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1997 Onwards - Sir John Major’s Speech at Hinton Lecture

Below is the text of Sir John Major’s speech at the Hinton Lecture held in London on 10 November 2015. The speech was entitled “A Nation at Ease With Itself”.


I met Nick Hinton, but only briefly, so cannot claim to have known him. I wish I had. But this lecture, named in his honour, enables me to talk about what life is like for the poor and the near poor: and how civil society – together with Government – can help improve their quality of life. It is, I hope, a theme that would have appealed to him.

Twenty five years ago, at the door of Downing Street, I set out my ambition for “a nation at ease with itself”. At the heart of this was my wish to tackle inequality.

That day I had the power, but the economy was failing and there was no money. By the time the economy was mended and I had the money, I lost the power.

Even so, the solution is not only money. Education is the high road out of poverty. I began to implement reforms that were at first discontinued by my successors, then reinstated and carried so much further.

I broke the binary link between universities and polytechnics – a divide that, to me, reeked of class distinction.

I introduced a Citizen’s Charter to improve the standard of public services and make it more personal. Since people paid for them, in advance, through their taxes, I believed they deserved the same quality of service as if they had paid in cash. Often, it seemed to me, the poorest – perhaps cowed by authority – didn’t receive this.

But these and other measures could not arrest the powerful forces that were – and are – driving inequality and so, overall, I failed.

With age comes reflection, and I have begun to reflect more and more on inequality. Sixty years ago, my family’s circumstances were not easy. But in a country now immensely more wealthy, life is still not easy for many others.

Let me first state what is obvious but often ignored: there is a gap between what our nations need in social provision and what the taxpayer can afford.

Rich as we are, our nation isn’t rich enough to rescue all those left behind while, at the same time, it has to meet the soaring social costs of a population that is living longer and growing in number.

For a long time, civil society has bridged much of this gap – helped, in recent years, by tax reliefs to encourage giving, and State funding to carry out statutory social work.

But, inevitably, there are gaps, and I wish to set out how we might bridge them – and why we must.

The why is easy: as a country, we are one of the richest in the world – and yet some of our communities are among the poorest in all Northern Europe.

Even in areas that are recognised as wealthy, there are families or individuals who have fallen behind.

And, in communities where traditional jobs have gone, too many are on low incomes – or no income at all. A minority can move elsewhere to find work. But the majority can’t: not through disinclination, but because – even if they have sufficient savings – it is tough to uproot to find a job and a home. For the penniless, or for those with families, or who act as carers, it can – literally – be impossible.

Policy-makers must understand how hard it is to escape from such circumstances. It is not inertia that keeps the unemployed immobile: it is simply that, without help, they are trapped.

And let us cast aside a common misconception. Everyone out of work is not an idler. Everyone in receipt of benefits is not a scrounger. Of course idlers and scroungers exist – and Governments are entirely right to root out the cheats who rip off the taxpayer. But the focus must not be only on those who abuse the system; we need equal concentration on those who are failed by the system.

Although borderline poverty is far less than it was, it is still more than it should be. And it cannot be ended by benefits alone. Where benefits are necessary – and they always will be – we should never begrudge them. But they are a palliative, not a cure. The cure, in areas left behind, is more jobs that pay a living wage.

We can raise living standards: we have been doing so for decades. At the turn of the 20th Century, millions struggled to eat. In London, one in three lived below the poverty line; in York, one in four ate less well than the wretches in the poor house.

Over the decades, mass poverty has shrunk back. The quality of life has risen across all income groups – but much less evenly than is healthy. Politicians and charities and churches and the free market can all take a mini-bow for what has been achieved. But there is no cause for complacency: a hard core of relative poverty still remains.

Among the many attractive qualities of the British is an enduring belief in fairness. As Colonel Rainsborough observed in the Putney Debates over 250 years ago: “... the poorest he that is in England has a life to live, as [has] the greatest he...”. So had he then, and so has he now. The Colonel was a Leveller – I am a Conservative. But, upon this, we agree. We may never achieve a perfect society, but we can surely create a fairer one.

To do so, we need to level the playing field. We are not all born equal: the raw ingredients of an impoverished life often start in childhood. Many are fit. Able. Intelligent. Lucky.

