The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Sir John Major’s Speech at Foreign and Commonwealth Office Association Event – 29 November 2006

The text of Sir John Major’s speech made at an event run by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Association, held at the Locarno Suite at the Foreign Office in London on the morning of Wednesday 29th November 2006.


I’m delighted to be back at the Foreign Office this morning.

Foreign Secretary 94 days: golden age: went to war with no-one.

My time here was too short: I wish it had been longer. Today I can speak as an individual – nothing I say should be regarded as anyone’s policy other than my own.

We live in a world that is changing comprehensively and rapidly. There are short term imperatives that cannot be ignored: and long term issues that should not be ignored.

Today – nothing is as it was: nothing will be as it is.

Economically, the world is turning to the East which – for the first time since 1820 – now produces the majority of world growth. No-one should be surprised at this return to the past: 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, China is re-asserting the old order.

Some people worry that China will be a threat to the West. Economically, of course, she already is. Politically, she is becoming more influential. But neither politically nor militarily is China a threat in the sense of the former Soviet Union. China’s focus will be on internal problems – widespread unemployment, pollution, water scarcity, public resentment of the growing disparity of wealth; demands for a social welfare system; the appetite for more self-government.

Their hands are full.


Behind China – perhaps 10-15 years behind – comes India, who once had nearly one-quarter of the output of the whole world.
Today, once more, she is in the midst of an explosion of ambition and has cornered a large part of the market in knowledge-based industries; in R&D; in IT; in Bio-technology and Molecular Biology. But India’s potential for manufacturing and engineering is also enormous and she is now more cost competitive than China.


Nor is Latin America the “old” Continent of lost opportunities.

Between 1986-96 – inflation in Latin America was 180%.

Today – between 6-7%.

Budget deficits and country debts are falling.


Even Africa – poor, forgotten, disregarded Africa – is benefiting from high commodity prices and growing faster than for many years.

For the last quarter of a century, the principal engines of world growth have been the US, Japan and the EU. Soon, China, non-Japanese Asia and India will join them.

Moreover, over the last two years, every emerging economy in the world has out-performed every mature economy. As a result, growth in the world economy is becoming better balanced than ever before – which is excellent news for future economic stability – but the price for the democracies of the West is that political power will be more widespread. As the world economy re-configures, so does politics.

So, too, has the mode of political thinking. In the last 25 years – in the UK and the US – political thought has seemed to move away from the gravity-based centre and become more ideological.

I am suspicious of ideology. Policy is often at its best when compromise and pragmatism are seen as virtues – not a betrayal of the true path.

The tabloid certainty of ideologues is a fiction for the ignorant.

Before I turn to some pressing problems, let me make some brief assertions that, hopefully, may stimulate questions.

Britain is a medium-sized, relatively rich country, in a world whose growth is outstripping ours. To protect our future political and trading interests, alliances and diplomacy will be vital.

I, therefore, consider it an extremely bad policy to cut our overseas representation at a time when we should be increasing it. If that seems like special pleading to this audience – then so be it. It is what I believed as Prime Minister. Budget cuts for the Foreign Service mean people. We should be increasing our profile not preparing to diminish it. I travel 4 months in every year to every part of the world and I don’t like the reductions I see. They are not in Britain’s interest.

Secondly, international bodies.

There is a mode of neo-thinking that dismisses the UN as if it were an irrelevance. Frankly, this is madness. If we didn’t have the UN we would have to invent it. Our British interest is to make it more efficient, eliminate its short-comings – not pander to the mode of thinking that undermines it. The UN is our servant: it can be as relevant as its Members choose to make it.


On Europe, I’m not sure what British policy is at the moment. Certainly it is in flux.

For over 30 years – with a few exceptions such as the Single Market and Enlargement – we have been on the back foot in Europe. The growth to 25 – soon 27 – Members offers an opportunity to put that right. Our great phobia over too-deep-an integration seems less likely now.

