The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Sir John Major’s Speech at Yale University – 30 November 2010

The text of Sir John Major’s speech at Yale University, held on Tuesday 30th November 2010. The speech was entitled “Fantasy to Reality : The World That Lies Ahead” and was the annual George Herbert Walker Lecture held at the university.


I’m doubly delighted to be here at Yale this afternoon: firstly, because I am in the company of my old friend, Ernesto Zedillo.

I’ve known President Zedillo for many years. He is one of a too rare breed: a man who gives politics a good name. So it is always a pleasure to see him and it was a delight to accept his invitation to visit this famous old University once again.

And it is also a special delight and privilege to deliver the George Herbert Walker III Lecture. In my years in politics George Herbert Walker Bush was a close ally – notably during the first Gulf War – and became a life-long friend to cherish. George Bush is a citizen of the world and respected in every part of it. When I became Prime Minister – George Bush was the first to phone me up from Air Force One. There was a slight glitch, he got my brother and the conversation went slightly awry. My brother was wondering who he was and said to the cook in the kitchen there’s a Mr Bush on the phone, “do we know him?” and I was dragged out of an adjacent room to speak to the President.

When I ceased to be Prime Minister, George Bush was pretty much the first person on the phone yet again, with an invitation to Kennebunkport. George, like Ernesto, is a friend for all seasons.

For George and Ernesto I would do almost anything – but I do draw the line at jumping out of aircraft on my birthday – even for George.

My theme this afternoon is the quite extraordinary ways in which the world is changing – and what that means for the future. Let me try and put it in some sort of context.

My father died nearly 50 years ago. Since then, the world has changed beyond recognition. Fifty years ago, the Soviet Union and the United States were the two super-powers. China was isolationist. Japan had barely begun her post-war rise. Central and Eastern Europe were still under Soviet control. Germany was still a divided nation. Latin America was a continent of revolutions. The European Union was in its infancy. The Gulf was undeveloped. Much of Africa was still colonised. Oil was $3 a barrel and no-one foresaw an Islamic Revolution.

Little of that world now survives – and the pace of change is accelerating within the span of one lifetime. My father, were he here, would simply not recognise today’s world. And neither would people who left politics much more recently. Someone both George Bush and I knew very well was Boris Yeltsin.

Now Boris Yeltsin who ruled Russia just over a decade ago, but now seems part of a bygone age. Boris had a great gift for brevity and irony. I remember walking with him once in the Kremlin, this would have been in the mid 1990s, I said to him, “Boris in one word what is the state of Russia?”, he said “good”, I was surprised, it was falling to pieces, I said “tell me in two words”, he said “not good”.

Even since then, the world has moved on.

Nothing is as it was. In the future, nothing will be as it is. The great challenge is to identify the changes that are to come and use them and to try and take advantage of them.

You may say: but we don’t know what is to come. In fact, we know a good deal more about the future than we realise. When Shakespeare put the words: “Nothing comes from nothing” into King Lear’s mouth, he spoke an eternal truth. Change rarely comes as a bolt from the blue, it’s the result of trends we have overlooked or, sometimes, policy we have implemented.

As evidence, I offer the economic problems we’ve been facing in the last couple of years. They are the result of an unrestrained boom.

Business and political leadership failed us. We enjoyed the boom but did not prepare for the aftermath.

As a result, the outlook for all the mature economies – America, Britain, the Eurozone and Japan – is at best sluggish. Consumer demand is fragile. Banks are cautious about lending as they repair balance sheets. Public spending is anaemic. Unemployment is stubbornly high.

This is a result of policy failures that brings into stark relief a trend that has been developing for decades: other economies – in what we quaintly and rather patronisingly call the ‘third world’ – and I have myself in forty years of politics never discovered what the second is – are catching up on the dominance we have enjoyed for so long. China, India, Brazil, Turkey, Mexico, Indonesia are all coming into much greater prominence and will continue to do so in the decades that lie immediately ahead.

