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1997 Onwards - Sir John Major’s Interview on the Andrew Marr Show

Below is the text of Sir John Major’s interview on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show, broadcast live on 16th December 2007.


ANDREW MARR:

Now of course one of the big events from the past year was Tony Blair's exit from office.

Already the histories and political obituaries have been written, but so far his predecessor in No. 10 has been virtually silent on the New Labour years. John Major joins us now to look back over the last year. Welcome, thank you very much for coming in.

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

My pleasure.

ANDREW MARR:

Let's start with the economy, because some people might say it's a sense of déjà vu, house prices under pressure, coming down again, the kind of outlook that we haven't maybe had since the immediate days around Black Wednesday?

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

Well that of course was exactly what I inherited when I became Prime Minister, there were some similarities with now, we were going into a recession, it was clearly going to be very deep. And it took a long time to get out of it.

But if you recall, when we left office in 1997 I think we probably left the best economy any government has left for the last 50 years. We had had five years of consistent growth every quarter, falling interest rates, falling unemployment, increasing growth, for a long period.

It wasn't created by the present Labour government it was there in place when they took office. But of course they have always used Black Wednesday to mask that.

ANDREW MARR:

I mean it has to be said that they then picked up that ball, as it were, and ran with it for a long time?

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

Yes they did, to a certain extent and the fact that they haven't wrecked the economy is something one can give them credit for. But I think it's now beginning to unravel in quite a serious way.

If you look at what has happened over the last ten years, there were going to be no tax increases, specifically there were going to be no tax increases on pensions. In fact a specific tax increase on pensions has wrecked final salary pension schemes and wrecked the security of many pensioners.

But you now see over the full ten years we have dropped significantly in competitiveness, productivity is down over those ten years. We have had a tax increase almost every month for the last ten years, on average. We've had 111 tax increases over that period.

The economy is now clearly running into some significant difficulties, and there are two events, two events that are specifically related to the government policy that have caused huge problems. One of them you've referred to them already this morning, Northern Rock, and I'll come back to that in a moment.

The other of course was the then Chancellor's decision to sell gold. He sold gold quite gratuitously, something like 395-400 tonnes of gold at an average price of, I think, about $275. The loss to the exchanges from that decision is now in excess of the loss to the exchanges on Black Wednesday, in excess of the Black Wednesday costs.

ANDREW MARR:

From your point of view, Golden Tuesday or whatever it was, is worse than Black Wednesday?

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

Well in terms of the loss to the exchanges most certainly it's a different political damage. But in terms of the loss to the exchanges it most certainly is. And I hope it will stop the Prime Minister talking about ten successful years because they haven't been entirely successful. And that absurdity that he sometimes turns to, that he appears to blame David Cameron who was a bag carrier for Norman Lamont on Black Wednesday, as though David was at all responsible, for he wasn't.

The second point of course is Northern Rock. We don't yet know what the cost of Northern Rock to the Economy will be. But it is quite likely, not certain, but quite likely that it will exceed the cost for the taxpayer of either Black Wednesday or of the sale of gold. And that runs specifically from changes to the system introduced by the then Chancellor in 1997.

ANDREW MARR:

The regulatory system?

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

The regulatory system.

ANDREW MARR:

Right. I wondered in the final film that Tony Blair made about looking back over, looking back in part, over his ten years, what you felt when he said maybe he'd been a little bit rough in going for you over sleaze?

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

Well I didn't watch it, I didn't watch the film, but I read about it. But I think there is a clear-cut distinction between what was called sleaze in the 1990s and what has happened since 1997. Lots of people misbehaved in the '80s and in the '90s, but they were all individuals, it was never institutional, it was never related specifically to the Conservative Party or to the Conservative Government.

ANDREW MARR:

You don't think there was a culture of overseas business people putting money in, sort of behind the back of the political system?

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

 I don't think there was a culture. I mean I devolved responsibility for party fundraising when I became Prime Minister, so I had no direct hand in it. But, no I don't think so. But what happened in the 1990s, there was a deliberate attempt to portray the Conservative Party as an institution, it was almost McCarthyite frankly, as though it were sleazy, and it wasn't.

The distinction is that sleaze has seemed to be systemic since 1997. I mean, I can see a clear pattern, you probably remember the Ecclestone affair in, I think, November 1997. We have Abrahams in November 2007, and serial offences in between those two dates. 2002, when I think they were taking money from Mr. Desmond, the Labour Party set up a committee and decided they would vet every future donor. Well it clearly wasn't very successful vetting, from what we've seen subsequently.

So I do think that they have every reason to regret what they did in the 1990s, but I must say I was sorry when the Prime Minister apologised for the fact that it had bounced back on the Labour Party. I think he should have apologised for the fact that it wasn't true what he was saying in the 1990s. And to accuse people in the Cabinet, a Cabinet that had people like Douglas Hurd, Michael Heseltine, Malcolm Rifkind, Ken Clarke, Gill Shepherd, Virginia Bottomley, John Gummer, Peter Brooke - to accuse them of being part of a sleazy government is just unscrupulous.

ANDREW MARR:

Do you think that Tony Blair has presided over a corrupt government?