I think we should be looking for policies to help Europe work more efficiently – at a time when we are not under pressure over a new currency or a new Constitution (although the latter, I think, will come back in diluted form after the French Presidential Election). Greater economic competitiveness is vital for all Europe: we should be developing the case – and arguing for it.

Some issues are very pressing now.

Much of the Middle East is in conflict. Our task in this generation is to ensure that future generations do not have to re-live the extra-ordinary number of problems that have come together in our own time: terror, Iraq, Iran, MEPP, Afghanistan, Lebanon. North Korea is a dilemma too, but of a different nature.

We need a dose of reality, too. We had better accept that may be no ideal solution. We may have to compromise.

And we should recognise that every situation will require diplomacy and statesmanship to be enlisted alongside military power.

Our preferred outcome may be un-achievable. But, sometimes, even compromise solutions are a triumph.

It may be unfashionable – and dare not even be spoken of in some quarters – but it still seems to me that the core issue remains the Arab-Israeli conflict. The lack of a serious peace process has left a vacuum which has been filled by bloodshed and mayhem. A Peace Process – however difficult – offers hope and we badly need that. If benign neglect remains the policy, then this problem can only get worse.
It is unprovable – of course – but I suspect that neglect of a credible peace process has done more to encourage Muslim militancy than Iraq.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, we need to be clear about the mission, and we need an exit strategy. If I asked everyone in this room to write down what they thought that mission was, I would get a wide variety of different answers.

Iraq is messy and getting messier. Those who predicted the coalition would be greeted as liberators on flower-strewn paths are wiser now.

We are not – alas – remotely where we had hoped to be.

Both casualties and civil violence are mounting especially in the 30 miles radius of Baghdad. As American soldiers clean up districts, the insurgents move to neighbouring areas. As the troops move on, the insurgents move back in, because the Iraqi armed forces cannot hold the ground. This failure to hold the territory gained, means that to some extent, policy is simply chasing its tail.

At the same time, the Iraqi Government refuses permission for troops to enter the most violent areas, on the grounds that it would be inflammatory. This is an Alice-in-Wonderland decision, that provides a haven for militancy.

Decisions that are fundamental to the future of Iraq are not yet made. We do not yet know how oil revenue will be shared. The boundaries of the future Federalist system are not known. The future of Kirkuk is still uncertain. The new Police Force is – to put it kindly – inefficient and with divided loyalties.

For the average Iraqi, life is dire. Many are killed each month. Unemployment is huge. Inflation is at 70%. Electricity supplies – in Baghdad for example – fluctuate wildly during every 24 hour period: a few weeks ago it was 3-4 hours only; more recently, I believe they had the luxury of 10 hours power. All of this, in turn, creates instability – and a deep resentment of the coalition forces on the ground.

Many Iraqis are arrested and detained a long time without charge. You will never build a democracy without rule of law and due process is badly needed. So is money. The Chancellor’s £150 million is welcome – but petty cash: General Dempsey has US$5 billion a year to spend.
In the US and Britain there is pressure to leave.

Yet – if we did so prematurely – our departure would create a double-dilemma: not only would it be humiliating for us to leave without stability, but if Iraq was then torn apart by civil war, the implications of a militant Islamic Government emerging scarcely need to be spelled out.

From where we are today there are no simple solutions, but it is clear we need diplomacy and statesmanship alongside military power. And – it would help in the future – if we factored in the lessons of history.


Much of this is relevant to Afghanistan.

To promote democracy and destroy terror is a noble mission but the justice of the cause doesn’t lessen the need for a clear-cut objective, good planning and adequate resources.

The Afghan mission is uncertain.

Is it a peacekeeping mission?

Or a nation-building one?

Is it to catch Bin Laden?

Or to defeat the Taliban; drug barons; warlords; Iraqi infiltrators; Pakistani bandits; and the local population fearful of their poppy crop being destroyed?

