Extracts from the speech made by Sir John Major to the North-East England Chamber of Commerce event held at Newcastle Cathedral on 7 February 2019.
Our relations with Europe have divided opinion more than any other policy in my political lifetime.
I – more than most – can empathise with the frustrations and shortcomings of the EU: I lived with them for years.
But there are bigger issues at stake that are being ignored, or brushed aside, or dismissed as so-called “Project Fear” when – as we are discovering – they are all too real.
I believe Brexit is regressive. The campaigners for “Leave” promised better times, yet Brexit will deliver far worse times.
This is not just my view.
The Centre for European Reform estimates Brexit is already costing our public finances £320 million a week. And this, of course, excludes the “divorce bill” of £39 billion, and the growing cost across Government of managing our exit from Europe.
In addition, almost every sector of business has warned of trouble ahead – and every independent study of every conceivable Brexit – even by our own Government – shows that once we leave, the UK will be worse off, year after year after year ……
I can recall nothing to match this.
It is the first time in our long history that any British Government has embraced a policy of self-harm, despite their own advisers warning that it will make our nation weaker – and our people poorer.
And what makes this even more extraordinary is that we are a welfare state society. Those who will suffer the most are those who have the least.
This includes the less affluent regions of our United Kingdom; those on low incomes; and our young – who overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU – but will have to live longest with the consequences of leaving it.
Over time, the young may prove to be the biggest losers.
In advance of Brexit, they fear for their future. Post Brexit – if they turn out to be right – they may neither forget nor forgive those responsible.
A FAIR SOCIETY
Over recent decades, the global economy has lifted two billion people out of absolute poverty – but, as it has done so, it has also widened the gap between “the haves” and the “have nots”.
Britons know they live in a democratic country, but many no longer believe they are living in a fair society.
And, in this, they are right. I entered Number 10 twenty-nine years ago with an ambition to build a country “at ease with itself”. I failed. So have all my successors.
But, today, the need to build such a society is even greater.
In the 1840s, Benjamin Disraeli wrote of Britons being divided into two nations: the rich and the poor.
Over 170 years later, events have entrenched far too wide a disparity. In incomes. In opportunities. In prospects. In social investment.
As a society, we have a moral duty to reduce inequality – not tolerate it. We must eradicate the roots of resentment.
Yet, to cure the ills of inequality, we need money. Money is as essential to create a fair society, as medicine is to create a healthy one.
I know of only one source of continuing wealth, and that is a healthy, growing economy. We cannot achieve that without investment to build a booming business sector.
And, as we achieve that, we must share the proceeds of growth more evenly.
I don’t wish to overstate this.
The poverty of today is not the grinding poverty of yesteryear. At the height of our Empire, millions of Britons struggled to eat. But relative poverty – the invisible poverty that often bypasses social safety nets – is still a potent issue.
It cannot be right that – in the fifth or sixth richest nation in the world – food banks have become essential in the lives of so many people.
And poverty amid plenty – is corrosive. It alienates and breeds resentment. The human spirit can endure great hardship; but inequality gives it a bitter edge.
We see poverty as a social evil which, of course, it is. It destroys lives. But I would argue that it is far more than that – it is an economic evil, too.
It wastes talent. It thwarts ambition. It lowers national output. It cuts competitiveness. It creates dependency. It leaves families in despair, and communities in decline.
The case against poverty is unanswerable. Ending it may be expensive but – in the long-term – it may be more costly not to do so.
Poverty isn’t only about money. About empty pockets.
Even in the Britain of today, the lifespan of the poorest in some of our great cities is 20 years shorter than that of the comfortably well-off.
Is that acceptable? Of course not – and every part of the political spectrum – Left, Right and Centre – should have an equal ambition to end it.
The good news is that progress is being made. A record number of people are now in work.
The counterpoint – as the Resolution Foundation has reported – is that over 70% of the new jobs are self-employment, or zero hours contracts, or agency worker contracts. These tend to be low paid without any security of employment.
The minimum wage – which, wrongly, I once opposed believing it would destroy jobs – is rising faster than inflation, which remains modest.
Taxes have been cut on low incomes.
We should welcome these modest advances even as we work towards a high productivity/high wage economy – which is surely the Holy Grail of employment.
This can be achieved – but is more likely to be so if Government and the market work together. The Government, alone, is insufficient. So is the market. But, together, they can be a formidable force for good.
I have focused on fairness – and inequality – because the lack of it is eating away at our social fabric, and that cannot be allowed to continue.
We British have a conscience and – as our country becomes richer – relative poverty: of income, of resources, of opportunity, of equity, becomes even less acceptable.