As Westerners, we may regret our shrinking pre-eminence but it does create a better balanced – and very probably a safer – world than we have previously known. And one that helps us: emerging markets will help re-float the Western economies. It has led to something I certainly never expected to see in my lifetime – China funding the American deficit.

But you and I had better get used to such novelties because the growth of emerging nations has passed the point where it is likely to be reversible: and our future world will be different, wholly different, as a result of it.

I don’t intend to focus on economic changes this afternoon but we should note them: the flow of wealth from West to East: the growing role of Sovereign Wealth Funds, which is huge; the scramble for commodities, especially perhaps in Africa, and the price inflation that is very likely to follow. All these trends are signposted for the future.

I do want to touch on the inter-dependence of nations where there is one mini-trend I hope is not going to develop.

Over the last two decades the concept of free trade has become almost universal. Countries that once were collectivist, even communist, embraced free enterprise – and prospered as a result of it.

The impact of the financial crisis has put a very large question mark on that development in the minds of some of the people running these economies. A body called Global Trade Alert has reported a very significant growth in trade protection – not serious yet but sufficiently widespread to be worrying. A growth in protection that needs watching.

If more countries adopt protectionist measures, particularly if they are big countries, more particularly of all if they happen to be the United States, their trade rivals will retaliate: this could snowball and have a significant effect on world trade.

We should remember it was not the Wall Street Crash that caused the depression of the 1930s – it was the policies of Protection that followed the Wall Street Crash that caused the damage.

Let me now look at the world that is to come – and start with the most basic issue of all: mankind itself. In the 41 years since America landed a Man on the Moon, world population has doubled. Doubled in 41 years. It now grows by as much every twelve years as it grew in the nineteen hundred years from the birth of Christ to the dawn of the 20th century. Startling, isn’t it?

The trend is accelerating, by 2050 – not far away in planning terms – population will soar to over nine billion souls: this is an increase from today that is equivalent to the population of two more Chinas.

These are not just statistics: they are people. Men, women and children with hopes, fears, ambitions and needs – for food, water, clothing, education, housing, jobs and every basic of life. As we meet today, pretty much about one-half of the world goes hungry, ill-educated and often without hope: how much worse will the problem be with an additional two billion to care for, 95% of whom will be born in countries who are very poor? Planning for this world needs to begin now: again one illustration will suffice.

Already, many parts of the Middle-East and North Africa face water shortages; water shortages for families, for agriculture and for industry.
In North Africa the Nile River has been its supply of water since the dawn of time – but the demands on the Nile will one day become insupportable. In 1900, five million Sudanese depended on the Nile – today it is over 42 million and by 2050 it is forecast to be a minimum of 50 million. Similar statistics apply to every other country alongside the Nile.

The relevance of this is that action is required now to ensure water supply thirty to forty years ahead. But if no-one acts in time, it will be too late when water shortages become immediate and acute.

These population projections aren’t fantasy. They’re reality. But they could become a nightmare unless we prepare.

As population changes so does the future of our world, so does technology. My grandfather – who was in Pittsburgh helping to build the Carnegie Steel Works in the 1870s – never conceived of the combustion engine, let alone aeroplanes. Or the telephone, let alone mobiles. Now rockets and satellites in space arouse little interest amongst the populous as a whole. So what will life be like for our grandchildren?
We can’t know: but we do know the trend of change. Technology is moving ever faster. It’s getting smaller and more powerful. Cheaper and more accessible. It took the telephone 50 years to reach one quarter of America. It has taken Facebook and Google less than 3 years to reach every corner of the world.

Science isn’t emotional. It deals in facts. Several hundred years ago it told us the Earth was not spherical – and was not the centre of the Universe. At the time the Christian Church killed men for such heresy – but science was right.

Now science and technology is the unstoppable motor that is changing every aspect of our lives.

Consider what it has done. The first integrated circuit – invented by Jack Kilby at Texas Instruments 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 crude circuit board there would be no Silicon Valley; no Internet; no laptop; no Google; no iPods; no iPads, 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 in Switzerland.