Or is it all of the above – and more?

History tells us Afghanistan is a very tough place to be. In the Afghan Wars – during the height of the British Empire – Britain did not even come a poor second. And, more recently, between 1979-1989, the Red Army was defeated in Afghanistan: 120,000 troops, ten years on the ground – and then defeat.

We have 5,500 soldiers in Helmand Province of whom less than 2,000 are – in the terminology – men with bayonets. Most are logistical support. We are under-resourced in men and equipment. We are bastardising helicopters to make others airworthy. We are short of armoured vehicles. Our NATO allies are slow to help and have different “rules of engagement”. This is lamentable.

It is a woeful tale for young soldiers who – when we sent them there – were told they may not have to face a shot! Now, they find themselves in a shooting war.

The conclusion I draw is that there must be a political as well as a military strategy. A senior British General warned recently of the danger of an aggrieved population turning back to support the Taliban.

From our perspective of the Taliban – as a brutal force with a medieval culture – that seems absurd. But the local population see the UK and America painted each day as invading interlopers – much like the Russians over twenty years ago. It is a crude untruth – but an effective one.

Moreover, as we destroy the poppy crop – an evil trade, but the only way of earning a livelihood for many Afghans – we need to put in place alternative sources of income. If we fail to do this, we will simply turn the population against us – and back into the arms of the Taliban.

There is a common thread that runs through Iraq and Afghanistan: both are ideological conflicts that must be fought by intellectual as well as martial force.


One continuing problem is terror. It pre-dated Iraq and it will post-date present conflicts. It has been rising for a long time – Iraq is a focus but not the cause although I suspect it has been a recruiting tool. If we are to render terror impotent – we must win the hearts and minds of those into whose ears radical poison is poured.

Without an intellectual victory, there will be no lasting military victory, and no respite. If we are to safeguard our way of life we must mobilise our best instincts as well as our military might.

The West must counter the malign way in which it is misrepresented. We will not be able to persuade the hard-line militants but we can siphon off their support. We can dry up their recruitment. We can isolate them. We can ensure our allies are active in our support, and not passive.

All around the world, even in the grimmest of circumstances, people hope for something better. Hope for something better is the most powerful antidote to anti-Western propaganda. And to gain the allies necessary to isolate and defeat terror, we must offer that hope.

This is not some impossible dream. We saw hope triumph when the free market defeated communism. Now it must do so again, to help democracy defeat terror.

We have one great advantage. The on-rush of the free market is delivering material benefits to nearly every part of the world. Politics must offer hope too.

This will mean dialogue. It will mean enlisting other nations. It will mean working with regimes of whom we strongly disapprove.

Some say this can’t be done. I say it can. Tough – yes. Long-term – yes. But it can be done.

Sixteen years ago, I began a dialogue with the IRA when they were still bombing Northern Ireland and the British mainland. Many in our own Party opposed this. More doubted it would ever succeed. Some said it was folly. Others were less kind.

And yet it began a peace process that has transformed Northern Ireland.

The same principles apply, even to the core disputes in the Middle East, and the ideological divides that are so dangerous today. Dialogue can be productive. But that dialogue cannot be with a megaphone. It must be face-to-face.

The alternative – a lack of dialogue – enables an enemy to distort our motives and mis-represent our policies. This is folly.


I know it sometimes seems as if there are a vast array of insurmountable and daunting problems.

Well, there are – but we should put all of them into context.

None is as dangerous as the nuclear confrontation that preceded the collapse of the former Soviet Union. Today, the free market has comprehensively won the battle of philosophies that scarred most of the last century.

Our long-term ally, America is – and will remain – the most powerful political, economic and military power in the world.

Future generations will see the growth of democracy in Europe as a huge achievement.

The growth of emerging economies will give more nations of the world a greater stake in a peaceful future.

Ahead of us is a new world, with many intractable problems. We must see this new world as it really is if we are to help shape how it could be.