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 Norfolk Churches Lecture – 17 October 2009

The text of Sir John Major’s speech at the Norfolk Churches Lecture held at the John Innes Centre in Norfolk on Saturday 17th October 2009.


My theme this evening is to look at some of the issues – often forgotten amid the drama of day-to-day crises – that will change our future and re-shape our world.

Mercifully, some things remain constant, even in today’s materialistic society. A determination to preserve our historic churches is one such example of stability, and I’m delighted to be here this evening at the request of the Norfolk Churches Trust.

I set up the Lottery partly to help preserve precious monuments, in the hope that our distant descendants will be able to enjoy them as we do. The Trust’s work is vital, and I’m delighted to see so many of you here tonight, in support of it.

These days change is constant. The men and women I worked with over a decade ago are now part of history.

[Indistinct, anecdotes about Yeltsin and Gorbachev].

Since then the world has changed. Political alliances have been formed and reformed; the global market has become established and a financial crash has nearly crippled the world economy.

Meanwhile, wealth moves inexorably from West to East, as the East grows and the West slows. In 1700, the two largest economies were China and India. Some time this century, that will once again be so.

The words of the poet, John Donne, five hundred years ago, that “No Man is an Island” are – today – very apt. Nor any country. Nor industry.

In recent months, the whole world has been painfully reminded of that.

It has been a period of great uncertainty and widespread fears. Once more, events have proved that what goes up – can also go down. It may take years to correct what has happened, but I want to look beyond the recession at some long-term trends that are changing the way we live. They creep up on us unannounced, but are often more compelling arbiters of change than the decisions of any Government.

Consider science:

Fifty one years ago, a man called Jack Kilby invented the first integrated circuit. It was crude, but it proved to be the fore-runner of silicon chips containing – literally – billions of microscopic circuit elements. Nothing in the 20th century has so accelerated change; it led to the computer revolution; to the Digital Age. Without that circuit there would be no Silicon Valley; no Internet; no laptop; no Google; no iPods; no Blackberrys – and no PlayStations. Our world was changed forever.

Similarly, spin-offs from the space race have given us global communications, satellites and – less happily – missiles to carry nuclear weapons: it is likely there will be further unexpected advances as a fall-out from experiments with the Large Hadron Collider, which is due to re-commence in November.

Science has not only changed how we live: medical science is changing the quality and length of our lives. A hundred years ago, no-one knew of blood groups, hormones or barbiturates. Since then, the advance of medicine has been bewildering.

Whole new industries have emerged. Synthetic Biology has brought together science and engineering to design and build biological functions. New technologies are delivering better drugs to combat disease, promote genetic engineering, healthy food, better pesticides, the control and destruction of pollution, and advances in forensic medicine.

Scientists are examining how to combine computer chip technology with pharmaceutical research in order to target drugs to treat specific parts of the body. Imagine – for example – chemotherapy with only minimal side-effects.

Such science is leading a revolution in medical care: advances in engineering techniques have given us insulin pumps for diabetes; cochlea implants for deafness; and there are realistic prospects of repairing nerve cells for sufferers of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. It may soon be possible to replace heart muscle cells. A few years ago, all this would have seemed like Black Magic. Soon, fantasy will become reality, with commercial prospects that are simply staggering.

And then there are more subliminal issues, often very complex, that demand Government action but are too often pushed aside because the costs are now and the effects of inaction are decades away.

Hard-to-ignore science tells us the risks of climate change are real. The burning of fossil fuels – last year, China alone built one hundred coal-fired power stations – continues to raise dioxides: by 2050 they are likely to be double the pre-industrial level. Most scientists expect this to lead to global warming of between two to five degrees.

This sounds small – but isn’t: in the depth of the last ice age, the temperature fall was – five degrees. However, a single figure is utterly misleading: the land warms more than the sea and high latitudes more than low. So the impact of global warming is not uniform. Nor is it localised: innocent non-polluters may suffer – and the guilty may not. To put it more vividly: if China, India and the US continue to pollute, then Bangladesh and the Philippines might flood – and Singapore might sink altogether.

We do know that coal, oil and gas are going to dominate energy supply for decades to come – irrespective of any advances in solar energy, advanced bio-fuels, fusion and other renewables.