To minimise these disparities – and to end them where possible – will boost national health and wealth, and also ease hardship and exclusion. All of this is essential if we are to become a contented nation.
INVESTMENT IN THE NORTH
The Left of politics must accept the role of the market. And the Right must accept that the State is a player, not a bystander, in building up our business strength.
The private sector, alone, cannot deliver the level of capital investment our nation needs. Public Sector investment is crucial and – large though that contribution is – it has halved as a share of total investment over the past forty years: this is too great a fall.
Outside London, only the South East and East Anglia are net contributors to the Exchequer. That cannot be in our national interest.
What is in our national interest is to promote the regions and sell their advantages – which is why public investment is so vital, and policies such as the Northern Powerhouse are so important.
Consider the attractions of the North: it has more space and less congestion. Fewer hours are lost in the daily commute which, in any event, is less expensive. Land and buildings are cheaper – as is housing. All this helps minimise labour costs.
And, to add to its attraction, the towns and cities of the North are within easy reach of some of our most beautiful countryside.
A new body, Transport for the North, has been set up to improve transport links between the main cities of the region and – between 2015 and 2020 – a total of £13 billion has been allocated to improve them.
If we are truly to lift up our regions we have to create more wealth within them.
That requires an up-to-date infrastructure that improves production, and encourages business to invest. With interest rates at their present historic low, there has never been a more cost-effective environment in which to do so.
Of course, there are always arguments against too much Government spending. Today, it is the size of the fiscal deficit. Tomorrow, it could be the cost of borrowing. There is always a reason for inaction.
But, sometimes, Government has to be bold – and I believe that time is now.
To those who disagree, I simply ask: “If not now, when?”.
And, I ask, too: what will be the long-term economic and social cost of allowing the present disparity of investment and opportunity to continue? I can tell you – it will be far too high.
Some will argue we should be cautious. I would argue there is a distinction between caution and inertia.
Is there an element of risk? Of course. Is it manageable? I believe so: it is essential we inject some hope and optimism into our future.
Without that – hope will remain the missing ingredient in the lives of too many people.
Why do I choose this moment to press so hard for this?
Because – next month – we are due to leave the known benefits of the European Union, and head into an unknown post-Brexit future. As Japan – with its large UK investments, including in the North East – has already made clear, this will attract less foreign investment and may imperil existing investments.
So the case for action is compelling – and immediate.
In recent decades – through no fault of its own – the North-East has lost shipyards, coal mines and glass manufacturing.
Analysis by the Department for Exiting the EU has forecast that – under the most extreme “no-deal” post-Brexit scenarios – the North-East economy could contract by up to 16%.
No Government could – or would – stand by and watch that happen – but even the fear of it suggests that measures to protect the North-East must be put in place – and quickly.
Business isn’t just a matter of profits and dividends. It’s a crucial part of any community. No business: no jobs. No jobs: real personal hardship and emotional despair.
So, helping business to succeed is not only economically essential, it is politically – and morally – the right thing to do.
THE WAY AHEAD
I would like to see a Secretary of State being given specific responsibility for the Regions, with far-reaching powers.
He or she should work closely with regional Mayors and all areas of local government to co-ordinate their activities; to fight for more investment; more effective connectivity; and to create an environment attractive to investors – both from within the UK and overseas.
But improving infrastructure, although essential, is insufficient on its own.
I would like to endorse – and add to – the excellent report by the Northern Powerhouse Partnership on “Educating the North”.
Any increase in business activity will need a workforce with academic and technical skills. Education and training is not only the route to higher incomes, it is the engine-room of our collective futures.
By education, I mean not only academic education, but vocational and technical education which is, socially, still undervalued.
We need to act on the reality – which is that the man or woman in overalls often has skills more valuable to our national wellbeing than many of those in suits.
Such skills include technology, engineering, electrics, plumbing, bricklaying, carpentry and roofing. The age of robotics may destroy many jobs, but will not destroy these.
And if we are to lose immigrant skills – which, mistakenly in my view, appears to be the public will – then developing our own skilled workforce becomes a matter of economic life and death.
A whole-hearted approach to re-skilling our nation requires a full reform of our school curricula, more technical colleges, and a continuing expansion of non-academic education. It also requires high-quality apprenticeships, and more post-school training.
Ministers know this, and are acting on it. But we have no time for a long-term roll-out, we need a skills revolution – and we need it now.
The cry of “Action this Day” is as important in an economic war as it is in a military campaign. Our country will not succeed – cannot succeed – without the skills that investors need.