Sir John Major’s Speech at the National Cathedrals Conference – 16 May 2022

The speech made by Sir John Major at the National Cathedrals Conference held at Newcastle Cathedral on Monday 16 May 2022.


DIFFERENT COUNTRY, DIFFERENT CHURCH

The theme of your Conference – “Different Country, Different Church” – is our national story through the ages. Both Church and Country have always evolved, but rarely as fast as now. I am now out of public life, away from partisan influences but, as an observer, would like to offer some thoughts about our future.

THE CHURCH

Firstly, the Church.

Our Church faces many dilemmas, in a society that has grown to distrust authority, and is drifting to secularity.

There are those in our nation who prize celebrity, wealth and fame more than values once believed to be inviolate.

This cultural change presents an extraordinary challenge to a Church that does have eternal values: it is both a threat and an opportunity. But – if the opportunity is to be taken – the Church must be bold in its actions, and outspoken about its concerns.

My father was elderly when I was born and, from the time I was nine years old, mostly bedridden. My mother cared for him, and rarely left our home.

But the Church came to us in the form of our local Vicar, the kind and gentle J. Franklin Cheyne. My elderly and sick parents lived by the precept that God was in our house every day, and so we had no need to attend his once a week.

This was a trite and self-serving excuse, but The Reverend Cheyne smiled and taught me, as a boy, that our Church is greater than the size of its congregations. People who are not regular church-goers can still – and do – live by Christian principles.

Some people turn away from religion because, as someone put it to me, “Science is daily destroying the biblical bases of faith”.

But science can’t replace faith. It can’t remove the hope and the comfort that a “Perfect Being” can exist. This is a belief shared with other faiths. Man will cling to that hope, until the last of our kind is extinct.

The Reverend Cheyne told me that: “The best argument”, for Christ’s divinity, “is that without the support of secular power, he changed the whole world”. So he did – so far, for two thousand years. No military conqueror has ever made such a mark on our lives – nor ever will.

And if biblical stories, often in parable form, seem unrealistic to our modern ears, the lessons they teach, and the ideals they preach, are not: they continue to appeal to the better selves within us. They are a protection against the worst our material world can throw at us.

“The Kingdom of God”, we are told, “is within you.” We should be grateful for that: the alternative is selfishness, disorder and the advance of savagery.

In our world of change, the Church offers stability. Many changes are beneficial – but not all of them. Sometimes change leaves values behind.

And, in the bustle of change, where stands happiness? What value is put on peace of mind?

Should we stand by silently when vile opinion is lauded; when truth is disposable: when authority is mocked; when tradition is trashed; when bad men hold sway in many countries?

I think not. It may be unfashionable to speak of values, but it should not be. They should never be cast aside.

Our churches today may be fewer in number, and less full than in years past, but their pulpits still have a distinctive voice.

Millions of people wish to hear that voice used loudly, clearly, and often – either to uplift hearts and smooth away despair or, where necessary, to speak out on issues that depress or oppress our fellow citizens.

A single voice can easily be shouted down – but the Church cannot.

Some argue that the Church should “keep out of politics”, and stick to promoting faith and filling their pews. If by “politics” the critics mean partisan Party politics, I agree. But if they mean politics in its wider sense, then I do not agree.

The Church mustn’t be pushed into the side lines of life. It must be alive in our communities. In our discourse. In our daily concerns. Politics is about how we live.

That cannot – and should not – be ignored by the Church.

Is not the state of our nation – politics? Are not our values – politics? How can it possibly be argued that the Church should be silent on these issues?

Is not poverty about politics? Yes, it is – and surely the Church must speak about that too. Jesus most certainly did.

And, if any part of our nation is lost or forgotten by authority, then surely the Church should be a voice for the weak and the voiceless.

And, above all, the Church must remain the ultimate sanctuary for those in despair who – in our modern world – are many in number.

What we are as a nation, and what we stand for, is a legitimate issue for the voice of the Church to be heard, and that voice must carry to the faithless as well as the faithful.

