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1997 Onwards - Extracts from Sir John Major’s Interview with Peter Hennessy

Below are extracts from the interview held with Sir John Major on BBC Radio 4’s “Reflections with Peter Hennessy” which was first broadcast on 13th August 2014.


PETER HENNESSY:

[Asked Sir John Major when the seeds of ambition were first planted, when he realised he wanted to do something in public life]

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

I think probably about the age of thirteen. I think what influenced me most was what Harold Macmillan would have called "events, dear boy, events". It was what I saw, and what I experienced, that made me realise that I would like to take part in public life to see if I could change some things.

I always had a fascination for history. The first time I ever went in the House of Commons, at the invitation of a Labour MP, Marcus Lipton, the Member for Brixton. There is a special atmosphere in that building and it reaches out and it grabs you. I thought to myself that this is where I'd like to work.

PETER HENNESSY:

[Why choose to join the Conservative Party?]

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

At the time, when I was twelve, thirteen, fourteen, we lived in Brixton, five members of the family in two rooms and a little landing upon which we cooked and a washroom three floors down. The Labour Party in Lambeth were very big-hearted, their attitude generally was "yes, you are in difficulties and in due course we will help you. But be patient." The Conservative Party said to me, “we’d like to open up avenues of opportunity for you to change your own circumstances and those of your own family." So of the two philosophies there was no doubt which one appealed to me. So I was, by instinct, a Conservative. I am not an ideologue in any way, what attracts me is what can pragmatically can be done, not whether it meets some ideological test or not.

....

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

I saw immigrants at very close quarters in the 1950s, they shared my house, they were my neighbours and I played with them as a boy. I didn't see people who had come here just to benefit from our social system, I saw people with the guts and the drive to travel half-way across the world in many cases, to better themselves and their families. I feel that was a very Conservative instinct. That's what I saw, and it was things like that and also the fear I saw amongst many people who had nothing.

....

PETER HENNESSY:

[Asked Sir John Major about the one nation era in the 1950s and 1960s and whether he was comfortable with this]

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

Certainly I felt comfortable with it, I much prefer consensus to disagreement. If you can reach consensus then so much the better and certainly of the politicians of those days it was Ian McCloud who most attracted my attention as a young teenager. Firstly because of what he said, which was uplifting, but secondly, because of the way he said it, which was compelling.

...

PETER HENNESSY:

[Asked if it was a mystery that he didn't work hard at school]

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

Not to me. Circumstances at home weren't easy, my father was very sick and was plainly in the beginning of dying. My mother was very sick, there were lots of domestic problems and I had to travel from Brixton to Wimbledon each day. There were difficulties that sat in the forefront of my mind far more than studying. So I withdrew from what I should have been doing, which was studying. I knew I was doing it and I knew I was foolish in doing it, but I couldn't not do it. But the moment I left school I knew that I had to study and I had to make up for that.

....

PETER HENNESSY:

[Asked Sir John Major if Margaret Thatcher misread him and did he allow her to misread him]

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

No, I didn't. If she did misread me, I'm puzzled as to how that happened. Both as Chief Secretary and Chancellor, and briefly as Foreign Secretary which was a glorious 94 days in which we went to war with no-one, and I saw a great deal of Margaret Thatcher one to one. We didn't always agree and we did have a relationship where I could say to her what I thought. I didn't have to temper what I thought and I didn't temper what I thought. So I find it difficult to understand how she could have misunderstood what my views were because they were expressed often enough.

PETER HENNESSY:

[Ask Sir John Major whether he was ready to be Prime Minister and whether he would have liked more time in another job]

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

Yes I would. I think I was missing the fact that the longer you have been in Government, the more experience you have. I would have preferred it if I had become Prime Minister a few years later. I think that would have been easier in terms how I felt about it and easier in terms of the experience which I was able to bring to the job. But if the ball comes your way then you grab it, there's nothing else you can do.

...

PETER HENNESSY:

[Asked Sir John Major about the problems after the 1992 General Election]

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

Of course the party changed in 1992, a large number of the last remnants of the post-war generation who had been in the war, and who thought anything was better than having another European war as they have lived through one and had memories of the first earlier in the century. They were prepared to make accommodations to bring Europe together so that there could never again be another European war. They were succeeded by a new young group of Conservatives who had grown up in a much more ideological age with a much more ideological bent and without the historic memory of the war and its immediate aftermath. So the Parliamentary party that was so difficult after 1992 was a significantly different Parliamentary party that had existed throughout the 70s, 80s and the early part of the 90s.

What significantly changed it was the collapse of Sterling falling out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism. The background to it was forgotten, why did Margaret Thatcher sign up to the Exchange Rate Mechanism? We talked to her and she was persuaded, and she wasn't as some have said, persuaded with a pistol held to her head.

I will tell you exactly why Margaret agreed to go into the Exchange Rate Mechanism, because we were entering the end of her Premiership and we were suffering a recession which so often follows a boom and we were now heading into the recession. Inflation on the day I became Prime Minister was very nearly 10%, unemployment was soaring, interest rates were 14% and we were undoubtedly heading towards a deep recession. Margaret cared about inflation, it hurt the people that she knew, she wanted to bring inflation down and that is why she decided that we would enter the Exchange Rate Mechanism.

Every time in her political life, and mine, we had had an anti-inflationary policy, the Government had given way when it got difficult. The Exchange Rate Mechanism produced a clear external discipline to bring inflation down, and so concerned about that was she, she actually wished to go into the Exchange Rate Mechanism at a more punitive exchange rate than the one we choose. So the argument that Margaret was unwillingly pushed into the Exchange Rate Mechanism is utterly, utterly false.

When of course we crashed out it was taken by the Euro-sceptics as a classic reason to pile in on Europe on every conceivable front. And that is what happened, it was a great calamity, a political calamity, that we came out. What is frustrating about that is that we had already been discussing privately within Government, including with the Policy Unit and others, how we could come out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism without causing too much disruption and without the market believing we had given up our anti-inflationary credentials. The crisis hit us and we were toppled out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism before we could reach a conclusion on how to come out voluntarily. That of course seasoned everything that followed.

.....

I was never sure whether I should have resigned or not. I asked the views of people I respected such as Douglas Hurd and Norman Fowler. And also people who were not politicians about whether I should resign and their view was that unequivocally that I shouldn't and if that a Prime Minister did resign a few months after winning an election then the Government itself was doomed.

I was never in any doubt that winning the 1997 General Election would be very difficult. The day after the 1992 General Election Chris Patten and I sat in the White Room in Number 10 and we agreed that in winning a fourth successive term we had stretched the democratic elastic as far as it would go. Unless Labour collapsed we would have little chance of winning the next election. I was reinforced by that view by the impact of Black Wednesday, I thought it over-whelming likely that we had lost.