Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech in Bangkok at the Standard Chartered Bank, held on Thursday 29th February 1996.
Malcolm, thank you very much indeed, and perhaps I can thank both Standard Chartered and the Ambassador for this reception this evening, and I am delighted to be back here.
Malcolm was kind enough to refer to some of my past with Standard Chartered, and he was almost correct about it. They in fact called for volunteers to go to Nigeria. I think they were looking for those who were expendable. The situation in Nigeria at the time was quite volatile, I was deemed at the time entirely expendable, having been with Standard Chartered for a very short time, and I volunteered to go there. And although it ended after a rather miserable motor accident, I don’t regret, if Malcolm will forgive me for saying so, any of the time I spent with Standard Chartered and I am delighted to be here as their guest this evening. I have retained an affection for a bank I worked for for a very long time and I am delighted to see that they are doing so well in this part of the country.
Let me just say a few words about one or two other things.
Perhaps firstly starting most obviously with the conference that I and the Heads of other Western European governments and South East Asian governments will be attending over the next couple of days. Why have it, and why here? They are both I think questions worth asking because the answers are important. What actually strikes me most about the conference is that we have never done it before. We have had an axis between South East Asia and America, between the United Kingdom and the United States, between some Western European countries and some countries in South East Asia, certainly the United Kingdom has had a very great interest in many areas in South East Asia, but not Europe as a whole. And yet Western Europe, South East Asia and the United States are the great engines collectively of the world economy and I think it is long overdue that we should actually meet together to discuss not just economic matters, but security and other matters, in this format. And I can think of no better place to start than here in Bangkok. The next meeting will be in London, so I think the choice both in Western Europe and in South East Asia has been very wisely made by those people who chose those two centres.
What will we be looking at? It is a simplistic truism to refer to the extent to which the world market shrinks. But it does make a material difference to what actually happens in the world business environment. Many people have looked at Thailand and looked at their truly astonishing growth over the last few years and I see that, and I admire that, very much.
But if I may say so, from a British perspective, the growth in Thailand itself seems to me to be only part of the story that we should be examining. Because although the growth in Thailand is immensely impressive over recent years, the fact is also that Thailand is a superb centre for the whole of South East Asia. It presents an opportunity for Western Europe, and indeed beyond Western Europe, to develop a relationship with the whole of South East Asia through the entrepot opportunities of investment and trade with Thailand. And I think it is for that reason that I think it is particularly appropriate that this first conference should actually be here.
I would like, if I may, just for a moment or two, to say something about the United Kingdom’s relationship with Thailand and perhaps also what is happening in the United Kingdom economy at the moment. We have had a long and historical relationship with Thailand, a lot of historical investment, some recent investment, quite significant trade and investment, we are certainly the largest European investor in Thailand. But I push that largely to one side, because what actually strikes me is not that we are the largest European investor in Thailand, but that the opportunity for investment from Europe into Thailand, and from Thailand into Europe, has barely scratched the surface yet of what is possible. That is true both of two-way investment, it is true also of trade both in manufacturing goods, and also I think in invisibles as well, there is of course a very large relationship in oil, as one would expect.
But there are many other areas where that relationship can and should grow. And I would hope we are going to see in the next few years a promotion of those opportunities both in Western Europe and in Thailand. Because there is – I put this with a small ‘c’ – a conservatism in Western Europe sometimes about investment that I think we should push to one side. The speed of change is staggering these days. The first people to see what an opportunity is and begin to grasp it are the people who will take maximum advantage of that opportunity. And the opportunity that exists at the moment for Thailand with Western Europe, and for Western Europe with Thailand and with South East Asia, seems to me to be very important.
Let me say just a word or two about the United Kingdom economy. In the early 1990s the recession hit Western Europe very hard, harder than it hit this part of the world that shrugged it off with its astonishing growth rates. But it hit Western Europe, the United States, Japan, very hard indeed. We emerged in the United Kingdom from that recession some time ago. What is different is the way in which we emerged from that recession. Time after time in the 50 or so years since the Second World War we have had growth and decline patterns in a sort of roller coaster across Western Europe, and certainly in the United Kingdom. What we were determined about on this occasion was that when we went into the recession we would do nothing during the recession that would inhibit growth without inflation after the recession. And although there were a series of very difficult political decisions to take, that was the decision that we took at the time.