But, if it is to deliver its message, the Church cannot ignore its own problems. I won’t trespass upon matters of conscience, only on practical issues.

Many parishes face financial challenges, and there is doubt around whether a nationwide parochial system can be sustained.

It is a herculean task. The Church of England – with its Cathedrals and Parish Churches – is responsible for a very large part of our architectural and cultural heritage, including no less than 45% of all Grade 1 listed buildings.

The lion’s share of the cost of maintaining this huge community asset falls on the diminishing number of regular worshippers. This is unjust.

Some argue that it may be necessary to close churches, reduce the number of stipendiary clergy, and sell assets. I do hope not.

It would be a grim outlook, and I hope Christians will rally to prevent it. Churches are not only part of our lives – they are also an important part of our landscape. If lost, we would all be the poorer. And by “we” I don’t mean church-goers only – I mean everyone.

I live in Eastern England, and John Betjeman’s famous lines come to mind:

“What would you be, you wide East Anglian sky
Without church towers to recognise you by?”

Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, the Church is always there when needed. And it is more than a place of worship. It is where we may seek the comfort of community; of companionship; of solace – and of sanctuary.

Often silently, perhaps subliminally, the Church is a guide to our lives and our conscience.

We should be grateful that it is, and do everything we can to protect its place in our society.

OUR COUNTRY

Let me turn to the future of our country.

First, I should set out some context. We are an island geographically, but in no other way. Our lives are inter-connected with, and affected by, the wider world. We have alliances for security, and trade deals for economic welfare.

At the moment, our world is not in a state of grace: not every nation is led by men or women of good intent. Democracy has fallen back: freedom – or freedom of religion – has not grown and spread as we would wish.

We live in uncertain times. Times in which – if good men are complacent – bad men will take advantage.

In countries where democracy is absent, or weak – or merely under strain – nationalist and populist sentiment has taken root, and grown. Populism is self-interested and can be unscrupulous.

It makes promises that can’t be kept; creates division; scapegoats minorities; and controls or threatens or undermines the judiciary.

Populist leaders favour obedience over ability. Acolytes and sycophants are rewarded. Dissenters are abused and crushed. Where possible, the electoral system is perverted.

All this is a corruption of a free society, and even the strongest democracy must guard against it.

In our country, we view authoritarian governments with distaste and rejection. They are alien to our way of life and our instincts for freedom. But not everyone feels the same.

People know that authoritarian rule can bring tyranny and a loss of freedom. But millions also see that economic growth in China – with her long history of autocratic rule – has improved living standards more rapidly than in any democracy.

To those who are hungry or oppressed, or homeless, or jobless, that is attractive. If their bellies are full, and there are clothes upon their backs, their lives are improving – and millions prize that above the individual freedoms that characterise the Western democracies.

Nor are democracies always their own best advocates. In America, the Statue of Liberty bears the inspiring inscription “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses”. For generations America accepted migrants. More recently, they built a wall to keep them out.

In England, in 1763, Lord Chancellor Henley said: “If a man steps foot in England, he is a free man.” Today, under the pressure of numbers, if that man is a refugee in a rubber boat he receives a chilly welcome, and the threat of deportation to Rwanda.

I cannot believe that is the right way forward: such a policy is not a moral advance, and I hope the Government will look again.

We need a policy that is Europe-wide, to contain people smuggling, and help the miserable and unfortunate victims of this trade.

I do understand the Government’s difficulties, which are real. But – however you look at this policy – it is wrong to forcibly transport people to a far-away land, when all that most are seeking is a better life.

I hope – in their own interests – the whole Cabinet will reject this policy. If they do not, they will stain not only their own reputation, but that of the entire Government – and, most of all, our country – for a very long time.

Our shortcomings may be far less than others, but pragmatic self-interest tells us that we cannot simply ignore autocracies: on arms control; on climate change; on counter terrorism; democracies and autocracies must work together or we will all lose.

The more we divide into tribes, the more likely it is we will come to blows.

