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 Tory Reform Group Dinner – 25 November 2009

The text of Sir John Major’s speech at the Tory Reform Group Dinner, held at the Cavalry and Guards Club in London on Wednesday 25th November 2009.


Here at Cavalry & Guards Club: moment to remember contribution of Cavalry, Guards and Services generally in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere as we sit here over dinner. We owe them a lot.

You may think “British Foreign Policy in a Changing World” is an odd subject for someone who was Foreign Secretary for a mere 94 days.

I partly agree: except – it seems to me – those 94 days were a golden age. We were at war with no-one. There were no “dodgy dossiers”. All was serene. A period on which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office looks back with great nostalgia. All was serene. A period on which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office looks back with great nostalgia.

This evening, I want to focus on the world as it is – only then can we make policy with a clear-eyed appreciation of what is happening elsewhere and where the British national interest lies. This means shedding the nostalgia and fantasies that so often bedevil British attitudes.

Fifty years ago, no-one could have predicted the present social or geo-political landscape.

The Soviet Union and the United States were the two super-powers. China was isolationist and something of an enigma. Japan had barely begun her post-war rise. Central and Eastern Europe fell under Soviet control. Germany was still divided. Latin America was a Continent of revolutions. The EU was in its infancy. Much of Africa was still colonised. Oil was $3 a barrel and no-one imagined an Islamic Revolution. Little of that world now survives. Huge changes – and yet the pace of change is accelerating.

But old attitudes linger. Often, very old attitudes. Beneath a thin veneer, there are still strands of opinion that hanker for the days when Palmerston sent a gun boat. These days, there are no Palmerstons and – as it happens – not all that many gunboats.

As we look forward, more than ever our military power will need supplementing by diplomacy, by soft power, by the intelligent use of foreign policy.

Here, history helps us. Old alliances can be invoked. Old friendships re-asserted. But, self-interest suggests we should use the international institutions with more commitment. Our membership of NATO, of the Security Council, of the Commonwealth and of the EU can all help us. Some may dispute the last assertion but they are wrong – the EU is crucial to our foreign policy clout. Every American President I have known wants the UK to be a power inside the EU and would see us as diminished if we were outside it. America does not want us as the 51st State, but as a powerful ally within Europe.

Of course, many recoil at shared authority within Europe but, often, intelligent policy can shackle our partners to policies we advocate. The Single Market is a case in point. So is enlargement to the East. These are two of the biggest changes in European policy since the birth of the Common Market – and both were British initiatives. Let me offer a further example.

After the first Gulf War the Iraqis were murdering Kurds. It was genocide. I advocated a ‘Safe Havens’ policy and persuaded the EU and the Commonwealth to back it. Faced with this alliance, the US, initially reluctant, signed up to this too: troops were put in the field and hundreds of thousands of lives were saved. On these occasions others accommodated British priorities. Sometimes we must accommodate theirs.

The Lisbon Treaty is now law. Some of it is sensible. Some of it I don’t like. In particular, I am hostile to the idea of a President and a High Representative for Foreign Policy and – to judge from the appointments made – others have reached have reached the same view. Even so, David Cameron is right to accept that despite the denial of a referendum – our economic interests require us to remain an active Member.

Some don’t agree. Britain, they proclaim, has surrendered so much power it has the status of a Parish Council. This is absurd, of course – what Parish Council runs its own tax policy, monetary policy, defence policy and foreign policy? None, of course. Nor ever will.

But the ‘Better Off Out’ advocates – UKIP and their sympathisers, some within our own Party – magnify the frustrations of Europe and minimise its achievements. A war between European nations is now inconceivable and yet the sceptics see no relationship between that self-evident truth and the advent of the EU. Nor do they see that, if they achieved their aim of withdrawal they would downsize our role in the world. Less important to America. Detached from our European market. A less attractive home for investment from the East. The world would not applaud our Bulldog independence: they would think we had taken leave of our political senses. And – soon – we would, no doubt, take leave of our membership of the Security Council and our influence within the international financial institutions. We would not be seen as a serious nation: we would have emasculated our future. A Little Britain not a Great Britain. A stifled voice in a big and noisier world.

It would be folly. A march towards irrelevance at precisely the moment we need all our confidence to compete in a world that is, perhaps, changing faster than it has ever done.

The present economic crisis may slow down the exuberant change of the last decades but it won’t stop it. For sound economic reasons the East will outgrow the West for the foreseeable future: it has a lower cost base, more – and less expensive – labour, and it can build anew without first demolishing what existed before.

In 1700, China and India were the greatest economic powers in the world: in terms of GDP they will once again – sometime in the next few decades – sometime in the next few decades – outstrip everyone, even the US and the EU. And, since economic power leads to political authority, it will pose an increasing challenge to Western diplomacy. Also, until science develops alternative fuels, nations rich in oil and gas will flourish. Over recent years, the world has looked enviously at energy rich nations – especially in the Gulf, but also Russia, of course, and the spending power of their Sovereign Wealth Funds. At an oil price of $75 – and it will soon exceed that once again – the Gulf alone adds $140 billion a year to their war chest for investment.

