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1997 Onwards - Sir John Major’s Interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme

Below is the text of Sir John's Interview on BBC Radio 4's Today Programme on 16 December 2015.


JAMES NAUGHTIE

The Prime Minister reaches an important point in his promised EU renegotiation in Brussels tomorrow when a summit of all the leaders reveals whether he's made headway in the argument for change that he's been making for months in almost every European Union capital.

It's going to be difficult as critics at home, particularly Conservative Euro-sceptics, say that he is already backing away from his pledge to make people coming into Britain from the rest of the EU wait for four years before qualifying for in-work benefits or social housing, and that was something that he put at the heart of his reform plan.

This is the latest chapter in a story in which every Prime Minister has played a part over the last two generations or so, grappling with the tortuous and emotional question of this country's relationship with the rest of Europe. Throughout much of the 1990s it was the issue that defined the character of John Major's Conservative Government and the state of his party, riven by the fundamental disagreements over Europe that had never been healed in the era of Ted Heath and Margaret Thatcher.

Sir John joins us now.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

Good morning James.

JAMES NAUGHTIE

Do you think that David Cameron should decide his attitude to EU membership on the basis of this renegotiation?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

I think it's clearly important that there are changes made in the European Union and that's what he's seeking to do. What does concern me a little is that everybody is regarding Thursday and Friday as though it were high noon and that everything will be decided then. Unless I've very much missed the mark, I don't think it will be.

It's a process and there will be discussions that are aimed at an agreement. That discussion will take place and everyone will leave and state their own positions. Underneath that there will be a movement either towards an agreement or against and we won't really know about that until they actually come to the crunch some time next year.

JAMES NAUGHTIE

That was a very elegant off-drive Sir John but it avoided the question. The reason I asked it is that people around Downing Street are saying, don't doubt it, if the Prime Minister isn't happy with what he gets in this renegotiation effort then he is quite prepared to argue for Britain to leave the EU. I simply want to know whether you believe that this renegotiation should decide David Cameron's view as to whether Britain is in or out?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

I can't put myself inside David Cameron's mind. I can tell you what my view is - my view is that this renegotiation is important but that it shouldn't decide whether or not we remain inside the European Union because of the importance of the issue. I have no means of knowing whether that's the Prime Minister's mind and that's a question you really need to address to him.

JAMES NAUGHTIE

You've said something very interesting there, from your perspective, whatever comes out of this renegotiation, you still believe that it is overwhelmingly in the national interest to be in full stop?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

Let me put it to you this way. You mentioned the troubles I had in the 1990s with my own party and with others. If there is anyone in the United Kingdom who really ought to be anti-European and thoroughly frustrated with them, then perhaps it ought to be me. I am not a starry-eyed European. I did after all say no to the Euro currency in the early 1990s, I said no to the Single Market and in 1996 I said no to joining Schengen when it began. I am sceptical of a great deal of European Union policy. But flirting with leaving, at a moment when the whole world is coming together, seems to me to be very dangerous and against our long-term interests.

We see American, Japan and other countries forming a trans-Pacific partnership. Of course that's trade, but it's also common standards and it's bringing people together. The whole world is coming together, and for the United Kingdom, 67 million out of a world population of 7 billion, to break off and head off into splendid isolation doesn't seem to me to be in our interests now, or perhaps more important in the interests of our children, our grand-children and future generations.

Whatever the frustrations are, and whatever comes out of these negotiations, we are going to be able to continue to try and influence the European Union while we are in it. One point that some people do not seem to realise is that once this issue has been determined by the modern generation of Britons, if they decide that we should stay in, and there will be those who never accept it of course.


[connection problem - interview continued slightly later in the programme]


JAMES NAUGHTIE

We have Sir John Major back on the phone. Looking back 21 years it's as though the technology when you were Prime Minister, and I started with you on the World at One with Maastricht, was a bit better then.

You were talking about splendid isolation, and that was your phrase, for what would happen if we left the EU. You know the argument on the other side, very passionately held by many in your party although not just in your party, who say that this would be independence and it would give the country the right to govern itself in a proper way which is something they believe has been ceded over the years to a supranational body. They think that this independence could work in the interests of people in this country. Why do you believe that it wouldn't?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

Let me point out some of the realities of what would happen if we left the European Union. Let me say firstly, like many other people, I find the European Union often as frustrating as hell as sometimes there is an inability to confront problems which is very maddening. But I think we are better off, we are safer, we are going to be more prosperous in rather than out and flirting with leaving is dangerous.