A few days ago, scientists captured anti-matter for the first time – although only a few grains and only for one-tenth of a second. This may – I emphasise may be a new frontier. It was anti-matter, you may recall, that powered the USS Enterprise in Star Trek – fantasy is becoming reality.

As science changes how we live, medical science is changing the quality and the length of our lives. 110 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 produce artificial heart muscle cells.

Stem cell research may enable us to grow replacement body parts – experiments in San Diego have already grown a human bladder. We can expect further advances.

A decade ago, scientists mapped the human genome system. We are daily learning more about how we live and why we die. On the day the mapping was announced, I was lunching with some eminent medical surgeons at one of Britain’s great teaching hospitals.

What does this mean, I asked? It means – they told me – medicine may determine in a child how that child may die as an adult and, knowing that, they can determine the treatment that may delay death. The life-span for a new baby, born in a country with an advanced medical system, that uses the science that is now available, may rise from the 79/81 years of today to well into the 90s. Consider the social implications of that.

A few years ago, all this would have seemed like Black Magic. Very soon, fantasy will become reality, in a world we are only barely beginning to glimpse.

Change is almost always two-faced: sometimes it brings danger.

Consider our Earth: our blue and green planet has altered. Continents have drifted; Oceans have been formed; Africa and South America have split asunder; species have evolved and become extinct.

These changes happened over literally hundreds of millions of years … but a few thousand years ago – like everything else in our modern life – it all speeded up. Agriculture began. Vegetation changed. The growing population began to deplete raw – and rare – materials.

Now, in the last few decades, we have begun to emit radio waves from television, radar and cell-phones, and carbon dioxide emissions have absolutely soared. Planes have filled the skies, and missiles, satellites and space-craft have been propelled beyond our biosphere into orbit.

For the first time in the long life-time of the Earth, our way of life can affect the future of our planet.

This is the defining challenge for the future: can we utilize the science that has given us so many innovations to protect our way of life from the effects of those innovations? Once more, a single contemporary example may suffice.

Science tells us the risks of climate change are real. Arctic summer ice is disappearing faster than we thought: without it, the sea absorbs the sun and melts the permafrost that keeps the lid on Greenhouse gases.

The burning of fossil fuels continues to raise dioxides. Most – not all, but most – scientists expect this to lead to global warming of between two and five degrees. Does this matter? Yes – it does.

NASA tells us that when temperatures last rose 2-3% (which they did 35 million years ago) sea levels rose by 25 metres. Even 5 metres would swamp large parts of London, New York, Sydney, Vancouver, Mumbai and Tokyo. Regions of Florida, Louisiana, Bangladesh and the Netherlands would vanish. Singapore would sink. No wonder green energy is such a growing business.

But here is the dilemma for the policy-maker : we must have energy.

Our modern world is powered by energy. It is indispensable for economic and political stability. A world without readily available energy is a world that cannot power industry, light homes, cook food, drive cars – it would be chaotic.

Without energy, we return to life before the industrial revolution: it is unthinkable and it is unimaginable. We have been shamefully wasteful of our energy resources in the past half century and are now paying heavily for it. Oil has risen from $3 a barrel to $80 and rising, as demand has grown and grown.

And it will not slacken – demand cannot slacken, as Latin America, Africa and Asia continue to industrialise and as population increases.

So the role of science is going to be pivotal. It must mitigate the impact of fossil fuel degradation and prepare for the post fossil fuel age: this is still many decades ahead of us but, one day, it will come.

Already science is far advanced in effective methods of capturing and storing carbon before it leaks into the atmosphere although many of the worst polluters around the world don’t yet utilise this technology.

Alternatives are being developed – solar energy, advanced bio-fuels, fusion, other renewables: all of them have a role to play. So does the safe expansion of nuclear power, probably a bigger role than any of the others, which an increasing number of nations – not least in the Middle East – see as essential to future prosperity.

We also need science to finalise the electrical car to reduce CO2 emissions. As an estimated 100 million cars are sold each year there will, by next year, be an incredible one billion cars on the planet. An electric motor can make a big contribution.

