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 Worshipful Company of Farmers Livery Luncheon – 6 June 2006

The text of Sir John Major’s speech made at the Worshipful Company of Farmers Livery Luncheon, held at the Farmers Fletchers Hall on Tuesday 6th June 2006.


When Henry Plumb invited me to join you today, I was delighted to accept. I was the Member of Parliament for a rural constituency for 22 years and enjoyed a close relationship with the farming community.

So, I wasn’t surprised to be told I could speak on any subject I wished – whenever I met farmers in Huntingdon, they were always happy for me to say whatever I liked, before they told me what they thought! I am glad to see Lord Plumb is upholding that tradition.

In this private lunch, I would like to exercise a few hobby horses – starting with farming.

In all its long history, farming has had many highs and lows – times of prosperity and hardship. But, in many ways, it faces more complex challenges today than ever before. Modern husbandry and all the implications of free markets has changed the industry fundamentally. As a result, farming will never be tomorrow what it was yesterday.

But – when one looks at the macro position – some of the old truths remain:

As a nation, we are foolish if we don’t maintain a full variety of agriculture and we must never make ourselves too dependent on imported food.

In today’s world – so the free marketeers tell us – price rules. That’s it. End of story. I don’t agree. Price is important but supply is more so. If competitive pressures are permitted to turn farming profit into loss, then farmers will diversify and domestic supply of food will fall. Over time, we would be at the mercy of other Nations’ production – and price.

In areas of manufacturing that may be unavoidable – but for food it is simply not sensible policy.

We may argue and discuss about what needs to be done about CAP, about Single Farm Payments, about so much else – but unless the central point of supply is understood, and acted upon, then we are laying up problems in the future.

In a micro way, farming has some weapons it doesn’t use. If individual farmers negotiate with supermarket chains, so be it – but the small supplier is at a huge negotiating disadvantage. The supermarkets are interested, first and foremost, in the price to their customers – that is their job – not the future well-being of agricultural supply, a decade hence. The farmers would do better to negotiate co-operatively and not individually and Government should help them exploit the quality and value of their produce. I hope the Competition Commission inquiry will address this.

These days I am out of politics – but I observe it with interest.

In our changing world, Government becomes more complex. Many decisions that were once the prerogative of Nation States are now made either collectively in wider fora, or predetermined by the impact of globalisation. Many of the levers of power available to Nation States twenty years ago are no longer there. As the free market grows in power, politics loses it. All this adds to the frustration the electorate often feels about the performance of Governments.

I don’t wish to stray into partisan politics but, in the interests of the health of our political system, we do need to correct the present negative impression of politics.

What the electorate sees today is a new approach in politics – more concerned with appearance than reality, less able to distinguish fact from fiction, more inclined to blame officials than themselves. Responsibility always lies elsewhere. This is an unattractive trait and one that adds to public dis-illusion.

I have noticed, too, that whenever the present Government are in difficulties (and this seems increasingly often) they tend to trot out the familiar line that Margaret Thatcher and John Major had the same problems. Even if that were true – and often it is not – this playground response is hardly credible after nine years of government. These spats of blame attribution do no-one any good – and harm the perception of politics.

Then, of course, there is spin. Spin is merely a polite term for deception – and the sooner it is brought under control the better. Of course, politicians will always put the best gloss on things: they would not be human if they did not. But there is a distinction between putting a gloss on politics and downright deceit – and, when the line is crossed, the whole political system is the loser.

Obsession with spin not only degrades politics – but obscures serious policy. Let me now shock you: I believe some of the things the present Government are doing – are right. They are right to look again at nuclear energy – which will, I think, prove inevitable. They are right to reform health and education, although I am bound to note that their reforms today are precisely those I was implementing over a decade ago that they reviled, rejected and have now re-adopted.

I fear our political system may be about to suffer another blow. For reasons of electoral fairness we limit the sums that can be spent in elections. That is right. It would also be right to limit the size of donations to a party from any individual or company or union in a single Parliament. But, it would not, in my view, be wise to move further down the route of party politics simply being funded by the taxpayer. The taxpayer should not be a bran- tub into which hard-up political parties can dip their fingers. By all means, change tax law to encourage widespread donations of modest size to our political Parties – even possibly some system of matching funding – but not straight-forward subsidy.

Until then, parties should match expenditure to income – and if that means an end to expensive negative advertisements attacking their opponents – then so much the better.

Many of the problems facing future governments will be long-term. Adversarial politics has served our Nation well but, for some issues, we may need consensus, even coalition government. We should not close our minds to that.

There is one reform upon which I believe I may be an unreconstructed minority. Present opinion seems to be moving towards a reform of the House of Lords that would include a very large, if not completely, elected Upper House. I am very wary of this. I can – with extreme reluctance – accept a minority of elected Peers but I believe majority election would be a fundamental error. An elected House of Lords would be within its right to challenge the supremacy of the Commons. Moreover, this elected Lords would probably consist of new Peers who had failed to get elected to the Commons, rather than those with specialist knowledge who can bring their experience into what should be a revising Chamber. Much experience and dispassionate public service would be lost. I accept some reforms might be necessary and desirable, but a largely elected House of Lords seems – to me, at least – to be an option that owes more to the appearance of democratic principles than the reality of what produces good democratic government.

Given my views on such matters, it is perhaps rather a good thing that I am no longer in politics – but, having been a Member of the House of Commons for 22 years, it is impossible not to care about what happens in our country; not to despair when things go badly wrong; and not to voice dismay when the electoral system itself malfunctions.

In a world that changes, politics must change but – as a Conservative with a small “c” – I only wish to see change that is an improvement.

I do believe we need a new, more considered, view of politics in future. A 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.

And frankly, the sooner – the better.