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 Conservative Foreign and Commonwealth Council Dinner – 13 July 2010

The text of Sir John Major’s speech at the Conservative Foreign and Commonwealth Council Dinner, held at Chelsea Manor Street in London, on Tuesday 13th July 2010.


“Policy challenges in a changing world” – is a good topic.

The inevitable challenge is change, which is brutally swift. Leaders of only a few years ago now seem distant history.

One was Boris Yeltsin. I once asked Boris to tell me – “State of Russia” in one word. “Good” – “Not good”.

Today, economically, we’re passing through in a “not good” phase.

And, politically, although the world is safer from serious war than for decades, we face some intractable problems.

The phrase “War on Terror” conjures up its own image: 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, suicide bombers. And yet – the term is misleading. What we are facing is not really a “War”, still less on “Terrorism”, but the military fall-out from the chaos of failed, or failing, States and the battle between Muslims for the soul of Islam. This is not a short-term conflict, nor one capable of a clear-cut finite ending: the chaos is complex.

Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan will have a clear cut ending – or an early one.

We need to understand the Muslim world is very different to our society. It embraces nations in which references to the Prophet Mohammed, or the Old and New Testaments, are part of everyday conversation.

For some – the Salafists – Islam was perfect when founded and can neither be changed nor improved upon. Policy needs to understand the tensions between Christian, Muslim and Jew; Arab, Persian, Kurd and Turk; Shia and Sunni; between Monarchies and Republics; Secular and Islamic societies.

It is a cauldron. It is not a liberal democracy. And therein lies reality.

Let me turn to particular conflicts.

Firstly, Iraq.

When Iraq attacked Kuwait in 1990 the case for war was clear-cut. An innocent country was invaded and needed liberation.

The second Iraq War was very different.

Before it began, I made my reservations public but supported the war – because I believed what the then Prime Minister told us about weapons of mass destruction. When I was Prime Minister, everything I said in public was factually rock solid. I assumed that principle still applied. But I was wrong. It now seems there was little justification for the bellicose case for war that was presented. I was not alone in being misled. So was the Conservative Party. So was the United Kingdom.

Today that war looks like folly. The defence of it has shrunk to the claim that Saddam Hussein was a bad man, who mistreated his nation, and the world is better off without him.

That is true. But others are bad, too – and mistreat their nations – yet we don’t invade their countries or bomb them from 30,000 feet. It may be that the Labour Government acted in good faith. Judgement on that can be left to history.

But, I observe now – there are lessons: war should be the last resort, entered into only when circumstances compel it. And secondly: we now have on-going responsibilities to help rebuild Iraq that we cannot ignore.


We have now been at war in Afghanistan for eight years – with no sign of an ending. Inevitably there is war weariness – made worse by the depressing rise in casualties.

Afghanistan isn’t a war that can easily be “won”, but nor can it be ignored: we are bound to it by necessity.

And it is easy to see why.

The war has spread into Pakistan – a Western ally and a nuclear power where Taleban and Jihadist influence has been growing.

The Afghanistan campaign is now, arguably, not one, but several intertwined conflicts including a power struggle between Jihadists and the Pakistan Government.

As the conflict becomes more messy and intractable, it is understandable that some feel we should bring the troops home – as Canada and the Netherlands plan to do in 2011.

But not yet. Too much is at stake. We need patience and commitment for what could yet be a long military and civil campaign: the alternative is to lose the struggle, boost terror, undermine American and British prestige, and place Pakistan at risk. We did not seek this war, but we cannot – either morally or safely – walk away from it.

The best exit strategy is victory. If that is unobtainable – diplomacy. We may yet have to talk to the Taliban.


Churchill once referred to Russia as “A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”.

Much the same could be said of Iran today. In the year since the flawed re election of Ahmadinejad, there has been widespread internal dissent by hundreds of thousands of individual Iranians. There have been marches, coded speeches, intellectual dissent, as liberty has raised its voice. The regime has responded with repression but, like others before them, they will find that the demand for change, for something better, for a free and open society, is impossible to smother forever. You cannot arrest freedom and keep it in jail.

The fear of a nuclear Iran is real. If she obtains a weapon, the risk of proliferation is high.

