Below is the text of Sir John Major’s speech at the Foreign Office following the publication of a history note on homosexuality. The speech was made in the Locarno Room on 4 July 2017.
When Stephen Wall invited me to join you today, I was happy to accept. Twenty five years ago, he was a valued advisor: today, he remains a valued friend.
A few decades ago, publication of the “History Note” we celebrate today would have been inconceivable: any meeting advocating such a change would have been held in private, behind locked doors, with participants perhaps fearful their careers would be ended –
That fear was based on the belief that exposure would have led to public condemnation and, for those in sensitive posts, the risk of blackmail.
But those fears were only true –
At this moment, our country is in a sour, uncertain mood: divided over Brexit; over the Union; over globalisation; over the distribution of wealth and the extent of poverty; and much else …. In the whole of my political life I cannot recall such an unsettled time. That said –
I am reinforced in that view by the extent our present miseries remind us how much –
In the 1950s, much public opinion was anti-
Nor would the concept of women holding some of the highest positions in the land have seemed remotely possible. But, in recent years, we have had not just one but two female Prime Ministers; two Director Generals of MI5; three Home Secretaries and –
Not long ago, all of this would have been beyond parody. And yet it is today’s reality. In many spheres there is, of course, more to be done. But the progress we have made during the last few decades dwarfs that of past centuries.
In fashioning the public mood, we need to acknowledge successes as well as challenges.
Bigotry hasn’t gone: witness the shameful hostility that was whipped up during the Brexit campaign –
Some argue that our nation has become too liberal, too permissive, too prepared to junk all standards –
As we look back down the years we can see that high achievement and service to our nation is not restricted to those with conventional lifestyles. Many gay men and women have shaped our history, our literature and our social attitudes.
Consider Alan Turing, without whom the enigma code might never have been broken; many more lives might have been lost; and the Second World War might not have been won. And yet –
I was fortunate enough to be in a position to end the discrimination against gay members of the Civil Service. My only regret was that this liberation was so long delayed.
Throughout my time in Government I was aware that those in public service who were gay forged their way towards the top through hard work and ability yet –
I recall a very senior Civil Servant suggesting to me that one very able candidate put forward to join my Private Office might –
I would never have denied a politician a Ministerial job on the grounds that he or she would “attract attention”, and there was no logic (or fairness) in treating civil servants any less well.
So that candidate did join my office –
Subsequently, no such concern was ever put to me again and I continued to enjoy working with officials of differing personal lifestyles.
Nonetheless, in a very small way, I experienced the hostility that many others had to endure on a more regular basis. When I decided to compensate haemophiliacs infected with HIV as a result of contaminated blood transfusions, the correspondence I received was truly vile.
And when I wished to consult Ian McKellen on the concerns of gay people, there were subterranean rumblings that I should never even have spoken to him –
It was absurd. Here was one of our greatest actors, and a powerful advocate for a cause affecting the lives and freedom of action of many British people –
By sheer coincidence, later that same day, I met Edith Cresson, the then Prime Minister of France, who famously remarked –
Two years later, with my encouragement, Parliament voted to lower the age of consent to eighteen –
As we look back I am glad of this wider tolerance. The rigid prejudice of the past caused many people, who harmed no-
We are what we are. We are what fate made us. And, whatever that may be, we are entitled to give and receive affection. A life without affection is a life lacking an essential ingredient for happiness. I am proud that, overwhelmingly, most people today –
If people do not go out of their way to frighten the horses, or gratuitously shock their neighbours, then their lifestyle should be for them to choose without condemnation or stigma.
I am happy to say that –
To me, that certainly merits a celebration, and I wish you all a stimulating discussion to come, and an enjoyable afternoon.