The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Sir John Major’s Speech at Peterborough Cathedral – 10 June 2016

Below is the text of Sir John Major’s speech at Peterborough Cathedral on Friday 10 June 2016.


It is extraordinary that this is the 900th Anniversary of this great Cathedral.

Its foundations were laid over 50 years before the martyrdom of Thomas Beckett, and 100 years before Magna Carta opened a small chink towards democracy. In those days, one third of England was forest – and the Cathedral would have dominated the landscape.

Today, it sits in the middle of a city, and the forest has long gone: although part of its wood survives in the great ceiling above us in this Nave.

Nine hundred years ago our dinner – on a Friday – would, of course, have been fish: probably sole or eels. We would have shared a communal soup bowl and eaten from common plates of food, helping ourselves with – hopefully clean – fingers.

We would have had knives but no forks. We would have been discouraged from licking our fingers clean (very bad table manners), or taking too much food, or using bread to mop up morsels from the communal plate. And if we were wise, we would not have drunk the water. We would certainly have never imagined the future.

So much has happened since then and – today – events are moving faster than ever before. For many, it is a bewildering world, throwing up choices and decisions perhaps more complex than anything we have known in all our long history.

The role of the Cathedral has evolved over the centuries. Faith is more liberal now, more user-friendly, more open to accept different cultures – and more tolerant of those who have no faith at all.

Yet it remains massively important to its community. As part of the celebrations of this anniversary Peterborough 900 is raising funds for community purposes: a heritage and education centre, and a Music School, are projects that will benefit many people.

So will re pitching the Organ to enable the Cathedral to function as a concert venue with a new sound system. Some may say – is this the purpose of a Cathedral?

I would say, “Yes, it is”: in a secular – often too materialist – world, in a multi-cultural and multi-faith City, it must reach out and be seen as a relevant part of our way of living: if it were to become a mausoleum for only the committed to visit on Sunday it would surely wither.

Our country was once a collection of small towns and cities and tiny villages, and the Church was the heart and soul of the community: today, when so many are elderly, some lonely, and others possibly a little frightened at the pace and change of modern life, this role is as important as it has ever been.

For the sick at heart, it is a sanctuary: open to the good and the bad alike: a comfort zone for some when none other may exist. That is why in my view – though this is not shared by everyone in public life – it should use its pulpit to speak out more clearly on issues that affect the lives of everyday people.

Today, around the world, intolerance of minorities is on the rise. In country after country we see them scape-goated. Extreme politicians reach for power. Even in our own backyard of Europe, intolerant voices influence opinion. Here, in this bastion of faith, I invite the Church, and all faith groups, to speak out whilst intolerance can still be beaten back. It is important that they do – without fear and without reservation.

* * * * *

Some problems are eternal. Twenty five years ago, at the door of Downing Street, I set out my ambition for “a nation at ease with itself”. At the heart of this was my wish to tackle inequality.

That day I had the power, but the economy was failing and there was no money. By the time the economy was mended and I had the money, I lost the power. I made some progress – but not enough. Overall, I failed in my own objective.

With age comes reflection and, these days, I am more and more concerned about inequality. Sixty-five years ago, my family’s circumstances were not easy. And for many – in a country now immensely more wealthy – life is still not easy.

The global market is driving inequality – and the uncomfortable truth is that there is a gap between what our nation needs in social provision, and what the taxpayer is willing to pay.

For a long time, civil society has bridged much of this gap – helped, in recent years, by tax reliefs to encourage giving, and State funding to carry out statutory social work. The National Lottery, too, has now disbursed over £33 billion to good causes – mostly to provide facilities the State could not afford. Indeed, this Cathedral has benefited from some of them.

But, inevitably, there are gaps: as a country, we are one of the richest in the world – and yet some of our communities are amongst the poorest in all Northern Europe.

Even in areas that are recognised as wealthy, there are families or individuals who have fallen behind.

