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 Chartered Insurance Institute President’s Dinner – 4 March 2008

The text of Sir John Major’s speech at the Chartered Insurance Institute President’s Dinner, held at the Guildhall in London on Tuesday 4th March 2008.


Aldermen, My Lord President, Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen.

There is a European debate in the House of Commons tonight – and I’m here: My goodness, life just gets better and better!

When your President invited me to join you this evening, it was an easy decision. Easy, because of the reputation of the Institute; and easier still, because David Hunt has been a colleague and a true friend for very many years. When he left Government, it was at his request and to my regret. You are very lucky to have him as your President. From what I hear he is doing a superb job.

Because David worked with me in Government for so long, his invitation to speak “on any subject” of my choosing was irresistible and it encouraged me to take a reflective look at my old profession. I do so, of course, conscious of the mistakes made during my own years in Government.

It is now eleven years since I left Number 10 at the request of the electorate, and seven years since I left the Commons – so these days I speak for myself and no one else – which is a very liberating experience!

It is not always easy to speak your mind as freely as you wish and even for the most frank politicians.

In the last decade, the environment of politics has changed. In some ways, government has become more difficult. The free market has widened many of the prerogatives of Government have been diminished.

The style of politics has changed, too. Brutal truths are out. Gentle reassurances are in. Now I’m not sure I wholly like this. Frankly, I don’t need someone to “feel my pain”. I much prefer them to remove it. And – if they can’t – on balance, I’ll take the brutal truths, please.

Because Government is a serious business – even though – in the hands of some politicians – it seems sometimes to be afflicted with legislation by reflex, and communication by sound-bite.

Many years ago, Francis Pym spoke of the democratic disadvantage of any Government having too large a majority. Now I agree with that, with one caveat: having led a Government with a tiny majority and a large number of irreconcilables, I am no great fan of minority government either.

But over-large majorities almost always have a democratic deficit as their counter-point. They enable bad legislation to be carried; self-evident truths to be denied; and explanations offered that frankly make the jaw drop.

Now one of the proudest boasts of this country has always been that we’re the oldest democracy in the world – and the freest. Although – probably – still true, I think events have tarnished that reputation.

The invasion of Iraq was justified initially by over-egging the threat of Saddam’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction – which I wholly accept may have been a genuine error.

But the case was then embellished by linking the Iraqi regime to the 9/11 attacks on New York, for which there is not a shred of evidence.

That misinformation was compounded by the implication that Iraq was a clear and present danger to the UK, which plainly it was not – and is not.

We need to know how and why that happened.

We have had Inquiries, four I think so far, of course, but all of them were circumscribed: none I think were on the essential question of how the decision to go to war was made and for the sake of future decision-making, we must have such an Inquiry.

For the moment, the Government dismisses criticism with the response that it neither regrets, nor apologises for, the fact that Saddam has gone. Neither do I. Nor does anyone else, but that is not the point. One might as well say one does not regret an earthquake, because it helped bring down some old buildings. So it might have been, but what of the wider damage?

Because, the damage is wider.

Overseas, it is to our reputation. And, at home – on the back of the threat of terror, and with the impetus of two serious incidents in London – civil liberties are, slowly, being sacrificed.

We now know that – despite repeated denials – our Government was complicit in rendition, or – to put it in plain terms – the transfer of suspects out of civilised jurisdiction, to a place where they could be held without charge for a lengthy period.

Now, although the intent – presumably – was to garner information, such action is hardly in the spirit of the nation that gave the world the Magna Carta, or the Parliament that gave it habeas corpus.

Nor can any sacrifice of due process be justified by national self-interest. If we are seen to defend our values, in a manner that does violence to them, then we run the risk of losing those values altogether. Even worse, if our own standards fall, it might serve to recruit terrorists more effectively than their own propaganda could ever hope to do.

And that is no longer theoretical: we now have home-grown terrorists – born here in Britain, not in Waziristan. Will they be encouraged or discouraged to rally to militancy if our own actions bypass the sober rituals of law with which we are familiar?

The Government has introduced a series of measures to protect against terror. These seem to me to go beyond anything contemplated when Britain faced far more regular assaults on our mainland from the IRA.