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

 I don't think it's corrupt, no I don't use the word corrupt, I think they have been careless. I think they have had a huge majority and they have been careless, I think that's what it is. I don't accuse them of corruption and I wouldn't accuse them of corruption. I don't think most politicians, occasionally there's a bad apple in the barrel. We are in parliament a microcosm of the nation, there are bad applies. But I don't think that. But I do think it was institutionally careless in the grand manner.

ANDREW MARR:

And why do you think that happened, simply because they thought when Tony Blair said I'm a pretty straight kind of guy, he sort of believed it therefore?

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

Well I think if they were to say today, whiter than white or purer than pure, I think people would just laugh. And I think that is sad for the sake of the whole system. But there were of course a whole series of slogans then that look pretty stupid now - Tough on Crime, Tough on the Causes of Crime - well we now have prisoners being let out early, gun crime up, violent crime up, total crimes up.

It really hasn't lived up to the billing and you could say that in the National Health Service, 24 hours to save it, well it's a lot longer than 24 hours. And you don't have to take my word, take Derek Wanless's word, we are not on our way yet, to a world class health service despite huge extra taxation going into it.

ANDREW MARR:

I imagine that Gordon Brown and Tony Blair would say we've all had the same problem with party funding, it's something that's bedevilled British politics in Margaret Thatcher's time, in John Major's time, and now in our time too. And there does need to be a better way of dealing with this?

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

I don't think a better way is more money from the taxpayer, I know there seems to be a communal view that it is a good idea from all the parties, I don't personally agree with it. And I don't agree with it specifically for this reason - I think, apart from the fact I don't think it's right for the taxpayer to pay, but let us even put that to one side, there's another practical reason. If too much of party funding comes directly from the taxpayer a great deal of the activity at the grass roots that brings a party together, that makes a party, that keeps the politicians in touch with the grass roots, gets swept away.

And I think politicians are remote enough already from the electorate as a whole, I wouldn't wish to see them made even more remote, and my fear apart from the undoubted desirability of the principle, my fear would be that if party funding too much came from the centre that it would diminish grass roots activity even more, that would be a thoroughly bad development.

ANDREW MARR:

Yes. I mean you were swept out of power by Tony Blair and the Labour Party saying that you were sleazy, that your government was riddled, if not with corruption but certainly with sleaze which was the slightly politer way of saying corruption, as I recall. The old Chinese saying about if you wait long enough the bodies of your enemies float past, does it occur to you?

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

Well, just a touch. But I mean, what they did at the time was absolutely unscrupulous. I don't think that's what cost us the election, frankly we'd been there so long if the leader of the Conservative Party had been the Archangel Gabriel and the Cabinet had been a choir of angels, I think after 18 years we would have lost.

I think what their pretty unscrupulous use of facts did, was to magnify the defeat, to turn a defeat that was always likely into a much bigger defeat. And I think that they did do very successfully but I think in a manner that scarred politics in the long term.

ANDREW MARR:

And turning to your party now, it strikes me that what we said about New Labour back in the mid-1990s could apply to the Conservatives now, which is terribly inexperienced. Very, very successful in the polls at the moment, beginning to look like a party that could win an overall majority at the next election, long way away and all the rest of it. But nonetheless, is that a worry, the inexperience?

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

Well I think the government are pretty inexperienced, in this sense. I mean half the Cabinet were special advisors two or three years ago.

ANDREW MARR:

Everybody's only been a special advisor in politics these days.

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

I know, it's a great mistake to get to the top of politics that way in my judgement. But if you look back in Margaret's time there were always three people who could have been Prime Minister. When I became Prime Minister, if I had been run over by a bus and some people rather wished for that, there were several…

ANDREW MARR:

Depends who was driving the bus?

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

There were several people who could have taken over - Douglas Hurd, Michael Heseltine, Ken Clarke, Malcolm Rifkind - who may well have done a better job, maybe people thought they would have done. If Gordon Brown were run over who would be Prime Minister?

There was one very senior member, Jack Staw, beyond that nobody with any experience whatsoever. It is the most inexperienced Cabinet that I can remember. So I don't think the relative inexperience of the opposition is a problem. Particularly, if I may say so, because of the way David Cameron is now going abroad regularly.

I've just returned from China, I was in China last week and I met some senior Chinese there and David Cameron is going there next week, and we were talking about his visit and they're very much looking forward to seeing him. And I think these overseas trips are very important for him to do and I'm delighted he's doing them.

ANDREW MARR:

One of the younger members of the Cabinet, David Miliband, I was just talking to in Basra. It is all's well that ends well, is it finally over down there, how do you read that?

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

Well, I'm uncertain. I mean, if you take an audit, we went into Iraq on what turned out to be a false premise. Getting rid of Saddam Hussein I think undoubtedly is a bonus.

Everything else looks pretty bleak to me. If you look at life within Iraq at the moment, most of the major decisions that needs to be taken haven't yet been taken by the Iraqi government. If you look at life in Iraq, inflation is 70%, unemployment is 50%, about 3,000-3,500 Iraqis over recent months have been killed every single month.

ANDREW MARR:

Was it worth it?

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

That doesn't look to me like a stable situation as a result of policy over the last few years. I don't think this is going to be looked back on with any pride by the policymakers. I think the Army were given an impossible job which they did as well as it could have been done, but it was almost impossible and the outcome is bleak.

ANDREW MARR:

For now, John Major, thank you very much indeed.