Thirty years ago, we glimpsed a better world. The Soviet Union imploded. Germany re-united. Apartheid ended. Democracy spread across Eastern Europe. The Liberal Order was dominant.

It looked as though our values of democracy – of freedom of thought and deed – had won the battle of ideas, and that our way of life would become accepted as the general ideal. It was a time of hope.

We were naïve. Complacent. Wrong. We forgot the human capacity for folly. We see that now in Ukraine. Freedom needs eternal vigilance. Democracy has to be protected.

If it is not, it can be overwhelmed – value by value, freedom by freedom, country by country.

* * * * *

In the UK, two blockbusting events will affect our future: Brexit and Covid.

Brexit has not presented Britain’s best face to the world. It is our modern day break with Rome – in this instance, the Treaty of Rome – and it will take years for all the implications to become apparent. Some will be positive; far more will not.

Some applaud Brexit for reasons of democracy and sovereignty. Others deplore it on economic and social grounds. The debate was rancorous, and factually dubious.

Brexit divided our four nations and our politics, as well as family from family, and friend from friend. If Scotland and Northern Ireland secede from the UK, Brexit must bear a part of that blame.

The severity of Covid was surpassed only by Spanish Flu a century ago. Like Brexit, Covid was enormously expensive.

I have made no secret that I believe that leaving the European Union will – indeed, has – weakened our country and damaged our future. But I am a realist.

It may not be conceivable to re-enter the Union for many years.

An early attempt to do so would fail, and worsen the ruptures in our national politics system. Nor could we re-join upon the favourable terms we once enjoyed.

But attitudes to Europe may change when today’s young, in due time, govern our nation. All the evidence suggests they are overwhelmingly pro-European.

If the promised benefits of leaving continue to be elusive – if not all-but-invisible – their resolve to re-join may be strengthened.

Until then, we must try to restore links with our neighbours where it is sensible to do so, and otherwise live with the consequences of our referendum decision.

Brexit is emphatically not done. The effects of breaking away from the richest free trade market in history will seep out, year upon year, for a very long time.

As for Covid, the Government acted boldly in setting up furlough payments; and swiftly to ensure the vaccine roll-out.

But there remain valid questions to be answered about advice to the public; wasteful expenditure; a lack of control over fraud; the decision to transfer elderly patients from hospital to care homes; and the slipshod manner of awarding Covid-related contracts.

A Public Inquiry has been promised, and should not be delayed. At the very least, the country deserves an interim Report within this Parliament.

Between them, Brexit and Covid have driven our national debt to previously unknown heights.

The cost of Covid is estimated as equivalent to one quarter of the total cost of the Second World War. Over time, estimates suggest that the cost of Brexit could be higher yet.

It took decades to repay the debts of War, and it will take many years to repay the cost of Brexit and Covid.

This raises an unwelcome question. How can we pay for future policy ambitions? Demography ensures that the mega-budgets – of health, education, and social care – will increase year on year. Our national security ensures that the cost of defence will rise too.

So will the costs of climate change, and the plans to “level up” communities to end historic injustices.

Some people deny the existence of climate change with the same fervour with which our predecessors once insisted the world was flat.

But the evidence can’t be put aside.

Sea levels are rising on over 70% of the earth’s surface. Storms, hurricanes and floods are increasing in number and severity. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Across the globe, the weather is freakily unpredictable.

We are losing whole species of plants, animals, insects. We all know the litany.

Can we ignore this? No. Can any one nation overcome this alone? No, again. Dare we leave this for the next generation? No. It would be wrong in principle and – in any event – it may, by then, be too late, and the burden too great.

*****

Nor can “Levelling Up” be ignored. There are serious inequalities in our United Kingdom.

For many years, Governments comforted themselves that – if our country was doing well – wealth would “trickle down” to lift up the poorest: it hasn’t done so. Of course, there has been improvement – but not enough.
In times of austerity, we are told that we are “all in it together”. If so, then logically, we should “all be in it together” in times of prosperity.

