Former Prime Minister Sir John Major declared that young people becoming involved in politics is vital for the future of democracy in a fascinating and timely Harold Wilson Lecture held at the University of Huddersfield.

Sir John followed in the footsteps of one of his successors in No10 Downing Street, Gordon Brown, delivering the lecture that commemorates the Huddersfield-born Labour MP who won four general elections and spent over eight years in office in the 1960s and 1970s. 

His appearance at the university came just two days after Rishi Sunak became the UK’s third PM in a matter of weeks, following the resignations of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.

Sir John served as PM for six-and-a-half years after succeeding Margaret Thatcher in November 1990. Knighted in 2005, he has been an in-demand speaker and commentator on politics and particularly the UK’s relationship with Europe but has also written books on his lifelong love of cricket and music hall.

“Young people are pretty turned off by politics at the moment,” said Sir John. “And that is a great shame. We need young people not to say ‘that’s not for me, I don’t like what they are doing’ as that is the way democracy dies, if the best of the next generation turn away from being the Parliamentarians of the future.

“Any young people here should not be put off by any time when Parliament has a bad run. They have an opportunity to change it. If young people have a wish to go into Parliament, have an ability and care about changing things – and I don’t care which party they belong to – I would encourage them to do it.

“If the big, solid centre which is the vast majority of this country turn away from politics and leave it to the super-enthusiasts on the right or left then we will not have the Parliament we need. So if young people want to come into politics, then it is in the nation’s interest that they do so.

“If politics degenerates to a clash of personalities and ideologies, and has no common endeavour then it is truly failing the public. Without a moral element, then Parliament is a body without a heart.”

In a wide-ranging and topical talk under the title of ‘Why Democracy Matters’, Sir John spoke of his admiration for and friendship with his predecessor Lord Wilson. Looking across the political divide, he also paid a warm tribute to Huddersfield’s Labour MP Barry Sheerman, who recently announced that he will be standing down after representing the town at Westminster since 1979.

“Barry and I entered the House of Commons on the same day in 1979, and he’s still there! To be in public service as an elected Member of Parliament for over 40 years is truly magnificent. I am full of admiration for what you have done,” he told him.

Assessing the task facing Rishi Sunak, Sir John saw the new PM as having a ‘Herculean task’ on his hands and said that he has “a truly wretched in-tray and he will have to carefully select his priorities.”

Looking at democracy around the world, Sir John warned about taking democracy for granted in the face of divisive political rhetoric.

“I fear for its future, as only one in eight nations is a full democracy. Even in our own and stable country, democracy is under stress and needs to be protected.

“We take democracy for granted in Britain, but we shouldn’t. A look around the world warns us there is no room for complacency. To spread it more widely, democracy needs to prove its merits with rising living standards and stable government.

“Democracy is fragile. When countries discard democracy, populism and autocracy are waiting in the wings to replace it. We should be wary of populism and the easy promises it makes that cannot be delivered. Populists have no time for the middle ground, and the middle ground is where most people in our nation sit.”

The university was also delighted to welcome Prof Robin Wilson, son of Harold Wilson, and his wife Joy to the event.