Two years ago, following the London terrorist attacks, Parliament doubled the time suspects could be held without charge from 14 days to 28 days. I agree that was justified. I supported that change and still do. But – now – Parliament will soon be asked to increase this again – to 42 days.

Yet there is no proof such an extended detention period would have prevented past atrocities. There is no evidence it would prevent future atrocities. No example of which I am aware has yet been given of why the Police need more than 28 days to frame a charge. Now this is a slippery slope. The argument that it “might be useful” in unspecified future circumstances simply will not do. Assertions are cheap: and assertions are worthless if we are to curtail liberty of the individual, we need more certainty than that.

We need to be careful. I cannot believe any Parliamentarian would willingly relish a society in which suspects are detained for long periods without charge; in which excessive security impedes the flow of normal life; and in which border checks frequently verge on the frenetic. I fear such a policy – even if it is intended to improve security – will, in practice, play into the hands of the very people who seek to undermine our way of life.

Nor do I welcome identity cards, likely to be expensive and ineffective. I certainly do not welcome a national register containing the DNA of many thousands of people who have never been charged with an offence.

Now I understand the concerns the Government has – of course I do. And – I do not question their motives. But I fear over-reaction is more likely to alienate than protect, and it is precisely that alienation – “motivated by perceived antagonism to Muslims” – that led to the London bombings in 2005. Do we really want terrorists to see the havoc they are causing; the freedoms they are infringing – and thus to be encouraged to cause even more social disruption?

A free and open society is worth a certain amount of risk. A siege society is alien to our instincts and – once put in place – will be very difficult to dismantle. It is not a road down which we should go.

I suspect one reason for over-reaction is that we live in a scapegoat society. If some thing goes wrong, doesn’t matter what it is – it is assumed some one must be culpable. And not only culpable but criminally culpable. The impact of this blame-game is wholly negative on our national life. I think we would be wiser to acknowledge that no Government or individual can foresee and protect against every eventuality. It’s always a mistake to believe there is a solution for every problem. Often in Government the reverse is true: a new solution merely identifies a different problem.

Now, of course, much of this revolves around too much legislation – and, sometimes, poor legislation – is a problem that goes far beyond the security remit – and has been so for decades. I am certainly prepared to accept a certain mea culpa for my own years but – having done so – I think it is fair to note that the situation has worsened: moreover, new procedures mean a compliant majority now votes much of that legislation through the House of Commons undebated and untested.

I could illustrate this unappealing trend in many ways: one will do. The public are worried about crime – and rightly so: how could it be otherwise, when so many are intimidated by robbery, yobbery and thuggery on too many council estates and on too many streets?

So, each year, we have a Criminal Justice Bill: often containing a lot of sensible policy – let us acknowledge that – but sometimes, as if in homage to knee-jerk reactions, containing measures to appease the sort of opinions heard in a four-ale bar late at night. (Well – in the old days – late at night with 24-hour drinking. Now – of course – heard any time day or night.) And – if you think I exaggerate – ask yourself this question: if I exaggerate, why in subsequent years, are large sections of some of these Bills repealed, having never been implemented?

Meanwhile, crime still rises, the prisons overflow and the Justice Minister – a veteran of the “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” era – is reduced to pleading with Judges to impose less draconian, non-custodial sentences.

The “tough on crime” sound-bite is an illustration of how simplicities in politics often backfire. It is not alone. “Education, Education, Education” – was first said by Lenin, who didn’t mean it either; and as for “24 hours to save the NHS” or “Whiter than White” – discretion forbids any comment at all.

After the experience of how sound-bites so often lead to a political blind alley, anyone who gives houseroom to them in future plainly needs adult supervision. Government can – and must – do better than that.

Mr President, I have focused on short-comings this evening, but that is not the whole story. Let me leaven the criticism.

Throughout the last ten years, I’ve travelled constantly around the world. If that has given a degree of perspective to my criticisms – it has also shown me no better system of government.

Over many decades, successive Governments have presided over a growth in personal and national well-being. This City audience – despite disagreements over individual policies – has seen their financial industries flourish.

And here – in the midst of the most successful financial centre in the world – that is a real cause for optimism.