The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Sir John Major’s Comments at Kensington and Chelsea Conservative Association – 12 July 2006

The text of Sir John Major’s comments made at Kensington and Chelsea Conservative Association on Wednesday 12th July 2006, also attended by Sir Malcolm Rifkind.



I’m outside politics now but – when I look at it – I don’t like all I see.

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

Turn-out at Elections has fallen sharply.

Politicians are not trusted.

All this is a huge opportunity for the Conservative Party: 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.

We do not want to ape Labour.

The infamy of what Labour have done is still largely hidden. It will emerge eventually but we need to dis-inter it as swiftly as possible:

1. they have undermined and politicised the civil service;
2. the way in which they have awarded Peerages is being investigated;
3. and from day one, they have offered a diet of half-truths and untruths to promote their policy.
4. they have brought into Government all the black arts of smear, abuse, 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 the Prime Minister 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 we were not.

The Prime Minister is reaching the end of his career and there is the expectation Gordon Brown will replace him.

Not an improvement.

It was Gordon Brown who taxed pensions by £5 billion a year – ending the security of Final Salary Related pensions. Typically, the Government has refused to hold an enquiry into this policy.

Brown is also responsible for the fiasco over tax benefits – with millions receiving the wrong entitlement and now being asked to repay it. For no explicable reason he also sold gold largely to China at half its current value. This misjudgement cost the taxpayer over £2 billion but brought a smile to faces in Beijing.

If Brown succeeds Blair, we are in deep trouble.

The way Government make decisions is appalling. Their policy making was sloppy on Iraq. Is sloppy on Afghanistan and looks as though it will be sloppy over Trident.

We are reinforcing our commitment in Southern Afghanistan.

The objective – to install democracy, defeat terrorism, destroy the poppy crop – is admirable.

No-one can object to that.

The question is: is this achievable with the resources available?

Have policy-makers forgotten the lessons of three Afghan wars?

Have they forgotten the Russians put 120,000 soldiers into Afghanistan in 1979 – when Russia was still a “superpower” – only to withdraw – defeated with 15,000 killed – nine years later?

When the Government place our soldiers in such peril – and claim they’ll do everything necessary to win – I wonder what they know the rest of us don’t. I wondered that over Iraq – and it turned out they knew nothing we didn’t know.

In Afghanistan our own modest forces – less than 5000 troops even after reinforcement – must face the War Lords, remnant of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Iranian infiltration, Pakistani bandits, local opposition and destroy the poppy crop upon which they live.

So far as I can see, no thought has been given to helping to provide an alternative income – though such a policy could earn us local allies to support our troops.

May be I’m out-of-date but, if we put our troops at risk, should we not give them an achievable objective and good logical support in theatre? I think so.

A similar incoherence looks likely over Trident. Trident is becoming out of date and we soon need to decide its future.

It’s not an easy decision: even an upgrade will cost £20 billion. It will have an effect on our total defence posture. We will need to build new nuclear submarines.

How many? We don’t know.

Do we wish to redesign rockets? Not clear.

What is the opportunity cost? Unknown.

Who would be the target? Not known.

All this should be discussed. Yet – without discussion – Gordon Brown announces it will continue – presumably to close out discussion and promote his leadership prospects as a man who can make decisions.

As we differentiate our approach from Labour, there are traps we must avoid.

I. Election to the Lords:

In theory, this sounds democratic but in practice is a mistake. 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 the 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. I fought against a devolved Parliament because I believed – perhaps wrongly – it would lead to Independence. Rather like Lloyd George, I feared those two leaps to cross one chasm.

Devolution I saw as the first leap. Scottish demand for independence the second. That has not yet happened. But English frustration could yet cause a schism. There must be changes made here: the present situation cannot be sustained.

Now Scotland has its own Parliament, it cannot be right that Scottish MPs determine changes to the law in England that will not affect them or their constituents. This is not an anti-Scottish cry: far from it. It is a concern that unless we address this – it will fester and put the Union at risk.

Malcolm has suggested two answers to the West Lothian Question: an English Grand Committee whose decisions would be accepted and the need for an English majority – as well as a Commons majority – for English legislation. Either might solve the problem.

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 – and now Mumbai – 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.

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

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.

And this needs solid policy – not gestures and empty words.

For nine years, Labour have been in Government with a huge majority, a benign economy, huge extra tax revenue – and yet nothing is better.

It is a monumental failure.

This is a huge opportunity for us. If you sniff the political wind, you can smell the decay of the Government.

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 for David Cameron, and I’m certain he’ll rise to it.

Our role is – to restore faith in politics.

To restore serious policy and scrap knee-jerk populism designed only to appeal to the tabloids.

To consider long-term policy that is right for the country and the future even if it is uncomfortable today.

If we can lift our voice above the ruck, above the silly competing slogans, I believe there are millions prepared to listen.

Tomorrow’s world will be very different.

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