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1997 Onwards - Sir John Major’s Speech at the Prostate Cancer Charity Dinner

Below is the text of Sir John Major’s speech at the Prostate Cancer Charity Dinner, held at The Dorchester on Thursday 18th September 2008.


Some may wonder why I am here - let me tell you. John touched on it.

Last year, my brother died of prostate cancer. Many - thank goodness - are cured, but Terry was not: and it was a tragic sight to see his bravery as the battle was slowly lost; and fear of the outcome turned into the inevitability of defeat.

I shall never forget seeing my brother shrink and fade: desperately trying to project hope and faith in a recovery that was never going to come. Cancer is a wicked enemy which - in recent years - has robbed my family of my brother, and also a much-loved mother-in-law and son-in-law. That is why I am here.

The Prostate Cancer Charity fights cancer through vital research as well as offering support and information to sufferers.

But - in today’s circumstances - it is not easy to raise funds - to touch people's hearts - which is why occasions like tonight are so important. The Charity is doing wonderful work, and the 100 men every day who are diagnosed with the disease deserve all the support they can get.

Very little in life is certain, but it is encouraging that medical science continues to improve - and that new treatments and cures become available.

Advances in engineering techniques have given us insulin pumps for diabetes and cochlea implants for deafness; and there are realistic prospects of repairing more cells for those suffering from Parkinson's or Alzheimer's. It may soon even be possible to replace heart muscle cells. These are innovations that once would have seemed like black magic. Soon, what was once fantasy may be an everyday reality.

Current research may enable scientists to combine computer chip technology with pharmaceutical research to target drugs to treat specific parts of the body more effectively than ever before. Imagine the benefits to patients if chemotherapy could be so targeted in cancer treatment that it caused only minimal side effects. All this lies ahead.


I was asked to talk for a few minutes tonight about something topical. I thought, of course, of the credit crunch and recession, but however painful they are - and they are - they will pass.

I’d prefer to touch on something wider.

Fifty years ago, no-one could have confidently predicted the social or geopolitical landscape of today.

Russia and the US were the two super-powers. China was isolationist and a mystery. Japan had barely begun her post-war rise. The EU was in its infancy. Germany was divided. Oil was US $3 a barrel, and the Islamic Revolution unthought of. Nor did many foresee the economic rise of what we patronisingly called “The Third World”. And who would have imagined America would be on the verge of electing either a black President - or a lady only a heartbeat away from the Presidency?

In the Industrial Revolution, it took Britain and America 50 years to double the income of their populations: China has done so in less than 10 years, and others look set to follow suit.

This extraordinary change in the world economy partly explains high energy and commodity prices, including food.

If one billion Indians - one sixth of the entire world population - together with millions of Chinese, Brazilians and Malaysians - now eat two meals a day, instead of only one, the demand for food soars.

And so does the price: this has caused panic in large importing countries like the Philippines; and food riots from Cairo to Haiti. The politics of food is moving to the front burner of controversy.

So is climate change.

One element crucial for economic and political stability everywhere is energy supply and energy security. And this is linked - to a greater degree than is comfortable to Governments - to the dangers of climate change.

And hard-to-ignore science tells us it is changing. Some enthusiasts over-exaggerate the changes, but they are real. The burning of fossil fuels - and last year, China alone built one hundred coal-fired power stations - continues to raise dioxides: by 2050 they are likely to be double the pre-industrial level.

The fact that CO2 is growing at this pace is generally agreed among scientists, and most - but not all - expect this to lead to global warming of between two to five degrees.

This sounds small - but isn’t: in the depth of the last ice age, the temperature fall was - five degrees. However, a single figure is utterly misleading: the land warms more than the sea and high latitudes more than low. So the impact of global warming is not uniform.

Nations can adapt to some of the adverse effects of warming - but it is too costly for the very poor nations of Africa and Asia.

As yet, climate scientists are not able to predict where the flood or hurricane risks will be. We don’t yet know what parts of the world could face drought. This highlights a difficult part of the problem - the effect of global warming is not localised. Innocent non-polluters may suffer - and the guilty may not. To put it at its mildest, this does not make it easier to persuade the polluters to stop.

There are also time-lags: the main downsides of global warming lay a century ahead. It takes decades for the oceans to adjust and centuries for ice-sheets to melt entirely. Even so, a hundred years may be in the lifespan of our grandchildren and so it is close enough (and the damage great enough) for us to take serious action.

Here, politics intervenes. The great emerging economies have not caused this problem, but without their restraint we can't solve it. It is a difficult political sell - but global CO2 emissions need to be reduced to only one-half of the 1990 level by 2050. It won't be done without new technologies: we may not be able to survive without energy - but nor will we do so without clean and sustainable energy.

Let me touch on one final change that will affect us all.

In the last fifty years, world population has grown from less than 3 billion to over 6.5 billion. It is projected to reach 8 or even 9 billion by 2050 and nearly all the growth is in the developing world.

In some countries, fertility has fallen below replacement level - in Italy and Singapore for example - but Ethiopia, Sudan and Uganda are countries whose population is set to more than double.

These changes - in medicine, science, economics, climate and population - are ushering in a different world from the one we have known.

It will need different skills and longer-term decision-making by our leaders - not least in politics - to protect our interests. And it presents a challenge that none of us dare ignore.

But - to return to my initial remarks - nor should we ignore the risks of Prostate Cancer, or neglect to help the charity.

Tonight, you are here doing precisely that. It is only with your help that the charity can fund the research which is so crucial to identifying new ways to detect and cure this wretched disease.

Alas, for my brother, that research is too late. But with your help, it will come in time to save the lives of many thousands of others. And for that, I am enormously grateful.