Others are not.

Many are vulnerable. Unequipped with skills. Trapped by circumstance. Often old. Perhaps sick or disabled. For them, a comfortable life seems a fantasy. Often the week lasts longer than the money.

I have never forgotten living in such circumstances. There is no security. No peace of mind. The pain of every day is the fear of what might happen tomorrow. It is terrifying – and it never leaves you.

In our society, we see poverty as a social evil – which, of course, it is: but it is far more than that. It is an economic evil. It wastes talent. It destroys ambition. It lowers national output. It cuts competitiveness. It creates dependency. It leaves families in despair and communities in decline.

And inequality – poverty amid plenty – is corrosive. It alienates and breeds resentment. It undermines national cohesion. The human spirit can endure great hardship: but inequality gives it a bitter edge.

Poverty isn’t only about empty pockets. The poorest among us not only live meaner lives – but shorter lives. In some of our great cities – Glasgow and Westminster among them – the lifespan of the poorest is twenty years shorter than that of the most wealthy. I have no doubt that much of this disparity is caused by poor lifestyle, poor choices, poor diet – but poor environment, poor housing and poor education must surely be contributory factors. Whatever the reasons, this is a shocking situation in 2015.

Some think the solution is easy. Penalise the rich. Cut defence, overseas aid, industrial support and much else. Then, borrow more and spend more. But this just doesn’t work. It is simplistic and naïve.

The arguments against such an approach are so comprehensive, so compelling, I won’t waste any time on them, except to note they are a recipe for ruin. Easy promises, with no hard policy in place to support them, are unsustainable – and those who claim otherwise are simply posturing.

And that is of no help to the poor. Good intentions don’t fill empty bellies, or provide shelter for the homeless, or jobs for the unemployed. What does help is national wealth – created by financial, commercial and industrial success. The richer we are as a nation, the more we can do. If the Good Samaritan is in debt, he can be of no help to others. That is why the repair of our national finances – which is clearly a Government responsibility – is the essential pre-requisite to ending poverty.

So – as the Rowntree and Fry families taught us so many years ago – are better living conditions. Housing is a huge driver of inequality. If house prices rise, so do rents. We need to stop stimulating demand and squeezing supply. This will require strong political willpower, but is absolutely necessary.

We have too few homes for a population that is growing. That’s a bad mix. Not only does it leave too many poorly housed, but a shortage of houses puts property prices up – and beyond the capacity of the young. Would-be home owners are frustrated, and – more relevant to my focus this evening – so are those whose aspiration is not necessarily for ownership, but simply for somewhere decent to live.

So, although they are controversial, I warmly welcome the Prime Minister’s plans to accelerate low-cost building, ease planning on brown-field sites, and speed up our inefficient (and costly) planning system.

And surely it is right to bring unfit and neglected properties back into use: and where they are wilfully left empty for years, to use compulsory powers so that local authorities or the private sector can renovate them.

If we are to make up the shortfall in housing – and make social mobility a reality, and not an aspiration – then plans must include social housing and a vibrant private rented sector. Owner-occupation is an ambition for most, but not all – and we need homes for those for whom ownership is not an option.

I bow to no-one in my affection for the green belt, for our wonderful woodlands, moorlands and wide open spaces. We protect them for all to enjoy, and I hope we always will. But, as we do so, we cannot regard every piece of open land as sacrosanct, when so many are living in sub-standard housing, and there is a growing shortage of single-person accommodation.

Here we have a paradox. Although few deny we need more homes, many oppose new building. Sometimes their opposition is justified – but not always. We must decide to whom we listen: opponents of more housing, or those who hope – and deserve – a home of their own.

Job creation is crucial too: over recent years, we have seen surprisingly high employment growth, but often not enough in areas that have fallen behind. To correct this, we need continuing investment in better information technology, in roads, in airport capacity, in rail investment. And, as North Sea Oil fades, we need to accept fracking, so that on-shore energy can make us more self-sufficient – and competitive.

Much of this is underway, but many of these schemes are unpopular.

