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 Dinner for the Guild of International Bankers – 20 September 2006

Below is the text of Sir John Major’s speech at the Dinner for the Guild of International Bankers, held at Vintners Hall in London on Wednesday 20th September 2006.

Master, My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen.
When I was asked to join you this evening it was an easy invitation to accept. This is partly because I began my career with one international bank and – as I am currently with Credit-Suisse – may end it with another. But it is far more that Peter Middleton was Permanent Secretary at the Treasury when I first went there as a young Minister. It was those years that prepared him for his later career in gambling – as Permanent Secretary. I can, therefore, say from the personal knowledge of many years that you are immensely fortunate to have him as the incoming Master of the Guild.
I learned a lot from Peter – and about him. I’m sorry to tell you he’s a life-long Sheffield Wednesday supporter but – apart from that – I know nothing to his disadvantage. Peter doesn’t change with the years. He looks almost exactly as he did when I first met him. Either Peter Pan has a rival or there is a portrait in his attic that is withering away.
In his early days at the Treasury, Peter ran the Press Office. This was a long time ago: during that dear dead age in which the term “spin” applied only to cricket. I don’t much like spin. In 40 years of politics I only ever heard one worthwhile example of it.
[Indistinct, but anecdote about when Boris Yeltsin was asked about the state of Russia in one word, and he said “Good”, and when asked to describe the state of Russia in two words, he said “Not good”.]
During all the time I worked with him, Peter was a source of wise counsel and – usually – an epicentre of calm. He had a gift for laconic disengagement during Ministerial decision making until he noticed the decision going in a direction of which he did not approve. At this point he ceased to be either laconic or disengaged until a common position was agreed.
I greatly admired this gift for consensus-building. Pragmatism is a virtue. It is a neglected art in our ideological world and one we would do well to revive.
The spread of global commerce and trade has given us common systems of banking and business in every great city of the world. But, as international bankers, your interests encompass a world divided on subtler – and in some ways, more entrenched – lines than the stark divisions once epitomised by the boundaries of communism and the free market.
Culture, religion and ideology are today’s battle-ground and they arouse violent passions. If anyone doubts that, I invite them to consider Iraq or Iran or Afghanistan or the long running low-grade war between Israel and the Palestinians. It is as important for the business climate to ease away these conflicts as it was to end the threat of East-West conflict.
None of them, in my judgement, can be solved solely by military means.
Modern life offers us a curious dilemma. Nothing can hold back the revolution in life-style that is the fruit of globalisation. Most – but not all – of the changes are beneficial, and the finance you provide is the oil that greases the engine. But many millions – especially those who see no benefit from globalisation – are bewildered by the changes it has brought about and look at the world with eyes that hunger for familiarity.
Kipling once wrote:
“East is East and West is West
And never the twain shall meet.”
The great poet did not foresee the global market, but culturally Kipling is still more right than wrong.
In a world changing too rapidly for comfort, people cling to their familiar cultures. We British should understand that. For over 30 years, we have done so ourselves in our attitudes to Europe. Time and again, there has been a fierce response to modest changes because of fears – often mistaken and usually inflamed – of what they may lead to. I can, I think, speak with some authority about that. In my own Party over Europe, reasonable men became unreasonable. Clever men became foolish. Colleagues and friends become bitter enemies and no-one seemed to care as they disembowelled their own prospects. Colleagues and friends on some issues became bitter opponents over Europe.
Such fears can be far worse if whole nations, or religions, fear – albeit wrongly – that their culture is threatened. It is here that the art of political pragmatism is needed. Our Western values are familiar and comfortable to us, but it has taken many hundreds of years for them to evolve. We make a mistake if we believe we can impose our values on others whose history and instincts and modes of thought are very different to ours.
I admire pragmatism because it can often achieve results, where the rigidity of ideology achieves only stand-offs. And yet, too many people see pragmatism and consensus-building as weakness. They seem to prefer what the foolish call “strong leadership”, even if it marches off in the wrong direction. My belief that we need pragmatism is not an appeal for policy without conviction. We must have convictions – life is empty without them – but we should not let our own convictions trample on those that may be different but are dear to other people.
My concern with ideology is that it often goes beyond conviction. As I look at the world today, it seems to me that, too often, ideology erects barriers instead of removing them. It highlights differences and achieves popular support by condemnation of them. It thrives on conflict. Ideology is too high on passion and certainty and too low on moderation and understanding. I believe we need to change the balance here – and that is why Peter Middleton’s skills at consensus are needed on the very widest canvass.
Ideologues, of course, will hate what I have just said – but I believe they are wrong. I look at the future with optimism. Politics and fashion come in waves and I think we are learning lessons today that will encourage us to beware if ideology supersedes common-sense and common understanding. If I am right, and this change is coming, then there is every reason for optimism in the future.
As for myself, I am no longer in public life and have no plans to return to it. In many ways, I am glad that I have left for I am, perhaps, a little too old-fashioned for the game. I still believe that traditions should die out naturally and not be stamped out. That Cabinet should collectively take decisions. That Parliament should not be bypassed. That the independence of the Civil Service should be protected.
So, as you can see, I am unreconstructed. So out of date am I, that I even believe the media should report the news and not embellish it. There is therefore, no hope for me.
But there is for international banking which will grow and grow and I wish this Guild and its incoming Master every success in the years ahead.