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1997 Onwards - Sir John Major’s Interview on BBC Radio 4 - 30/05/2014

Below is the transcript of the interview with the Rt Hon Sir John Major KG CH on BBC Radio 4 “Today Programme” on Friday, 30 May, 2014.


INTRODUCTION:  


[John Humphrys commenting on the recent European Elections, and comparing the situation currently facing David Cameron with that which faced Sir John Major in the 1990s]


JOHN HUMPHRYS


How does this play out for David Cameron?


SIR JOHN MAJOR


The circumstances between the 1990s and now are very different. In a very curious way the recent European elections have emphasised that very clearly. The result of these elections have made renegotiation much easier; it’s apparent now to Governments right across Europe that reform of the European Union is necessary. It isn’t working as it should, it isn’t working in the way that European citizens think it should, and that gives a great deal of power to the British determination to renegotiate because they will have allies today which in the 1990s we frankly didn’t have.


JOHN HUMPHRYS


The problem with that notion that renegotiation is going to be much easier might be true except that the thing people in this country most want renegotiated is immigration. And surely the essence, the ethos, of the EU is the free movement of trade and people. They can’t give on that?


SIR JOHN MAJOR


I think that you may be surprised. Of course, no one can be certain of what will happen, but as the Prime Minister has said himself, free movement of people cannot be unqualified, and I think that is very important. I heard your headlines earlier today, the growth of immigration from North Africa which presumably will be to Spain, to Portugal, to Italy, to Greece and of course to France.


The difficulties we are facing are difficulties that we are not going to be facing alone. That does begin to change the circumstances, and I can’t predict what will happen as free movement of capital, trade and people is one of the fundamentals. That is an issue which will have to be addressed by Governments other than us.


There are some things that can be done – as the Prime Minister has already said – free movement to take up work and not benefits. I don’t think that you could have an absolute restriction on movement, but maybe you could qualify it in different ways and that is something that would echo in many European Governments and not just here.


JOHN HUMPHRYS


Given the result of the election, the success of UKIP, given the huge concern about immigration and given the fact that David Cameron has sworn that there will be a referendum before the end of 2015. If he cannot at that time promise people that, as a result of those negotiations that he has carried out, there will be fewer Europeans coming to live in this country then the referendum will be lost?


SIR JOHN MAJOR


I think it is absolutely the right policy to have the referendum and for this reason. There are many people in this country who weren’t born when we had our last referendum – when we entered the European Union. Plainly the European Union has changed, and changed dramatically, from the old common market and the old trading bloc. There is a great deal of resentment amongst people who say that it has changed into something that they didn’t think we were joining a long time ago. So it’s necessary to have a reaffirmation of our membership to remove this bitterness in British politics that we’ve had for so long. That is why I believe that the Prime Minister is absolutely right to have it, why I believe that the Prime Minister will win this referendum.


I think there will be significant things that could be renegotiated. You may recall John, since you mention the 1990s, that in the Maastricht Treaty we had something called subsidiarity. Subsidiarity was a concept that you should only do something at the European level which cannot be done at a national level. That was agreed at Maastricht, and it was then scuppered and pushed aside by the Commission. If that had been continued, if that hadn’t been wrecked by the Commission, many of the daily frustrations that many of your listeners this morning will be grinding their teeth about on a regular basis, simply wouldn’t have happened.  


You’re hearing the same message from President Merkel and the same message from President Hollande. So there are a whole range of things, quite apart from freedom of movement, where I think the unqualified point is something we can look at.  There are a whole range of areas where positive reform can be made. I think also people have to consider, imperfect in many ways, frustrating in many ways though Europe is – what the position would be were we not actually in Europe.


JOHN HUMPHRYS


But it is going to be difficult isn’t it for Mr Cameron if he doesn’t win anything on freedom of movement, anything substantial, and he’s got UKIP to hold his feet to the fire of course. It’s going to be quite difficult for him to recommend that we stay in Europe, to recommend that people vote to stay in Europe rather than to withdraw. There will be huge pressure on him.


SIR JOHN MAJOR


Contemplate what would be the position if we were to leave Europe. As we come to the debate, that will be key. We can’t just walk out of Europe, we have inherited liabilities, we would have to negotiate our way out, that would be necessary under the Treaty, and that would cost billions.


JOHN HUMPHRYS


But we can walk out and a lot of people have said we’d make billions and that we’d be much better off.


