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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 29 April 2016 on the UK’s membership of the EU.


INTRODUCTION BY JOHN HUMPHRYS

We’ve given Sir John the chance, as we did with Michael Gove for the Brexit campaign last week, to deliver his message without interruption.


SIR JOHN MAJOR

As Prime Minister I sat at Europe’s top table, and I know its faults better than most. I said ‘no’ to the Euro and ‘no’ to the Schengen Agreement to open our borders. So I’m no starry-eyed Europhile, but I have no doubt where our future lies.

The EU helped free Spain, Portugal and Greece from fascism. It helped rebuild the Balkans after war. It offered a new future to countries once imprisoned in the Soviet empire.  Across Europe old enemies, who for centuries fought against each other, now live and work beside each other.

It has increased our prosperity, once the sick man of Europe we are now on course to be the biggest economy in Europe. The UK sells five times as much to Europe as to all the other 52 nations of the Commonwealth added together. We face no tariffs and no hidden barriers to our exports.

In the UK a better life depends on jobs for our people, profits for our companies and taxes to support our public services. For that, we need overseas investment. What is more likely to attract that investment, the UK in a European market of 500 million people or outside with a domestic market of 65 million? The answer is obvious.

If we go it alone, we’ll lose free trade agreements with over fifty countries. It would take many years to renegotiate them all and we would never get as good a deal as we now have as part of Europe.

Before us all is a fateful choice. If we leave Europe, both Europe and the UK would be weakened. Our relationship with America would wither. America needs an ally inside the European Union and it could no longer be us. And at home, Scotland may choose to leave the UK. Each day Brexit uses the same emotive mantra, ‘we want our country back’, they tell us ‘we’re held hostage by a corrupt organisation’.

What nonsense that is. To listen to them you’d think we were entrapped in the clutches of an evil empire, not in a democratic partnership with our European neighbours whose sunshine and pavement cafes we enjoy on summer breaks. And far from taking back control, yet another mantra of theirs, we would lose control. The British people don’t need mindless sound bites and faux patriotism. What they do need is a clear explanation, based on fact and not fantasy, of what Brexit would mean for them.

Painting Britain as a victim of Europe is simply ludicrous. We gain more than we give, we win more than we lose. We should remain in Europe to help shape its, and our, future. Walking away has never been in our national character. And to walk away from Europe now is most definitely not in our national interest.


JOHN HUMPHRYS

Good morning to you.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

Good morning John.

JOHN HUMPHRYS

Can I pick you up first on that idea of mindless sound bites and faux patriotism? To many people that might be quite insulting, because for them, and for many people in this country, sovereignty goes to the heart of this debate.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

Let me deal with the mindless sound-bites first. I think you’ve had them every day when you’ve had people on your programme arguing for Brexit. I gave a couple of examples and there are many others. Everyone listening to this programme knows them.

JOHN HUMPHRYS

You’ve had it from both sides?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

No, you haven’t had it from both sides to the same extent, I don’t accept that for a moment.

Day after day you’ve had the Brexit people producing sound-bites that are either offensive, inaccurate, or just plain silly. And they’ve also said a great deal which is just frankly not so. As far as faux patriotism is concerned, it isn’t for them to assume patriotism only for their side of the argument. Everybody in this country loves this country, I certainly do. I find it offensive myself when they apply to themselves the feeling they are the patriotic side because they are arguing for splendid isolation. That is most certainly not the case and I do not believe that it’s patriotic to argue for a case that will make this country weaker and the well-being of this country less certain in the future.

JOHN HUMPHRYS

The point that they’re making is that EU law, in many respects, is sovereign and they do not want that. They want us to get back those powers that we have arrogated to the European Union.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

Let us deal with that point of sovereignty. This county is sovereign. We can vote to repeal the Accession Act of the European Union at any time. That is sovereignty in its purest form. If you want undiluted sovereignty in the modern age, when everybody is inter-connected, then go to North Korea because that’s where you’ll get it. It is certainly true that we share sovereignty, we take some sovereignty from other people and they take some of ours, we haven’t surrendered it because at the end of the day, the House of Commons – our representatives, can say we won’t have this, we will leave the European Union.

In the modern world and in the modern economy that now exists you have to share sovereignty or you find yourself isolated and weaker. Our prime concern must surely be the economic well-being of our country and the political and diplomatic clout that our country has. Both of those, in my judgement, are better within the European Union and working with our partners than in walking away from them.

JOHN HUMPHRYS

A lot of people who say that go to North Korea is a bit of a silly notion.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

I didn’t say that, don’t talk nonsense.

JOHN HUMPHRYS

Why did you bring North Korea into the debate?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

If they want undiluted sovereignty, then that it is where you will find it.

JOHN HUMPHRYS

Let’s deal with the reality, articles 2 and 3 of the European Communities Act entrench EU sovereignty, the European Court of Justice has the final say on many of our laws.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

The European Court is there is interpret the law and it often interprets the law in our favour and it isn’t always interpreted against us. We would be damaged if we didn’t, and let me give you an example. You and I will both remember the terrible events of the BSE crisis in the 1990s. Our beef was banned. When the crisis was over, France continued the ban. The European Court, in our interests, told them to lift it and France wouldn’t. The European Court threatened huge fines on France until they lifted the ban, and they lifted it. If they hadn’t our beef might have been banned for many years. So the European Court often works in our favour.

JOHN HUMPHRYS

The point is that we don’t have the final say. Sir Francis Jacobs, former Advocate General, spelt it out on this programme. European law would always prevail over national law, that is what people don’t like. That’s why they say we need to get our sovereignty back.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

It doesn’t always prevail. It doesn’t prevail over intelligence matters or services, the ECJ has never interfered with that. It doesn’t apply over national security and that’s specifically outside European law. So, it doesn’t apply everywhere.

