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1997 Onwards - Sir John Major’s Foreign Office Speech

Below is the text of Sir John Major’s speech at the Foreign Office following the publication of a history note on homosexuality. The speech was made in the Locarno Room on 4 July 2017.


When Stephen Wall invited me to join you today, I was happy to accept. Twenty five years ago, he was a valued advisor: today, he remains a valued friend.

A few decades ago, publication of the "History Note" we celebrate today would have been inconceivable: any meeting advocating such a change would have been held in private, behind locked doors, with participants perhaps fearful their careers would be ended - and their lives ruined - if their sexual preferences were known.

That fear was based on the belief that exposure would have led to public condemnation and, for those in sensitive posts, the risk of blackmail.

But those fears were only true - could only be true - if public attitude was hostile. Once the light was let in; once it became widely accepted that - throughout history - many great men and women had been gay; once courageous gay pioneers went public, bigotry began to dissolve. Tolerance - an altogether more enlightened attitude - took over, and the atmosphere began to change. Many senior public servants, including Patrick Wright, then PUS - knew this was both necessary and inevitable.

At this moment, our country is in a sour, uncertain mood: divided over Brexit; over the Union; over globalisation; over the distribution of wealth and the extent of poverty; and much else …. In the whole of my political life I cannot recall such an unsettled time. That said - with wisdom and commonsense - I am confident we will overcome the current difficulties.

I am reinforced in that view by the extent our present miseries remind us how much - during my own lifetime - some attitudes have changed for the better.

In the 1950s, much public opinion was anti-Black and anti-gay. No-one would have ever imagined that so many black and gay people would become the icons of today.  

Nor would the concept of women holding some of the highest positions in the land have seemed remotely possible. But, in recent years, we have had not just one but two female Prime Ministers; two Director Generals of MI5; three Home Secretaries and - here in London - we now have a female Police Commissioner and Head of the London Fire Brigade. We also have women representing one in every three Parliamentary constituencies.

Not long ago, all of this would have been beyond parody. And yet it is today's reality. In many spheres there is, of course, more to be done. But the progress we have made during the last few decades dwarfs that of past centuries.

In fashioning the public mood, we need to acknowledge successes as well as challenges.

Bigotry hasn't gone: witness the shameful hostility that was whipped up during the Brexit campaign - raising irrational fears about the effect of immigration. But, overall, such sentiments are generally in retreat and out of time.

Some argue that our nation has become too liberal, too permissive, too prepared to junk all standards - and many here may sympathise with that. Certainly, on occasion, I do.

But - and it is a big but - I would far rather have an excess of liberalism than of bigotry and so, I believe, would most others. Liberal tolerance must surely be an attractive trait - provided we do not abuse it by defending the indefensible.

As we look back down the years we can see that high achievement and service to our nation is not restricted to those with conventional lifestyles. Many gay men and women have shaped our history, our literature and our social attitudes.

Consider Alan Turing, without whom the enigma code might never have been broken; many more lives might have been lost; and the Second World War might not have been won. And yet - despite his extraordinary service to our nation - he was treated abominably. That would never happen today - and I rejoice in that.

I was fortunate enough to be in a position to end the discrimination against gay members of the Civil Service. My only regret was that this liberation was so long delayed.

Throughout my time in Government I was aware that those in public service who were gay forged their way towards the top through hard work and ability yet - despite those attributes - most stopped short of the very top jobs. Once again, thankfully, that is no longer so.

I recall a very senior Civil Servant suggesting to me that one very able candidate put forward to join my Private Office might - as he put it - "attract attention" because of his lifestyle. My only thought about that proposition was that it was wrong.

I would never have denied a politician a Ministerial job on the grounds that he or she would "attract attention", and there was no logic (or fairness) in treating civil servants any less well.

So that candidate did join my office - on merit - and was a real asset to it: nor did he ever attract any unwanted attention either from within - or beyond - the Civil Service.

Subsequently, no such concern was ever put to me again and I continued to enjoy working with officials of differing personal lifestyles.

Nonetheless, in a very small way, I experienced the hostility that many others had to endure on a more regular basis. When I decided to compensate haemophiliacs infected with HIV as a result of contaminated blood transfusions, the correspondence I received was truly vile.

And when I wished to consult Ian McKellen on the concerns of gay people, there were subterranean rumblings that I should never even have spoken to him - let alone invited him into No 10!

It was absurd. Here was one of our greatest actors, and a powerful advocate for a cause affecting the lives and freedom of action of many British people - and some thought the Prime Minister should not even meet him. Such an attitude was simply astonishing. Personally, I never regretted that meeting - and learned a great deal from it.

By sheer coincidence, later that same day, I met Edith Cresson, the then Prime Minister of France, who famously remarked - and I quote verbatim - that "half of Anglo-Saxon men are homosexual". Observing diplomatic niceties, I refrained from asking how she had gone about her research for this particular statement ….

Two years later, with my encouragement, Parliament voted to lower the age of consent to eighteen - not quite the sixteen that the now Sir Ian McKellen had advocated, but a lowering nonetheless.

As we look back I am glad of this wider tolerance. The rigid prejudice of the past caused many people, who harmed no-one, to live in fear and isolation. No- one should be forced to live their lives in this fashion due to their personal life choices.

We are what we are. We are what fate made us. And, whatever that may be, we are entitled to give and receive affection. A life without affection is a life lacking an essential ingredient for happiness. I am proud that, overwhelmingly, most people today - and especially the young - have moved on from the social prejudices of earlier generations.

If people do not go out of their way to frighten the horses, or gratuitously shock their neighbours, then their lifestyle should be for them to choose without condemnation or stigma.

I am happy to say that - to a greater extent than ever before - that is where we are now.  

To me, that certainly merits a celebration, and I wish you all a stimulating discussion to come, and an enjoyable afternoon.