Some will instinctively oppose all of them. I do understand this. But such critics must understand there is a link between investment and jobs and well-being: if our infrastructure is not upgraded, we will condemn many to remain poor – now, and in the future. It cannot be right to deny the homeless or jobless the hope that better times are ahead.


There are many things that make me proud of our country – but none more so than the scale of philanthropic, voluntary and charitable work that is the daily labour of many in every corner of the UK. Volunteers and the faith community can be proud of what they have done. We should all be proud of our open-heartedness: over 180,000 Charities, one million Trustees, and countless voluntary workers is incontrovertible evidence that the British soul and conscience is in good working order.

But – a reality check: we cannot be complacent about our charitable sector. There are negatives: we have all seen the publicity generated by bad fundraising practices and poor governance. I won’t dwell on these shortcomings, except to note that all charities have a duty to protect their reputation. Unless they are seen as efficient and well run, donations will fall away. Giving is not a given.

History tells us donations collapsed when the Fabians argued that social care was the – presumably sole – responsibility of the State.

In 1948, when the NHS was formed, 90% of the public told opinion polls there would no longer be any need for charity. The act of giving also falls when taxes are too onerous: as a former Lord Mayor of London put it: “much as I would like to give ... The Government has taken all my money.”

This may seem perverse – but politicians should be careful not to claim too much success in meeting social need: if they do, they may cut off the voluntary impulse without which we would all be poorer.

Charitable activity has a long and proud history in our country. The 1601 Statute of Charitable Uses – together with its contemporary Statute for the Relief of the Poor – were intended to encourage the rich to supplement contributions from rate and tax payers. They have done so ever since. Had they not, our social conditions would be incomparably worse.

The House of Commons Library tells me the UK now has over 100 Sterling billionaires, and many thousands of millionaires. Is this growing wealth a source of additional funding? Almost certainly – whether it be lifetime giving, lifetime loans or legacies. I need not elaborate – fundraisers are well aware of the opportunities of tapping into rising wealth.

The role of charities has long been one of the glories of our way of life. They promote human nature at its best ... care of the very sick; the terminally ill; research into cures; help for those with learning or physical disabilities … the list is both magnificent and almost unending. Our society would be very bleak indeed without them.

And charities can be innovative.

Take the Prince’s Charity, which has done so much to regenerate deprived areas. It has been the catalyst in bringing together a range of charitable organisations to work with both the public and private sectors. This approach was pioneered in Burnley in 2007, and has since spread to Burslem, Middlesbrough and Tottenham.

An independent evaluation by Dr Peter Grant of Cass Business School reports that this has been a hugely successful partnership. The pioneer of the programme, Burnley, was named in 2013 as the most enterprising place in the UK by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. During the past year, they have had the largest percentage increase in private sector jobs in the UK. Surely this form of approach could be more widely developed?

“Give us the tools,” pleaded Churchill, in a moment of national crisis, “and we will finish the job”. In our lesser crisis of helping the poorest among us, one essential tool is money: it is the root of much progress.

As Chancellor, in 1990, I sought to accelerate charitable income by introducing Gift Aid: since then, this tax change has generated £13.5 billion in additional revenue for charities, and is the gift that keeps on giving – at over £1 billion a year.

In the late 1980s – as Social Security Minister, with responsibility for the Disabled, and then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, responsible for the allocation of the public purse – I saw raw need, often unmet. I realised it was impossible for even the best causes to compete for public money against the demands of pensions, health, education, social security and defence.

So, as Prime Minister, my solution was the Lottery – money from the public … for the public, and – to protect the independence of charities – from a source other than the State. It was controversial.

Some denounced it for promoting gambling. The Church was restless, but underwent a miraculous conversion that enabled many a leaking church roof to be mended. The Treasury was conflicted. Officials realised that the Lottery would ease demands for public money – and approved. But equally, they knew it would be out of their control – and disapproved. Even worse, the Lottery promoted fun – which the community of killjoys absolutely hated.

The critics are silent now. As of today, the Lottery has distributed over £34 billion to good causes: nearly £8 billion to charities alone, and the balance to other causes – sports, the arts, heritage – that enhance the lives of everyone and, most importantly to me, those who have little else.