And we have now emerged out of recession, I think probably for the first time since the Second World War, without the endemic problems that lead to future economic downturns in the future. The one of most importance of course is the tendency to inflation across Western Europe. We have emerged in the United Kingdom with the inflationary psychology, perhaps for the first time for 40 -50 years, securely under lock and key. Inflation in the UK has been lower for longer than we can remember for a very long time and it is still on a downward trend. It is below 3 percent now, we expect it to be 2.5 percent, maybe below, by the beginning of next year. And despite that, despite that ball and chain on that inflationary problem that has so often been endemic in the United Kingdom, we have actually also got quite a reasonable decline in the levels of unemployment. Our unemployment in the United Kingdom is too high, it is just under 8 percent, but it has been falling every month for the last two and a half years and it is far lower than unemployment in any of our comparative Western European countries, like Germany at over 10 percent, France at over 13 percent, Spain and Italy a good deal higher.
And it is that combination of growth towards the top of the European growth league, puny by comparison with your astonishing growth rates here in South East Asia, but then everybody’s growth rate is puny compared to yours, but growth rates up at the top end of the European league, inflation down at the bottom end, unemployment down at the bottom end and competitiveness, as those of you who deal with the United Kingdom will know, a good deal sharper and better than most people can remember it.
Somebody said to me a few moments ago, as we met: “I do a lot of business with the United Kingdom”, he said, “they are very tough people to do business with. And I said: Good, I am glad we are tough people to do business with. You are tough people to do business with as well, but we are doing more business and it is good business. And if you are competitive, and we are competitive, the one certain thing is that that volume of business is going to grow both in the short term and the long term, and that is what we wish to see.
Before I came to this reception this evening, I had a meeting with a number of the most senior businessmen in Thailand. And we looked at the opportunities that exist for greater mutual investment and trade. And there is no doubt that we have but barely scratched the surface of what is actually possible thus far and we need to go a good deal further. Thailand will make its own judgements about how to do it, and we in Britain will make ours. And we are thinking very long term, not in terms of 2 or 3 years but very long term indeed.
I will give you an illustration of that. I, like most of the people of my age around this room, and I think there are one or two, if it is not ungallant to say so, we see the huge change, the overwhelming change of information technology, change at a speed and a kind beyond the imagination of anything we had at school or in our early 20s. That is the world that is developing. It is not going to go away, there is no point in pretending that it is going to go away. Many of those changes are going to be very beneficial. We propose to plan for the very long term with those changes. There has been a huge development of medium and high-tech industries right the way across the United Kingdom. We are looking now at developing information technology training, and information technology possibilities in our schools, primary and secondary, in a way that we have never seen before. I want to see all our schools, all our children, with computers that they understand on their desks, I want to see them grasping what information technology is going to do for their future, their country and the international trading market in the years that come ahead. And we are looking at the moment at some of the biggest prospects that my country has ever seen, of developing private finance in partnership to bring those information technology prospects and training right to our youngest people in, school, right the way through the school, so that you as employers, and by then I am sure even more of you will have invested in the United Kingdom, will find that you have a workforce trained and skilled in the sort of information that you will need that will be the common currency of world trade in the years that lie immediately ahead.
So we meet at a time of almost unparalleled change and certainly of unparalleled opportunity if it is taken. Someone is going to take the opportunities that exist. Our job, mine in the United Kingdom, yours in Thailand, is to make sure that amongst those people who take those opportunities are our two countries. I think we can do that. I think to a greater extent than we have seen in the past we can actually do that together.
I was delighted, as an old Standard Chartered man, that Malcolm Williamson was here recently with a large trading group. I am delighted we have got an Anglo/Thai business community beginning to develop. I am delighted that the business community in the UK is looking increasingly to Thailand, and from what I have seen already, that the reverse is true. Those opportunities exist. I can do something to help with those opportunities, but you can do more, those of you from the UK who are here, those of you who are Thai but with interests in the UK. I would simply say to you as an external observer of the scheme, the opportunity is there, it is for you to take it. And from what I have seen and know of the Thai government, and from what I know of the British government, we will do what we can to help in that development.
So thank you for being here this evening, thank you for the joint interest you have in trade between our two countries. And thank you to the Ambassador, who is hiding somewhere, just here, a shy, retiring man, not often noticed, only about 6ft 4in. And thank you also to Standard Chartered for their hospitality.
I am delighted to be here for this conference. I have no doubt about its importance, no doubt that this conference isn’t a one-off event just held in Thailand, but the start of a recognition of what can be achieved between Thailand and South East Asia as a whole, and Britain and Western Europe as a whole. It is a good start, I am sure it will go further, and thank you for being here.