorism must lose.

We will win this battle – but we will win it more swiftly if we work with other Nations threatened by terrorism … to deny terrorists safe havens, cut off their financing, and stem the flow of recruits. We must stop the free movement of terrorists; attack money laundering; reduce their supply of weapons; agree extradition; and penalise States that fund terror. Above all, democracy must deny terrorists their causes.

Terrorism is not going to go away and, although it is tempting to ignore it – and hope that it will ignore us – we dare not do so.

The Radicals case may be crude propaganda, and wrong, but it is effective. To rebut it, we must fight for the hearts and minds of those into whose ears radical poison is poured. Words alone will not do: we must accept obligations that show the morality of democracy.


One of these takes me back to what I saw in microcosm as a boy in Nigeria. 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 help: at present, they 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.

Let me put that to you as the radicals – who wish to do us harm – put it to their audiences: America and Europe spend seven times as much subsidising cheap food for those already well-fed, as the whole world spends on all the needs of those whose bellies are swollen with hunger.
Greater help is not simply altruism. It is in our interest to remove grievances. It is in our interest to cut away the resentment of the “have-nots” for the “haves”. It is in our interest to foreclose on misery and hardship to come. It is in our interest to undermine the message of hate that fuels radicalism.

And it is in our interest to build the alliances that will result – unless we want a bitter and divisive world.

Moreover, if we do not, we may let fester a problem that will – quite simply – overwhelm us.

In twenty years, 6 billion people will become 8 billion. Of that additional 2 billion, 97% is in that part of the world that live on less than $2 a day. I cannot think of a more potent recipe for an unstable, unsafe world.

Some years ago, I was in Peru and visited a small shanty town outside Lima: a dismal place, which seemed to be entirely without hope. The local Priest invited me to breakfast. “There is”, he said, “something I’d like you to see”.

I was intrigued. We ate early and, just as the church clock struck 8.00, went into the street.

Almost in concert, the doors of the hovels opened and out poured children on their way to school. All were spotlessly clean, their uniforms immaculate. Their faces smiling in greeting at one another as they carried their rather well worn and bulging satchels towards the schoolhouse.

The Priest stopped one little girl: “Tell me”, he asked, “what do you want to be when you grow up?”.

She looked up at him puzzled – for she knew that he already knew the answer. But nonetheless, her eyes shining with optimism, she replied:

“I want to be a brain surgeon”. I have never forgotten than moment: it was a soaring ambition for a child from the slums of Peru.

That little girl will now be around 30 years old. I don’t know if she will ever realise her dream. I do hope so.

The message from that little girl is unmistakeable for the educated graduates of a great university like Washington.

Be ambitious. Aim high. Do today what your instincts tell you could wait until tomorrow. Never under-estimate what you can achieve. With luck and skill and effort there is no ambition that is closed to you.

In your world of tomorrow, change will accelerate. In the late 18th century the British Prime Minister, William Pitt, was reflecting on Britain’s relationship with America and realised he had not heard from his Ambassador in Washington for a long time. He picked up his pen and wrote to his Secretary of State: “If we have not heard from the Ambassador in another year ….. we should send a note.” Today, the leisurely world of William Pitt is long gone. We have a global economy: In China, India and Asia, an economic revolution is tilting world growth from West to East. Around the world, every emerging economy is out-performing every mature economy.

The political map is fluid: The Middle East is a powder-keg. Iraq, Iran, and the Arab-Israel conflict are inflammatory problems. Events in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, are all capable of de-stabilising the region.

In our world, each day, there are ground-breaking new developments, and the speed of medical advance is bewildering. The demand for medical services in 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.

Science and technology is accelerating change which already takes place at break-neck speed. The past may give us an idea of the scale of change we might see.

At the beginning of the 20th century, no-one knew of blood groups, of hormones, of barbiturates. Marie Curie had not discovered radium – nor had Einstein perfected his Theory of Relativity.

Charles Lindbergh could never have imagined that – one day – it would be possible to breakfast in London and lunch in St Louis.

In those days, the United Kingdom, France and Russia controlled 80% of the world’s surface. 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 both come – and gone. The US is now the most powerful nation in the world with China and India on course to become great economic powers. The impact of all this on our future is far beyond economics and politics. Those of you who graduate today will see the conquest of the stars.

You will live longer, see more, do more, know more than any earlier generation. You will see deserts bloom. See a genetic rebuilding of failing bodies. Live with technical innovations beyond your wildest imagination. It will be a world unrecognisable to your forebears.

Today is a proud day for all graduates – and one you will never forget. But it is – believe me – an even prouder day for your parents and grandparents. For them, it is the day you have begun to achieve the high hopes and dreams they have always had for you.

They will wish you many things: A happy life. A healthy life. A life of personal and professional fulfilment.

On the early canvas of your life, you have today painted in a great achievement. May there be many more.

I wish you ALL every success for the future.