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 Coningsby Club Dinner – 6 July 2006

The text of Sir John Major’s speech made at the Coningsby Club Dinner, held on Thursday 6th July 2006.


I don’t think I can recall a time in which the public were more out of love with politics than now.

Politicians are not trusted.

Turn-out at elections has fallen sharply.

Many people turn away from politics.

All this is depressing – and yet also a huge opportunity for the Conservative Party.

It is once again, an exciting time to be a Conservative. We have a new generation of leaders, the best Parliamentary intake for decades and, if we sniff the political wind, we can smell the decay of this Government.

We Tories are the oldest political party in the world – with ancient traditions and convictions – but that alone will not bring victories. If we wish to hand on a better future to our children/ grandchildren we would be wise to open our minds to new ideas – even if some of them may be unpalatable.

We are right to honour our past successes, but if we forever hark back to the past, we betray the future. We should ignore the ancestral voices that denounce any change in policy and look at what is right for tomorrow.

The world has moved on.

Our country has moved on.

Our Party must move on, too.

After 18 years in Government people were – quite simply – bored with us. And yet, we handed over the best performing economy in Europe.

Nine years on, Labour has run out of the Conservative economy:

– Taxes are up. So are regulations.
– Personal debt is at record levels. So is the trade gap.
– Public borrowing rises monthly.
– And the size of Government is swollen beyond any justification.

Herein lies our chance.

After nine years of a huge majority, a benign economy and massive extra spending of taxpayers money – what actually is better?

– is Education?
– or Health?
– or Transport?
– or Inner Cities?
– or Crime?

Generally, I think not. And where it has improved – it is only by a margin.

This is a monumental failure of domestic policy.

And remember “we will be whiter than white”. Since then the Labour Party have degraded the conduct of Government and the political system to such a low that when bad practice is uncovered, it barely causes a ripple. We may have had our problems with individuals, but never with the institution of Government.

Whereas Labour’s problems are with the institution of Government:

1. they have undermined and politicised the civil service;
2. they are being investigated to see how they have awarded Peerages;
3. and they offer a diet of half truths and untruths to promote their policy.

Labour have brought into Government all the black arts of smear and abuse, the sharp practice, deceit and spin that they perfected in Opposition. They have turned the serious business of Government into a marketing exercise.

As a result, their word is now discredited. People believe Ministers have the same fondness for the truth that King Herod had for babysitting.

Public – routinely – do not believe them.

Consider one test alone: if PM went to Parliament tomorrow to report that our Nation was under threat and we must go to war – would Parliament or the public believe him?

I think not – and that is unprecedented in modern politics. Rightly or wrongly, by intent – or by accident – the public believe they were misled over the Iraq War and they will not forget that.

It’s not a question of whether the war was right or wrong. Or whether Saddam was a bad man – he was. Or whether we’re better without him – we are. It’s a question of whether we were told the truth – without spin and without embellishment – and I fear we were not.

I suspect the public are out of sympathy with party political dog-fights. They win no votes. The smartest politicians these days are those who can appear non-political.

And, the dilemmas before us – pensions, education, energy, environment, Europe, mid-East – demand reasoned solutions not half-witted soundbites.

If we are to differentiate our approach from Labour – as well as our policies – there are traps we must avoid.

I. Election to the Lords:

In theory, this sounds democratic but in practice is a mistake. Think about it: we would be exchanging the election of Peers who have reached eminence in their profession, for Peers who could not get elected to the Commons. It would guarantee a constitutional clash.

II. Party Funding

Politicians are already pretty alienated from the public. We should not make that worse by dipping our hands into their pockets, to fund our Party. It would be resented – and is a profoundly un-Conservative thing to do.

III Scotland

I spoke of a possible clash between Lords and Commons if ill-considered changes are made. As an example of this, one need look no further than this Government’s ill-considered 1997/8 Devolution Bill. There must be changes made here: the present situation cannot be sustained.
Now Scotland has its own Parliament, Scottish MPs cannot be permitted to herald in changes to the law in England that will not effect them or their constituents.

The first politician able to carry his or her voice above the clamour of slogans, and who can offer long-term credible policies – even if they involve hardships or sacrifices – will, I believe, scoop the political pool. That is the challenge before David Cameron – and I am confident he will rise to it.

Wherever we look, our world is being re-modelled. The fear of global war has gone; today terror is globalising. The worst atrocity has been in New York, but Bali, Jerusalem, London, Madrid, Moscow, Tokyo all bear the mark of terror.

Terrorism can cause mayhem – but it is comforting to note it often merely entrenches more securely what it wishes to destroy: it is an ineffective way to bring about change. Gandhi was far more successful at changing minds than Bin Laden ever will be.

The threat that must be beaten back is the attempt to radicalise Islam; to set Muslim against non-Muslim by playing upon prejudice and by fostering hatred.

Terrorism and democracy are polar opposites. They cannot co-exist. One must defeat the other. If democracy is to win, terrorism must lose. But poorly thought out Terror Bills, Identity Cards and knee-jerk Home Office populism will only make things worse. Spurious activity is a poor substitute for properly-thought-through policy.

We need to work with other nations 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.

As we do so we must recognise creating martyrs is bad policy. Abu Ghraib is a gift for radicals. Guantanamo Bay is a policy error.

We need to know – what motivates terrorism? What encourages non-terrorists to tacitly support them? How can we make terrorism so abhorrent that terrorists are isolated?

The answers to these questions are not always palatable – but we are foolish if we ignore them.

As for the Radicals case – it is crude propaganda, and wrong, but it is effective. To rebut it, democracy must fight for the hearts and minds of those into whose ears radical poison is poured.

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. We have to confront terror on a broad front. And better now than later.

Wherever we look, change is accelerating. On our doorstep, Europe is in the midst of change. The European Union has a larger economy than the US – but its ancient social culture has left it far less competitive. Europe sometimes acts as if America, China and Asia don’t exist, or can be ignored. Yet compared to them, Europe is over-taxed, over-regulated, and under invested: unless it changes, it will slowly decline.

The rise of Asia emphasises this danger. No-one should be surprised. There is no immutable law of economics to say that growth must always be led by the industrial West. Historically, it was not: for 1800 years China had the largest economy in the world: then in the early 19th century, the West had an industrial revolution – and the East did not.

Now, once again, the growth of China holds centre stage. China is an ancient nation. She was making silk and pottery before the Egyptians built the Pyramids, and before ancient Britons built Stonehenge. Now she is re-asserting herself.

It is a remarkable sight: a once closed Communist economy, marching out into the Free Market.

Today, around the world, change is accelerating.

In the late 18th century, Prime Minister William Pitt realised he had not heard from our Ambassador in Washington for a long time. He picked up his pen and wrote to the Foreign Secretary: “If we have not heard from our Ambassador in another year ….. we should send a note.” Today, the leisurely world of William Pitt is long gone. We have a global economy. The political map is fluid.

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 hints at the scale of change we may see in the future.

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. There would have been amazement – even disbelief – at the notion that – one day – it would be possible to breakfast in London and lunch in New York.

In 1900, the Europeans were dominant. 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. No-one has told them but … 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 is far beyond 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. It is this world we Conservatives must prepare for.

And the time to do so – is now. In politics, always a moment when the terms of political trade change. It is changing now.

Can we win?

In 1906, in power for 20 years, lost by 246 seats.
In 1945, in power for 14 years, lost by 190 seats.
In 1964/6, in power for 13 years, lost by 115 seats.
In 1997, in power for 18 years, lost by 171 seats.
By 2009, in opposition for 12 years – every chance of winning.