Since this is so, the first priority must be to develop carbon capture and storage before it leaks into the atmosphere. And then we need to store it where it is safe – probably for centuries.

And we also need to stop cutting down the Equatorial forests which release immense carbon into the atmosphere.

This R&D challenge is daunting – and so is the cost – but energy security and climate change – despite disagreements among scientists – is a threat no-one dares ignore. If we take no action, our generation will not be seriously inconvenienced, but our children/grandchildren may face disaster.

Energy security is not the such only long-term problem. Take Population as an example:

1 AD: 300 million
1900 AD: 1.5 billion = 1 BILLION in 1900 years
Now: 6.5 billion = growing at 1 billion every 10 years
By 2050: equivalent of absorbing two new Chinas.

Can we cope? Impact on climate change is obvious. On food, equally so.

All around the world, even in the grimmest of circumstances, people hope for something better. Hope for something better is the most basic of emotions.

For half the world, hope is nearly all they have. Today, three billion souls live on less than US$ 2 per day; and one-fifth on less than US$ 1 per day. This cannot be acceptable. I daresay no-one here today would hesitate in spending that sum on a cup of coffee on the way into work each morning.

The rich nations do help. At present, they spend US$ 50 billion in total on overseas aid: an enormous sum. But less generous than it seems when you realise that Europe and America also spend US$ 350 billion on agricultural subsidies alone.

To put that into context: we spend seven times as much subsidising cheap food for those already well-fed, as the whole world spends on all the needs of those whose bellies are swollen with hunger.

Here, there is a real irony. As some nations grow and improve living standards, they drive up prices to the further detriment of even poorer nations. If one billion Indians – one sixth of the entire world population – together with millions of Chinese, Brazilians and Malaysians – now eat two meals a day, instead of only one, the demand for food soars.

That puts up prices – provoking panic and moving the politics of food to the front burner of controversy. The days of cheap food are gone.

So – let us recognise – now – that the world will need all the food we can grow – even if Australian harvests recover from a ten year drought, and Ukraine and Zimbabwe once again become the agricultural bread-baskets nature designed them to be.

Nor is food the only problem. Consider the Nile – the lifeblood of Northern Africa. Population growth is putting terrible burdens on it. Sudan 5 million (1900), 150 million (2050). If the Nile can’t cope, much of North Africa returns to desert. The problem is decades ahead – the need for action is now. And, to get it, we need a new long-term approach to politics that will make great demands on Government.

My theme has been to look at some of the issues in our post recession world. If we don’t tackle these problems now we will leave a truly dismal legacy to our successors.

Inevitably, there is much I have not touched upon: political rivalries; the risks of nuclear or biological terrorism; the insecurities created by the arc of uncertainty from Syria to Pakistan.

All these are unwelcome problems, complex and not easily solved, but let me add a little balance. Despite the economic downturn, we have just enjoyed fifteen years of high growth – hundreds of millions have been lifted from poverty.

The Cold War is over: the risk of global conflagration has gone.

Investment across nations minimises the risk of wars. Science is raising the quality of life. Medicine is raising its length: in the last forty years – since 1968 – life expectancy has risen faster than in the previous 4,000 years. Our children will be citizens of the world in a way earlier generations could never have dreamed. They will see more, do more, know more than we could ever have imagined.

Over two decades, China and the US have developed huge inter-locking economic interests. Japan and China are beginning to repair old scars. Democracy is expanding. And – pre-recession – poor, forgotten Africa has been growing faster than at any time in our lifetimes. Europe has moved the free market eastwards and southwards.

Sometimes – despite our economic problems – I think we should be more self-confident and more aware of what has been achieved.

In a preface to some famous essays, an English philosopher flatteringly observed to his Patron that “You have planted things that are likely to last”.

So have we – in our own time. The Free Market. The Global Market. Democracy. A Union across Europe. The concept of supra-national co-operation. All gifts from the West to the world – with the US and Europe as principal donors.

Here in North Norfolk – you – by being here tonight – are playing your part in securing the future of our Heritage. It is up to all of us – near and far – to secure the future of our world.