And, as intended, most of this money has gone to small local schemes: to village halls, arts centres, playgrounds for children, parks and open spaces, sports equipment, and instruments for orchestras and bands.

I admit to paternal affection for the Lottery, but worry for its future. It was designed as a National Lottery – in effect, a monopoly – to maximise returns for the designated good causes. But its success has attracted rivals. In recent years, so-called “Umbrella” society lotteries have emerged, that have circumvented the original legislation, and pay a far smaller proportion of their income back to worthy causes.

“Betting on lottery” operators have also expanded, blurring the line between lotteries and gambling. If these rivals grow or multiply in number, they will threaten the future of the National Lottery.

Charities should all be concerned about this.

In a nation at ease with itself, business, too, has a role. Of course, its main purpose is to make profits – but, as it does so, it can do more for social development than paying taxes and creating jobs.

In a recent visit to Liverpool, I learned that local building companies – Carillion were one – were actively seeking out former Servicemen and women, the long-term unemployed, the homeless and ex-offenders.

They are employing them and teaching them skills from which they can benefit for the rest of their lives. It is an idea that should be adopted more widely.

Business can – and does – help charities. I am the Chairman of The Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust, set up to provide a legacy for Her Majesty’s many years as our Monarch.

The Trust is seeking to end forms of avoidable blindness across the nations of the Commonwealth and our principal private sector supporter has been Standard Chartered Bank. Other Banks have dedicated departments advising on philanthropy. Many private sector companies sponsor named charities each year, or contribute to them, or collect for them among their employees. Some newly rich private sector benefactors are proving to be enormously generous: this, I believe, is an area that can and should grow dramatically.

Their contribution is in stark contrast to the activities of pay-day lenders that offer loans at extortionate rates of 1500% or more. They are not helping the poor: they are helping themselves at the expense of the poor. That’s not a free market, it’s an exploitative market. And morally reprehensible.

Let me offer some closing thoughts:

During my preparations for this evening, I have sought the views of many specialists on the work of civil society.

Some suggested that we have too many charities, and that it would be less wasteful, more efficient, and minimise duplication of effort, if they merged.

There is a logic to that suggestion – but I have reservations about how desirable it is. The urge to set up a charity is surely driven by the heart, not the head, and I would be disinclined to discourage that. In any case, I fancy small charities dip into a different pool for funding – and it would be folly to lose their enthusiasm. In my experience, they also offer small, anonymous acts of kindness, vital to the recipient, that may be overlooked by their larger brethren.

Others – with an eye to the reputation of charities – have argued there is a strong case for charities to make a sound business case before they are formally registered. This I do agree with.

As a general principle, I am not an admirer of regulators. I am therefore surprised to have reached the conclusion that we would be wise to expand the remit, and the funding, of the Charity Commissioners.

I believe, in so doing, we can improve the chance of eliminating malpractice and scandals in a charity sector that has an annual income of nearly £70 billion. I see advantages in the Commission engaging with more charities and encouraging “friendly” mergers. They could act as a catalyst for change by encouraging charities to become transformative as well as palliative. If this is beyond their remit and resources now, then we need to change their remit and increase their resources.

Today, I have no power and no public money at my disposal, but I care no less now than I did then. I also have a voice which – by and large – the poor don’t.

And I wish to say – 25 years on – that we are still not a nation at ease with itself. Much has been done – is being done – to ease inequality, but we can do so much more.

As the world becomes richer, inequality becomes less tolerable, and the case for reducing it more urgent. A crusade to widen prosperity more equally will not only ease hardship, it will build our national wealth – and health.

I grew up in a community that had very little. I have been lucky, very lucky. But not everyone is. And it is for us – all of us – upon whose lives good fortune has shone, to do whatever we can, big or small, to ensure it shines on others, too.

If you think this is a fanciful notion – and that nothing you can do will make a difference – think of Burnley. Think of Carillion in Liverpool.

Think of those left behind. And you will realise that much can be done if the will is there.

We have a choice. We can leave it all to Government – or we can all contribute, and ease inequality more comprehensively and more swiftly.

It is up to us. It is our choice and I, for one, am clear about what that choice should be.