We have a Government in the UK in the UK that inherited the best economy in Western Europe yet – in 12 years – has managed to near-bankrupt the nation. We are now the most indebted industrial nation in the world. Our fiscal deficit is – unbelievably – three times that of Italy and twice that of Japan.

Labour bought the last two elections with a reckless economic policy and now the electorate that was deceived must pick up the bill. Labour now promise to halve the deficit in four years: but even if they did so – and it is unlikely – the deficit would still be twice as high as we have ever known before. And that relative poverty impacts on our foreign policy as well as our pockets.

Since 1997, much of Labour’s foreign policy has been thoughtless and short-term. As for Afghanistan – which was embarked upon with the false promise that “not a shot will be fired” – no conflict in our modern history can have been sanctioned with less consideration.

We had no objective. No idea of the scale of the commitment. No plan. No exit strategy and – for years – our servicemen and women have been in harm’s way with poor equipment and inadequate numbers. There is a case for this war but the political management of it has been shameful. I believe that was true, also, of the second Iraq War. Soon, the responsibility may devolve on a new Government.

They must ask:-

What is the aim of this war?

What is the cost of failure?

Can it be won by force of arms alone?

What is the political/diplomatic strategy?

And why – after eight years – is this still not apparent- after – is this still not apparent?

Can a credibly non-corrupt Afghan Government be formed?

How many troops are necessary?

Does the use of unmanned drones which kill more civilians than terrorists aid or hinder the cause of winning hearts and minds?

These questions – and others – should have been asked – and considered carefully – before the conflict began and it is a failure of commonsense, let alone good government, let alone good government, that they were not. The Nation is as right to be proud of the role of our Servicemen and women as it is to be hostile at the ineptitude of our Government.

Good foreign policy also looks at inter-generational policy. One aspect of that is overseas aid – traditionally under the bailiwick of the under the bailiwick of the Foreign Office.

One-half of the world will go to bed hungry tonight. They live on less than $2 a day while the rich nations spend many times more on agricultural subsidies for the already well-fed as they contribute to aid for 3 billion people who often have no food in their belly at all.

And this will get worse. In the last 50 years, world population has grown from under 3 billion to over 6.5 billion. At the birth of Christ, world population was – probably – 300 million. By 1900 – 19 centuries later – it had grown by something over one billion. We now grow by nearly one billion every decade.

World population is projected to reach 8 or even 9 billion by 2050 and over 95% of growth is in the developing world. This is like absorbing two more nations the size of China. We ignore this at our peril.

The plight of the poorest is made worse by an issue that will impact on everyone: the price of food.

Here, there is a real irony. As some nations grow and improve living standards, they drive up prices beyond the reach of the poorest. 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.

In the future the world will need all the food we can grow – even if nations such as Ukraine and Zimbabwe once again become the agricultural bread-baskets nature designed them to be.

It is hard to overstate the importance of a cogent foreign importance of a cogent policy, and its wider impact, and its wider impact. Apart from those issues I have touched on it must deal with:

The hotspots of Iran and Iraq;

The Middle East Peace Process;

The risks of nuclear or biological terror;

The insecurities created by the arc of uncertainty from Syria to Pakistan;

The enigma of Russian policy-making; and much else, not least the trade promotion of Great Britain PLC.

We must make sure the Foreign Office is equipped for these tasks. It needs to be strengthened – not weakened. We need to stop cutting overseas posts and manpower. And we need to end the absurdity of requiring HM Ambassadors to become bloggers for Government PR purposes, and advisors on media handling for every report they submit. For Heaven’s sake, they are highly trained diplomats – not under-qualified publicists.

There is an old sneer that the Foreign Office exists for foreigners. It is often trotted out to the applause of the ignorant and the ill-informed.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The Foreign Office exists to represent British interests overseas in diplomacy and trade. Its job is to negotiate, to persuade, to identify a identify a problem before it becomes a crisis, before it becomes a crisis, and prepare the ground for solutions. In an increasingly inter-dependent world, its role will become ever more crucial.

Let us hope we are soon returned to a Government that will re-establish Britain’s role in this new world and a British Foreign Secretary who will, once again, carry the weight of that Office as elegantly and intelligently as Peter Carrington, Geoffrey Howe, Douglas Hurd and Malcolm Rifkind.

The world is in a constant state of change – and we need to put Britain back where she should be – ahead of the game rather than trailing in the wake of bigger beasts. The Foreign Office has the experience and the talent to do that. William Hague has all the qualities of leadership to deliver.

But – first – we have an election to win. If we do so, we will return to serious Government.

And then we can return to serious policy.