Challenges such as these are daunting – and so is the cost but no-one dare ignore them. If we take no action, my generation will not be seriously inconvenienced, but our children/grandchildren may face a disastrous scenario.

As we look ahead there are acute political and social challenges in nearly every country of the world. The rising cost of caring for more elderly people. The provision of pensions for them. Sufficient leisure and work to keep minds occupied and life worthwhile. Such challenges will alter more than the number and the length of lives: they may change nearly everything that is familiar to us.

As we prepare for what lies ahead it is re-assuring to recall the past challenges that have been met. For most of my lifetime the world was at risk because NATO and the Warsaw Pact were facing one another with nuclear arsenals that, if unleashed, might destroy much of life as we know it. Reason – and wise politics (not least from past American Presidents like George Bush) prevented such a catastrophe.

Today, inter-continental carnage on that sort of scale scale is very, very unlikely but – if the world is safer – the dangers of proliferation of nuclear weapons, of regional conflicts and of terrorism loom much larger as viable risks.


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

Much the same could be said of Iran today. Since the flawed re-election of President 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, as we might have expected, 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. So is the effect of it. If Iran obtains a weapon, the risk of proliferation is very, very high indeed. Iran worries everyone – and destabilises much of the Middle East.

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

Nothing is explicable in Iran without understanding the nature of the regime. It is nationalist and hard-line. 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 in truth 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. The monkey, not the organ-grinder.

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 have to deal with it. It is possible negotiations may improve relations; and of course we should continue to try. But, because of the threat she poses, we must supplement dialogue with incentives and sanctions.

Some advocate military conflict – and, unattractive though it is in every conceivable way, we cannot emphatically rule it out. But, for the time being, sanctions and political pressure seem the right way forward. We can only hope that they are sufficient.


The Arab/Israeli dispute colours the view of the Middle East. It spills beyond its own borders and it 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 whether 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 invariably 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. Meanwhile, Israel builds settlements the world deems illegal.

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 because of their internal politics, what then?

Can the international community allow this dispute to run on and on forever – or will the time come when, in the wider interest, they have no choice other than to press more firmly 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 will require great political courage with all concerned. But in the Middle East, as much as anywhere and more important than in most parts of the world, statesmanship is essential to enable the region to fulfil its potential, without fear of conflict.

One conflict is now worldwide. It is important to understand that terror – Al Qaeda being an example – threatens Muslim societies as much as, and in some cases, more than, Christian societies. Al Qaeda hate the Saudi Arabians more than they hate the Americans and the British. The Taliban, too, would change societies back to pre-enlightened days with a rigid approach to religion and to civil life that is abhorrent to most people. We have seen vivid – and terrifying – examples of that intolerance recently in both Iran and Pakistan. The concept of stoning a woman to death, or executing another because she advocated Christianity, is something that to us seems to come out of an age many centuries ago, but still exists in parts of the world.

This battle against intolerance and unreason is one in which every State has an interest. It is not a short-term conflict, nor one capable of a clear-cut finite ending: it is too complex, too chaotic for that.

But it is one from which no nation can safely exclude itself – we all have an interest in the outcome.

One final thought about the future. Sometimes in politics – and in life – it is necessary to stand back and take stock. Now is such a moment.

Our world has many complexities, but far more opportunities. If we arrange our affairs to take advantage of them, our future can be so much more promising than even the most pessimistic can believe.

Sometimes I think we should be more aware – more self-confident – of what we can do. Young men and women today will see things, do things, know things, be things, that their parents and grand-parents would never have dreamed of. We must make sure that they can take advantage of those opportunities.

As much of what I have said is about science, let me conclude with a quote from the man Voltaire called “the Father of modern science”.

In the preface to his essays, Francis Bacon – a philosopher in Elizabethan England – observed, and I quote, that: “We have planted things that are likely to last.”

So have we, in our time, planted things that are likely to last.

Throughout history, change has been an ally. In the future – if we are wise – it will continue to be so.