Sir John Major’s Speech at the National Archives Trust – 11 February 2020

Below is the text of the speech made by Sir John Major at the National Archives Trust in Kew, London on Tuesday 11 February 2020.


I would like to begin by thanking the Clore-Duffield Foundation for their very generous grant to the Trust. I have no doubt it will be wisely used to extend both the knowledge of – and love for – our history.

The reason for my confidence is because the Trust has an experienced and talented Board – which is Chaired by Anthony Seldon.

Anthony has not only spent a lifetime in education, but is himself a leading historian: to him, the success of the National Archives will not only be a professional responsibility, it will be a personal crusade.

The timing of this initiative is especially apt.

A few days ago we formally left the European Union; and two months ago the General Election produced a result that changed the political face of our country.

Many people have set out their explanations for these two outcomes and, in due course, the National Archive will cover them.

But, the election result – or at least the scale of it – was not remotely forecast; and leaving Europe was considered extremely unlikely. Until they both happened.

So, what made them happen?

Beyond the superficial answers about policy and personality lies a much deeper cause: national identity.

Our national identity is about who we are; what we are; and from whence we came. It’s our history, our legacy. It’s about us. We, today, are the history of tomorrow.

But yesterday’s history is about our forebears. Over recent years, researching family ancestry has become something of an industry and, to my mind, a very welcome one.

Because our history is not just Monarchs and Governments and Politicians. It’s about the lives of every single citizen. It’s about how our ancestors lived – what they thought – what they did.

Consider: who fought at Agincourt? Henry V, of course – and his senior barons. But their foot soldiers were there too – our ancestors: farmers; weavers; blacksmiths; ordinary, everyday people.

Similarly, the War of the Roses was fought largely by everyday people: retainers, supporters and tenants of the Dukes of York and Lancaster and their allies.

If all that seems long ago and far away, more recent stories tell the same tale.

The pilots who flew in the Battle of Britain were often little more than boys fresh from school or university. With precious little training, they took to the air and faced fear and mayhem that few can possibly imagine. Any one of those war heroes could have been your father or grandfather.

Many might say: “I’ll never discover anything startling about my own ancestors.” But don’t be so sure.

The history of our land is not just the story of the “great and the good”, but of all those who stood beside them in times of turbulence or tranquillity; hardship or prosperity; war or peace.

We are today – in part – what they made us. To know ourselves is to know our history.

Of course, it continues to evolve. Every generation puts its own mark on it.

Today, we are living through an accelerated period of change which, for many people, is moving too fast for comfort. But our past is stamped on our actions as surely as our features resemble the faces and forms of our ancestors.

We ignore history at our peril. We need to heed it, learn from it, and build on it.

And that takes me directly to the ambitions of the National Archives Trust, which are extensive.

Above all, it’s to open up our history to our nation. To make it accessible, understandable, and informative to all. And, yes, to make it fun too.

This ambition stretches far wider than the study of historic documents from ancient and modern times – fascinating though they are.

The Trust is planning interactive exhibitions; education programmes; theatrical performances of events relating to history. Their treasure-trove of knowledge will not be imprisoned at Kew: the Trust will tour the country; seek partnerships with local archives; and, in due course, set up National Archive Centres across the UK.

The People’s History will be taken to the people.

And it’s long overdue – for everyone, especially children – to see original documents from long ago, and sense their own place in history.

Imagine holding in your own hand a letter from Elizabeth I; or Jane Austen; or Wellington; or Nelson; or Mrs Pankhurst. In different ways, they all changed our lives. And the Trust will bring all their documents to life.

One exhibition is on view this evening: a replica of No 10’s Cabinet table and chairs.

I remember a group of visiting schoolchildren sitting around the actual Cabinet table ….. as I recall, they were far less trouble than the real Cabinet!

The Trust has big ambitions for the long-term but – even in a world that demands instant results, the best of outcomes takes time – not least since the Archive history extends to over 11 million records, covering one thousand years.

It also takes money – the root of all progress.

The National Archives Trust is a new charity set up to serve the public, whose funding will come in part from the Treasury, but also from private donations.

Based on experience – and the size of our national deficit – I have no doubt that fundraising will be a vital part of the engine for expansion.

*****

As so often before, our country is passing through a period of division and disillusion. But we will come through it, because we are a nation with a history of which – mostly – we can be proud.

By pride, I don’t mean thoughtless jingoism. That is simply an embarrassment. No-one should be proud of that.

Our pride should be about our national contribution to the rule of law; to science; to engineering; to health; to civilised behaviour; and so much more …..

As a nation, we know the difference between right and wrong, and history flags up many warnings of what can happen if any nation loses sight of that.

The natural instincts of our country are kindly, decent ones of tolerance, compassion and co-operation. I know of no other country in which so many of its citizens work voluntarily for – or donate to – charitable causes. That is decency in action.

It is now a quarter of a century since I first met Anthony Seldon. Soon afterwards, his two young daughters – then very young – joined me for tea at No 10 and, as if to prove their lineage, asked far more probing questions than I ever got in Parliament.

Those two young girls did not become historians like their father …. they became civil servants, and are now, themselves, contributing to the National Archives of the future.

I hope they – and millions of others – will embrace the important work of this Trust; it may be about our past, but that past is the essential building block to our present and our future.

So do visit the Archives and learn from them: you will all be very welcome.

And – enjoy it: after all, it is our story.