In communities where traditional jobs have gone, too many are on low incomes – or no income at all. A minority move elsewhere to find work. But the majority can’t: not through disinclination, but because – even if they have sufficient savings to do so – it is tough to uproot to find a job and a home. For the penniless, or for those with families or who act as carers, it can – literally – be impossible. They are effectively trapped.

And let us cast aside a common misconception. Everyone out of work is not an idler. Everyone in receipt of benefits is not a scrounger. Of course idlers and scroungers exist – and Governments are right to root out the cheats who rip off the taxpayer. But the focus must not only be on those who abuse the system; we need equal concentration on those who are failed by the system.

We have made progress. We can raise living standards: we have been doing so for a long time. At the turn of the 20th Century, millions struggled to eat. In London, one in three lived below the poverty line; in York, one in four ate less well than the unfortunate wretches in the poor house.

Over the decades, mass poverty has shrunk back. The quality of life has risen across all income groups – but much less evenly than is healthy. Politicians, and charities, and churches, and the free market, can all take a mini-bow for what has been achieved. But there is no cause for complacency: a hard core of relative poverty still remains.

A nation at ease with itself requires fairness.  

370 years ago, in the Putney Debates, Colonel Rainsborough observed: “… the poorest he that is in England has a life to live, as [has] the greatest he…”. So had he, or she, then, and so has he, or she, now. We may never achieve a perfect society, but we can surely create a fairer one.

Of course we’re not all born equal: the raw ingredients of an impoverished life often start in childhood. As a boy, my family lived in two rooms in Brixton. Life was hard but for others it was worse. I saw poverty all around me – and have never forgotten that.

There is no security. No peace of mind. The pain of every day is the fear of what might happen tomorrow. It is terrifying – and the memory of it never leaves you.

We see poverty as a social evil – which, of course, it is: but it is far more than that. It is an economic evil. It wastes talent. It destroys ambition. It lowers national output. It cuts competitiveness. It creates dependency. It leaves families in despair and communities in decline.

And inequality – poverty amid plenty – is corrosive. It alienates and breeds resentment. It undermines national cohesion. The human spirit can endure great hardship: but inequality gives it a bitter edge.

Some think the solution is easy. Penalise the rich. Cut defence. End overseas aid to people who are far poorer than us – and living in conditions of squalor that we cannot even imagine. Then, borrow more and spend more. But this doesn’t work.

The arguments against such an approach are so comprehensive, so compelling, I won’t waste any time on them, except to note they have failed before and would do so again. Easy promises, with no practical policy to bring them about, are simply posturing.

And that is of no help to the poor. Good intentions don’t fill empty bellies, or provide shelter for the homeless, or jobs for the unemployed.

What does help is national wealth accompanied by national conscience. The richer we are as a nation, the more we can do. If the Good Samaritan is in debt, he can be of no help to others. That is why the health of our national economy is an essential preliminary to a nation at ease with itself.

* * * * * *

And that brings me to my final point. Ahead of us in a few days is a pivotal choice – to stay in the European Union or leave it. This arouses strong emotions among some people – and no doubt both sides of the argument are represented here tonight. I am no starry-eyed European. I was, after all, the Prime Minister who kept us out of the Euro and declined to join the Schengen zone on free movement of people.

But I am a realist. And unlike many in the present debate, I sat for seven years at Europe’s top table and saw it from the inside. I learned its intentions. I know its virtues, its faults and its frustrations at first hand, yet I have not a shred of doubt that it is in our present and long-term interest to remain in the EU. Inside we will be richer. We will be more influential. We can do more.

Our world has changed. We Britons are 65 million people in a world of 7,000 million. And it is a world that is drawing together in trade, in politics, in travel, and in facing common threats. It would be an extraordinary moment to suddenly cut ourselves adrift from the largest and richest free market in history.

I am a Briton, and an Englishman, and I believe our country is a benevolent influence in the world. I don’t want us to isolate ourselves. Overall, we are a force for good, for reason, for moderation. We have much to offer.

I hope everyone will think of that – and of the future, and the next generation – before they make up their minds. The decision we take is, quite literally, more relevant to our future then any General Election has or will be.