Why is Iran doing this? The economy is in a mess. The currency is weak. Inflation, interest rates and unemployment are high. It’s a sad comedown for a nation that was a great Empire, when we lived in mud huts.

Nothing is explicable without understanding that Iran is a nationalist and hard-line regime. The real source of power is the Supreme Leader, backed by the Revolutionary Guards, the Army, the Intelligence Services and the Police. The President, Ahmadinejad – so often the face of Iran – is a secondary figure. He is not the decisive decision-maker. Too many people over-react to his provocative remarks without realising his subordinate position. He is the Apprentice, not the Sorcerer.

What should we do? First, remember the regime is not the nation – as the internal dissent vividly makes clear. Even so, while the clerical regime survives, we must deal with it. It is possible negotiations may improve relations; and we should continue to try. But, because of the threat she poses, we must supplement dialogue with incentives and sanctions.

In any event, adding a third military conflict after Iraq and Afghanistan is very unattractive – even if we cannot rule it out. But, for the time being, the sanctions applied last month seem the right way forward. We can only hope they prove sufficient.


The Arab/Israeli dispute colours the view of the Middle East. It spills beyond its own borders and has scarred politics for decades. And is it not absurd that we know the two-State solution we seek, but cannot turn it into reality? Morality, as well as practicality, says we need a solution.

After several decades, a bilateral negotiated settlement is still far away: many wonder if it will ever be possible. Attempts at incremental agreements – “confidence building” in the jargon – have failed again and again. Peace negotiations resemble nothing so much as the mating of the Black Widow Spider. Once the dance is over, death and destruction inevitably follow. How often we have seen that, and how damaging it is.

The present situation is close to stalemate. Palestinians are split. Secular Fatah control the West Bank. Islamic Hamas rule in Gaza. Hamas deny the right of Israel to even exist. They will not renounce violence nor accept previous agreements made by Palestinian negotiators.

Is there a solution? Yes, of course – the obvious one, a negotiated settlement. But, if that cannot be achieved, if negotiators from Israel and the Palestinians cannot – or will not – make the concessions necessary to compromise, what then?

Can the international community allow this dispute to run on and on forever – or will the time come when they have no choice other than to press their own ideas for a settlement?

Understandably, the protagonists would hate this: but, if both sides take positions that impede progress, what alternative exists?

Will this be difficult? Of course it will. It is a gamble, a high risk toss of the coin, and one that requires great political courage, especially in


Let me turn to some unconventional challenges.

Firstly, science.

The first integrated circuit – invented by Jack Kilby in America in 1958 – 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, no PlayStations – and none of the hundreds of millions of jobs they have created. Who knows what challenges lie ahead – perhaps as a result of the particle beams circulating in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

As science changes 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, medicine has given birth to whole new industries. New technologies are delivering better drugs, healthy food, new pesticides, the control of pollution, and advances in forensic medicine.

Technology and medicine are old partners. The first man to assert that blood circulates and is pumped from the heart was William Harvey.

But not until the invention of the microscope in the 1650s was this verified by the discovery of the tiny connections between arteries and veins.

In a modern parallel, scientists are examining how to combine computer chip technology with pharmaceutical research so they can 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 challenges that are simply staggering.

Many challenges also offer opportunities. 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. This is like absorbing two more nations the size of China. It offers social threats and economic opportunities.

These are just a few of the challenges in our post recession world.

One certainty: many countries borrowing money – from markets, one another, International Financial Institutions. Not always straightforward.

Inevitably, there are many challenges I have not touched upon: the danger of nuclear or biological terrorism; the insecurities created by the arc of uncertainty from Syria to Pakistan; the enigma of Russian policy-making.

All are formidable – but let me add a little balance: pre-financial crisis, fifteen years of high growth improved the quality of life for hundreds of millions of people.

Investment across nations minimises the risk of wars. Life expectancy is rising.

China and the US have developed a peaceful relationship. Japan and China are repairing old scars. Democracy is expanding. Poor, forgotten Africa is growing. Europe has moved the free market eastwards and southwards.

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 UK as a principal donor.

It is a record of which to be proud.

But what remains to be achieved is greater yet, and the challenges will go on and on.