SIR JOHN MAJOR


Well frankly John, they’re wrong. Much of the publicity about that is absolute nonsense. We would lose free access to the single market. We could still have access to….


JOHN HUMPHRYS


We could still sell to them?


SIR JOHN MAJOR


We would have to pay for access. How much inward investment – that’s currently helping our economy grow faster than it has for a decade – comes here just for our pretty blue eyes, and how much comes here because, through Britain, they have access to the single market and the European Union as a whole?


We would find ourselves very isolated and in a very difficult position without Europe. I know that’s uncomfortable for people who are frustrated, but the Government and the country has to realise in a cold, clear-eyed way, what is in its own economic self-interest and what is in the self-interest of the future of the United Kingdom and our well-being. That is a much wider issue than the one you are concentrating on.


JOHN HUMPHRYS


David Cameron has made that point over the years, but he has to deal with UKIP and he has got to deal with his own back-benchers, just as you had to deal with the Referendum Party, just as you had to deal with your own back-benchers. Indeed you resigned the leadership of the Conservative Party, I remember interviewing you a few days after you resigned.


SIR JOHN MAJOR


And as you recall I was re-elected by my own back-benchers – with a pretty massive majority.


JOHN HUMPHRYS


I was about to make that very point. But he can’t do that can he? Could he?


SIR JOHN MAJOR


I don’t think he’s remotely in the position that I was in. As far as UKIP are concerned, UKIP are extremely good at exploiting grievances and people are very upset about Europe. Politically, UKIP have been very smart in exploiting those disagreements. But UKIP are not frankly a very tolerant party and I don’t believe their appeal is instinctively likely to continue for a very long time.


They are there, and of course they are an impediment for the moment. But what we are looking at is not a party political problem, but the future of the United Kingdom and the well-being of this generation and the next. And those are the big issues that we should be talking about which so often get swept aside in short-term political disputes and arguments.


We have to lift our eyes above that when we’re thinking about the future of the United Kingdom, that is what matters. And, at the moment, David Cameron is the only party leader with any chance whatsoever of firstly, delivering a referendum so the people can make up their own mind, as I believe they should, and secondly, delivering the changes in Europe that I believe are necessary and which I believe can be negotiated.


On a final point, many people when I went to Maastricht said that it would not be possible to negotiate Britain out of the Euro. I did. They said it wouldn’t be possible to negotiate us out of the Social Chapter. I did. More recently they said that David Cameron couldn’t negotiate a budget reduction. He did.


They’re just three, but there are several other things that the Prime Minister has done. So let it not be said that it cannot be done. This Prime Minister can do it, and these recent elections will have helped him do it.


JOHN HUMPHRYS


A quick word about the Chilcot Inquiry, condemned by many people as a whitewash because those crucial messages from Tony Blair to George W Bush, 150 of them, have been effectively censored. Haven’t the people got a right to know what Mr Blair promised George Bush?


SIR JOHN MAJOR


Let me make a couple of points about that. I know John Chilcot and many of the people on his Commission and I doubt that they will deliver a whitewash. They must be frustrated and I understand that, but I think they will deliver an excellent report when we eventually receive it.


Firstly, on the withholding of papers. I know nothing about the negotiations except one thing – and that is that it would have been handled by the Cabinet Office and not the Government. As you will know, there are strict rules that prevent papers from previous administrations being seen by a current administration of a different political party.


JOHN HUMPHRYS


Surely rules are there to be broken if necessary?


SIR JOHN MAJOR


Not that one. They are very strict rules and they are not going to be changed, the civil service stand in the way quite properly. So David Cameron and his colleagues would not have seen those papers and should not have seen those papers. As for your fundamental question I think it is a pity that the papers will be withheld for several reasons.


Firstly, they will leave suspicions unresolved and those suspicions will fester and maybe worsen. And secondly, withholding them will be very embarrassing for Mr Blair – not least, of course, since he brought the Freedom of Information Act into law when he was in Government.


But that is the decision that has been reached, effectively by the Cabinet Office. I suppose the previous Labour Government could approach them and say we’d like to overrule this and we feel it is better that they release those papers. But the Government can’t do that. Mr Blair could, the previous Labour Government could, and maybe, in their own interests, they should think about that because otherwise this will fester, and I don’t believe anyone wishes to see that.


JOHN HUMPHRYS


John Major, thank you very much indeed.