I hope the Government will devise a policy that encourages “trickle down” and shares national growth more fairly.

Don’t misunderstand me. I certainly don’t favour some “bash the rich” policy. Wealth in our country is important to us all. We should welcome investors and innovators – as job creators, as philanthropists, as tax-payers.

But, as a nation, we must be fairer in distributing the fruits of national growth.

You will all remember the “key” workers, for whom we stood applauding on our doorsteps during the Covid crisis. They were mostly poorly paid. There was no “trickle down” to them – and yet it was they upon whom we relied in a crisis.

Our values need “Levelling Up” as well as our communities.

But we must be realistic. “Levelling Up” will take many Parliaments to complete, and will only succeed if future governments buy into the concept and the cost.

How can all this be paid for? There are options.

It could, over time, be met by above average growth in our economy. This is possible, but cannot be relied upon.

If growth is insufficient, which experience suggests is probable, the cost can only be met by higher taxes, or more borrowing or cuts in other budgets.

It is an unwelcome truth that lower taxes for everyone – and higher spending – do not go together. Hard choices must be made.

And some hard choices must be made without delay, as inflation rises – especially on food and fuel – while growth falls, and stagflation threatens.

Many people will be utterly unable to meet the bills that lie ahead. Help must come. And I hope it will come soon.

As it does, it will help bring trust and respect back to our politics: electors must have trust in The State, The Government, and the independence and impartiality of The Law.

But, if the nation is to be loyal to The State, The State must be loyal to the people – and that is why the provision of quality public services is so important.

Everyone needs to believe that The State cares about them – and not just the interests of the powerful, the motivators, and the elite.

If the streets are unsafe, do the people who live in them believe The State is invested in them?

If the week lasts longer than the money, do the penniless believe The State cares about them?

If children attend a poor school, with disillusioned teachers, do the children or the teachers feel protected and valued by The State? It is so important that they do.

In our democracy we rely upon one another in nearly every aspect of our lives. We need to respect and protect those with whom we share a common dependence.

* * * * *

There is much that is good in our way of life that no previous generation has enjoyed. Personally, I know of nowhere else I would prefer to live.

Every day, medical science is improving treatment of cancer and blood diseases. New knees and new hips can help those crippled with pain. The cure of cataracts can restore sight.

Hope is on the horizon for sufferers of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s – not an outright cure, perhaps, but an ability to diagnose them early, and stop them in their tracks.

We are not short of good Samaritans. The caring professions do not walk by on the other side. Nor do the millions who work for charities, or volunteer for them, or donate to them.

There is hope in two irresistible social changes. The rise of women to prominence in nearly every field of endeavour is as staggering as it is overdue.

We are, at last, utilising the skills of half our nation that were hidden away for far too long.

It is odd, isn’t it? Throughout the ages men have trusted our most treasured possessions – our children – to women. But we have not trusted women to contribute more widely to society and, at times, have positively prevented them from doing so.

Yet they bring a moderating and restraining force, to a world that is in need of these attributes.

There is another human influence I wish to mention as an overall force for good: the young. They have grown up in a different world to their elders. They think differently. They are unburdened by old shibboleths.

We may be wary of their music. Their dress-down style. Their habit of cutting holes in the knees of new jeans for the sake of fashion. I have no doubt that past generations have baffled their parents in similar ways.

The legacy we leave our young includes many difficulties but – from all I have seen – this is a good generation. I have high hopes for them.

I have enough confidence to believe that, however much longer I live, my country will be in very good hands with our young.

And, beyond that – for me, as a Christian – the greatest consolation is that … one day … I shall be in better hands still.

Both our Country and our Church are more precious to our very being than most either acknowledge or realise. Are they “Different” now than in the past? Yes. Will they be “Different” in the future? Of course. For – as the world around us changes – so, too, will they.

But our Country and our Church are eternal. And my hope is they will always remain shining beacons of goodness and decency in a world that – at the moment – is badly in need of both.