Let me address the particular points which you make. If we left there must be a higher probability that Scotland would have another referendum and leave the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom would be fractured and that would be very damaging and our international prestige would suffer.

Many of the things we are told we can achieve with a regaining of sovereignty are illusory. People can say that we can save all our net contributions. Not true - we would have to pay at least half, and possibly more, simply for entry to the Single Market.

They say we can easily negotiate entry to the Single Market. That's very disingenuous as if we leave the European Union it won't be a friendly departure, it'll be very acrimonious, negotiations with an irate ex-partner could be very difficult. We may get a very sub-standard deal to enter the Single Market.

They say that we can control our borders and that we'll have no immigration. I don't think that's so, as in or out we can't keep the world at bay. If we were out one question arises. In present circumstances would France would be holding so many immigrants at Calais or would they not? If not, they would be heading here.

We're told our Parliament would be sovereign. That, of course, is total nonsense. In order to trade with the European Union we would have to accept their regulations. We would have no input into those negotiations or be able to change them. The Prime Minister would have to go to Parliament and say 'here are some regulations which the European Union have passed, we must pass them without change or we cannot trade with Europe'.

So much for Parliamentary sovereignty. I could stretch those arguments but I think the point is made.

JAMES NAUGHTIE

Are you surprised that those around David Cameron are saying, that coming from a political and ideological position that's not very different from your own, that he could contemplate coming out given what you think are the simple facts of the case? If he is contemplating a decision to say 'let's leave', it must be that he, as one of your successors, does not accept the case that you have just made?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

You must ask David Cameron that, I can't answer what is in his mind. I have sat in his chair and in the European chair and I know the difficult position which he is in and how he has to negotiate the British national interest and cope with all shades of domestic opinion as well. I have to say James in my experience of being in his chair advice, particularly from someone who has sat in that chair, is not usually very helpful.

So if you're trying to tempt me into giving David Cameron advice, or alternatively judge what is in his mind, then I'm afraid that it will be fruitless.

JAMES NAUGHTIE

You've had experience of back seat driving.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

I've had a great deal of experience of it, yes.

JAMES NAUGHTIE

If we are to believe opinions polls and surveys, and the campaign in a genuine sense hasn't begun yet, it looks like an even split across the country. Do you believe that this is the position now and do you believe that there is a greater chance of a vote to leave than there has been in your political lifetime?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

There is a lot of frustration with the European Union at the moment and much of that frustration is entirely justified and I share the frustrations that many people have.

When people truly engage and when they look at the long-term implications of where Britain would be if it were not in the European Union, and examine what it would mean for our future, our children's future and our grand-children's future then people will move back to realising that in a world that is as inter-connected, in a world that is moving together as we are, that we are better off and safer inside the European Union rather than outside. That is what I believe people will finally conclude, but it is their decision.

David Cameron has decided to ask people in a referendum for their view, and I think because of this long-running and tiresome debate that he's entirely right to do so, and for the public to decide. When the facts are before them of what it means, especially in the long-term, I believe that they would be advised to stay inside the European Union and that is what I believe they will vote to do.

JAMES NAUGHTIE

Sir John Major, thank you very much.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

If I may, one thing before you go. This is your last morning and like millions of other people I have found you and John Humphrys my daily diet for a very long time. If I may grab the airways for a moment, I'd like to say that I'll miss you, and I think a lot of other people will in the morning.

I will do so as I believe, generally, you've asked the right questions, mostly, you've listened to the answers and you've done it in an extraordinarily professional way. So I hope as you leave you are proud of what you've done. Whatever you do now, good luck with it and I hope our paths will cross.

JAMES NAUGHTIE

There is going to be a lot of reporting still going on, some of it on this programme, there will be constitutional matters to be looked at so Sir John, I'm glad to say that our paths will undoubtedly cross before long.

JOHN HUMPHRYS

It's not often allowed on this programme to say that I agree with that politician, but I agree with that, the last bit anyway!