There is a shared sovereignty, of course, I can see there’s a shared sovereignty and I said so quite distinctly. But we have to weigh that against the economic advantages we have and the fact that that shared sovereignty often works in our favour such as in the example I just gave you.

JOHN HUMPHRYS

The fact is that since records began this country has voted against 72 laws in the Council of Ministers and it has been out-voted every single time.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

We’re on the winning side in over 90% of the votes inside the European Union. If you share sovereignty with other countries because it is in your economic and national advantage to do so, then of course there are going to be times when you don’t win. If you’re in an argument with two people, you don’t always win. Of course not, that’s the world in which we have to live.

JOHN HUMPHRYS

72-0

SIR JOHN MAJOR

It’s not 72-0. There are 72 examples but in 90% of votes the UK is on the winning side, so let’s have some balance.

JOHN HUMPHRYS

The fact is that the European Union that you advocate today is going to be a very different body in five, ten, fifteen years time. It’s moving relentlessly towards federalism. We know that, are you happy with that?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

I’m glad you mentioned that. Firstly, we now have exemption from ever closer union, something that the Prime Minister has achieved that everybody in the leave campaign said was impossible and he wouldn’t get it, and he did get it.

JOHN HUMPHRYS

It’s meaningless.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

Of course it isn’t meaningless. Is the law we passed in 2011 meaningless? If there’s a new Treaty law produced in Europe it has to be approved by a referendum of the British people. That is something that the Prime Minister has produced. There are two areas where we have a specific and exclusive position within the European Union. So they may well integrate further, and in terms of the Euro-zone they may well integrate further and if the Euro-zone recovers economically that might be helpful for us, but we are not going to be part of that. The Prime Minister has determined, and Parliamentary legislation has determined, that we will not.

JOHN HUMPHRYS

The fact is that we’ll be joining an organisation which is becoming increasingly integrated and we will be standing on the outside of that. What, therefore, is the point in joining that institution?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

I will tell you some of the points. 44% of our exports go to that area and we have very large economic advantages because it goes there. That creates a great deal of well-being in this country and it supports a great deal of jobs in this country. The fact that we are the access point to a market of 500 million people produces a great deal of investment in this country that would not happen. The fact that we are actually in Europe gives us economic and diplomatic clout that we wouldn’t otherwise have.

We wouldn’t have been able, alone, to impose sanctions on Russia or sanctions on Iran, with the part we played in the recent nuclear agreement. If I may give you another example from my own years, you may remember that at the end of the first Gulf War, Saddam Hussein was murdering Kurds in Northern Iraq. We conceived in Downing Street the idea of safe havens for the Kurds. I went to Europe and I achieved the agreement of Mitterrand, Kohl and other European leaders. With that we obtained the agreement of the Commonwealth and that persuaded America to join in, which they had previously been reluctant to do, and the lives of tens of thousands of Kurds were saved. That was diplomatic power and pressure that we would not have had if we not been members of the European Union.

These matters are important to us.

JOHN HUMPHRYS

I don’t know whether you’ve seen the European Parliament’s visitors centre. There is a projection on the wall which is a quote from Lord Lothian, Philip Kerr as he was, from way back admittedly in 1939.

“National sovereignty is the root cause of the most crying evils of our times and the steady march of humanity back to tragic disaster and barbarism. The only final remedy for this evil”, I’m quoting, “is the federal union of the peoples”. That is what the European Union is all about and a lot of people are saying we don’t want to be a part of that.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

Firstly, it’s interesting what he has to say about undiluted national sovereignty, but we are not part of the federal element within the Eurozone. We have got a specific exclusion from it, as I have mentioned several times this morning, but despite those exclusions we still have all of the economic advantages, important for this generation and the next generation and their economic well-being. That’s not something that you can just brush aside.

If you consider what some of the members of the Leave Campaign, such as Professor Minford, giving evidence to the House of Commons. A very distinguished economics professor, he wants us to leave because of the sovereignty point that you raise and I know that some people feel very strongly about that. But he also conceded that if we left manufacturing would be eliminated and 2.5 million jobs and he thought on that basis we could run down the car industry. Those are the choices that people are going to have to make in some form or another.

I’ll tell you what my choice is, my choice is the well-being of this generation and the next. To share sovereignty given that we have all sorts of protections, now some of them legislative, others agreed with the European Union, that prevent us being dragged into the melee of a federal Europe.

JOHN HUMPHRYS

A quick thought about the future of David Cameron. As you know, Ken Clarke has said that the Prime Minister wouldn’t last thirty seconds if he lost the referendum. Do you agree with Ken Clarke?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

The Prime Minister has made his position very clear. You’re not going to drag me into that.

JOHN HUMPHRYS

I thought I wouldn’t but it’s worth a try. The serious point here is that it’s going to be terribly difficult, the most important decision of our generation and indeed many would say the last fifty years, and if this happens here we are turning against the Prime Minister. If we reject what he wants, it would be incredibly difficult for him to run the country?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

John, you’ve very skilled, but you’re not getting me down the ‘what if’ route. The Prime Minister has made his position clear, I shall work and he will work to win this referendum. The most important thing before us is the determination of this referendum because it is not something that is going to be repeated. If we leave, we leave. We can’t leave, decide its uncomfortable, and then go back. If we leave we are out of Europe.

The most important decision for a very long time is to make sure that we make the right decision, not just for you and I John, it’s the next generation that would really be affected.

JOHN HUMPHRYS

Sir John Major, thank you very much.