1997 Onwards -
Below is the text of Sir John Major’s speech at Washington University, St Louis, held on Friday 19th May 2006.
SIR JOHN MAJOR:
Chancellor Wrighton, thank you for that warm welcome. I often come to St Louis but it is a special pleasure to be here for this wonderful occasion.
I would like to direct my remarks specifically to the stars of today -
For all of you, today’s ceremony is not only the result of years of study and hard work -
I envy you. I never attended university. I left school at the age of 15. Circumstances compelled it. My father was sick and blind and bed-
So the choice to leave was easy. But I can still see the tears in my father’s eyes when he realised there was no alternative.
I began my working life with employment that had no future, while I studied morning and evening, in an Aladdin's Cave of literature and reference books that served also as my bedroom.
I gained some academic qualifications and joined a bank. Once there, I took a banking degree and applied to work overseas. My employers must have felt I was disposable, because they sent me to Nigeria during the Biafran Civil War. Whilst there, I witnessed scenes that I wish I had not. As a young man starting out in life, it made me realise how lucky I was to live in a civilised democracy.
I mention my own background, only to point out that learning continues well beyond academia. In the University of Life, it never stops.
My own experience has taught me that a good education benefits not only the recipient, but everyone influenced by them. It is a priceless asset.
Socrates taught Plato. Plato taught Aristotle. Aristotle taught Alexander the Great. Three of the great minds of the ancient world shaped one of the great Commanders of history. In just such a fashion, knowledge accumulates and is passed on through the generations.
That is one reason I am confident about the future, despite the myriad problems confronting our world. It is likely that many of today's graduates will be tomorrow's leaders. By leaders, I don't just mean statesmen and women, or captains of industry, or military heroes. I mean leaders in the professions, our communities -
"Soundbite" leadership will not do. You know what I mean by soundbites: a glib phrase that is supposed to cure a serious problem. Such statements are a fraud. If it's a serious problem, it can't be solved by a soundbite. And if it can be solved by a soundbite, it's not a serious problem.
It is an odd concept, leadership.
There is no template for it. Abraham Lincoln was a leader who we revere. So was Stalin -
Genghis Khan was a leader. He laid waste to half the known world. So was Mother Theresa -
As you take leadership roles you will discover leadership has many facets. It cannot easily be defined.
Is it winning personally … or is it taking long-
Is it achieving something worthwhile … or heading off something damaging?
Is it defeating an aggressor, or preventing the aggression in the first place?
It may, of course, be any or all of the above.
Sometimes, successful leadership brings odium.
Take Mikhail Gorbachev:
Changed face of Russia. Hero in West. Not in Russia -
Stood for election as President. Polled only 1% in election.
[Indistinct, anecdote about Gorbachev].
Two of the daunting problems we face today may need leadership beyond one generation:
The fear of global war has gone; only to be followed by the fear of global terror. Terrorism has been with us since ancient times: but now it is globalising. Thus far, the worst atrocity has been in New York, but Bali, Jerusalem, London, Madrid, Moscow, Tokyo all bear the mark of terror. Moreover, terror has developed a particular flavour: it has become a tool of extreme religion, and a vehicle to oppose the free market.
But we should put terror into a proper context: so far, it has failed to gain any of its political objectives.
The threat before us is the attempt to radicalise Islam; to set Muslim against non-
This campaign can cause mayhem -
Terrorism and democracy are polar opposites. They cannot co-
We will win this battle -
Terrorism is not going to go away and, although it is tempting to ignore it -
The Radicals case may be crude propaganda, and wrong, but it is effective. To rebut it, we must fight for the hearts and minds of those into whose ears radical poison is poured. Words alone will not do: we must accept obligations that show the morality of democracy.
One of these takes me back to what I saw in microcosm as a boy in Nigeria. Our world has six billion souls. Of these six billion, one-
Let me put that to you as the radicals -
Greater help is not simply altruism. It is in our interest to remove grievances. It is in our interest to cut away the resentment of the "have-
And it is in our interest to build the alliances that will result -
Moreover, if we do not, we may let fester a problem that will -
In twenty years, 6 billion people will become 8 billion. Of that additional 2 billion, 97% is in that part of the world that live on less than $2 a day. I cannot think of a more potent recipe for an unstable, unsafe world.
Some years ago, I was in Peru and visited a small shanty town outside Lima: a dismal place, which seemed to be entirely without hope. The local Priest invited me to breakfast. "There is", he said, "something I'd like you to see".
I was intrigued. We ate early and, just as the church clock struck 8.00, went into the street.
Almost in concert, the doors of the hovels opened and out poured children on their way to school. All were spotlessly clean, their uniforms immaculate. Their faces smiling in greeting at one another as they carried their rather well worn and bulging satchels towards the schoolhouse.
The Priest stopped one little girl: "Tell me", he asked, "what do you want to be when you grow up?".
She looked up at him puzzled -
That little girl will now be around 30 years old. I don't know if she will ever realise her dream. I do hope so.
The message from that little girl is unmistakeable for the educated graduates of a great university like Washington.
Be ambitious. Aim high. Do today what your instincts tell you could wait until tomorrow. Never under-
In your world of tomorrow, change will accelerate. In the late 18th century the British Prime Minister, William Pitt, was reflecting on Britain's relationship with America and realised he had not heard from his Ambassador in Washington for a long time. He picked up his pen and wrote to his Secretary of State: "If we have not heard from the Ambassador in another year ..... we should send a note." Today, the leisurely world of William Pitt is long gone. We have a global economy: In China, India and Asia, an economic revolution is tilting world growth from West to East. Around the world, every emerging economy is out-
The political map is fluid: The Middle East is a powder-
In our world, each day, there are ground-
Science and technology is accelerating change which already takes place at break-
At the beginning of the 20th century, no-
Charles Lindbergh could never have imagined that -
In those days, the United Kingdom, France and Russia controlled 80% of the world’s surface. How things have changed. The Ottoman Empire has gone. The Austro-
You will live longer, see more, do more, know more than any earlier generation. You will see deserts bloom. See a genetic rebuilding of failing bodies. Live with technical innovations beyond your wildest imagination. It will be a world unrecognisable to your forebears.
Today is a proud day for all graduates -
They will wish you many things: A happy life. A healthy life. A life of personal and professional fulfilment.
On the early canvas of your life, you have today painted in a great achievement. May there be many more.
I wish you ALL every success for the future.