The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Sir John Major’s Article on the National Lottery – 24 August 2008

The text of Sir John Major’s article on the National Lottery, published by the Sunday Telegraph on 24th August 2008.


One would need a heart of stone not to have enjoyed the wonderful British triumphs at the Beijing Olympics. Day after day, young British athletes have surpassed themselves and the whole country has been uplifted by their performances. As we celebrate the most successful modern Olympics we have known, we can marvel at the dedication of the athletes who have sacrificed so much in pursuit of their dreams.

But such commitment needs support. Athletes need gymnasiums, swimming pools, velodromes and running tracks upon which to hone their skills, and the Lottery has helped pay for them: talent is the first ingredient for Gold, but the best coaching and facilities are indispensable.

Of course, the purpose of the Lottery is much wider than support for our sporting elite – important though that is. The genesis of the Lottery lay in my belief that sport, the arts, our heritage and charities enhance the quality of life for millions of people – and I noted at the Treasury that, in the scramble for taxpayer funding, they always lose out to Health, Education, Social Services and Defence. As Prime Minister, my solution was the Lottery: additional funding, free of Government interference, to provide resources to replace dilapidated facilities, repair decaying buildings, and boost the arts and charities.

And it has done so. Since its launch in 1994, over £21 billion has been distributed to over 300,000 local projects, as well as to the many mega-schemes of national importance. Without the Lottery there may have been no new Wembley Stadium, no National Cycle network, no velodrome in Manchester, no Eden Project in Cornwall, no renovation of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. Nor would there have been new village and community halls, bowling greens, cricket nets, arts clubs and so much more in towns and villages in every corner of our country. Over the past fourteen years, the Lottery has been the essential ingredient in the greatest enhancement of cultural and sporting life in Britain over the last century.

But it is more than that. The provision of grassroots facilities for sport and the arts offers lasting social benefits. Where would we prefer our young people to be – in clubs or gymnasiums or on street corners? Members of teams or gangs? Given worries about obesity – do we wish them to be fit or fat? And – for the more mature in our society – do we approve or disapprove of increased social and sporting facilities, such as bowls? Such questions have easy answers.

Lottery funding has also benefited our heritage and the arts, with repair and renovation to churches and ancient buildings, and encouragement of artistic talent.

And, at the top level of sport, we love to win. Our national characteristics may enable us to accept defeat with good humour, but we cherish success.

Success uplifts our nation: witness the impact of the Olympics, or the 2005 Ashes win or, sadly long ago, the 1966 World Cup win. We will enjoy more such triumphs only if we develop the grassroots of sport. And we love to celebrate our icons. The success of Freddie Flintoff or Chris Hoy or Rebecca Adlington, or the talents of Kenneth Branagh or Judi Dench, are more exciting to us than the activities of politicians or businessmen. If we nurture grassroots talent, a new generation of icons will surely follow.

The Lottery is more than a cash dispenser: it is a social tool and the present Government has a mixed record in caring for it. To their credit, they have widened the use of Lottery funds – as I would have done myself. To their discredit, they have siphoned off funds for their own pet projects. In 1997, one-fifth of Lottery proceeds went to each of the long-term good causes. In 1998, the Government cut that to 16.6%, and later the Big Lottery Fund dipped into the bran tub yet again – and sport, the arts, heritage and charities were the losers.

It is not easy to disentangle by how much the four main good causes have lost out, but it is literally billions over the last decade. At present, I calculate annual funding has dropped by about one-third from its peak.

Additionally – although once more the figures are unclear – grassroot schemes have lost about a further half a billion pounds to fund Olympic infrastructure. A contribution – as with the Commonwealth Games at Manchester – is acceptable but half a billion is far too high a loss for grassroots sport. This reduction is in direct contravention of the promise which helped London win the Olympic bid: “To capture the imagination of young people and leave a lasting legacy”.

What of the future? I would like to see Lottery proceeds returned in full to their original purpose so that sport, the arts, heritage and charities would each receive 20%. The final 20% could be ring-fenced to re-introduce sport into the State sector of education – a plan I would have implemented had I won the 1997 Election. The opportunity to enjoy sport – and to excel at it – must be as great in State Schools as in Private Schools: we need to unearth and develop that talent. I shall forever regret that I did not ensure that provision was put in place when I was in a position to do so.

I should also like the distributing bodies to set out their objectives for the next decade – and be prepared to stage funding over many years. Where appropriate, I would hope objectives could be agreed with Government, so that taxpayer and Lottery funding could work in harmony. If Lottery largesse is to continue at a high level, prizes must remain attractive even though they are often controversial. I am not personally offended by instant wealth – nor, I believe, are the 70% of the public who play the Lottery each week.

Over time, Lottery proceeds can further advance the renaissance of British sport and the arts; widen leisure for every age group; improve services for the disadvantaged; and repair our ancient buildings for future generations to enjoy.

My hope is that, with the help of Lottery funding, our 2012 Olympians may be able to build on success in Beijing, to win an even greater haul of medals on their own home soil.

I, for one, will be cheering them on.