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Last Updated: Sunday, 23 October 2005, 11:20 GMT 12:20 UK
Right wing downfall?
On Sunday 23 October 2005 Andrew Marr interviewed Sir John Major

Please note "BBC Sunday AM" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

Sir John Major
Sir John Major

ANDREW MARR: It's been said that the leadership election has made the Conservative Party interesting again.

Well, the debate about its future has certainly moved out of Westminster and during the next six weeks it will be taken around the country as the two candidates, the two Daves, address a series of Hustings.

Now someone with very clear views on the challenges facing whichever David eventually wins the crown is of course of the former Prime Minister John Major. Welcome to the show this morning.

JOHN MAJOR: Good morning Andrew, it's a pleasure to be here.

ANDREW MARR: Now, what you're not going to do I guess is say I'm for Cameron or I'm for Davis. Am I right about that?

JOHN MAJOR: You're absolutely right about that and for a very good reason. I've watched the Conservative Party for 15 years factionalise. We had five good candidates, we've now got two. I'm absolutely clear in my mind who I shall vote for but that's a matter for me and whoever wins I will support.

ANDREW MARR: Tell me then what you think about the direction of the party. Did you have any regrets looking back, from the time that you were leader, because, you know, things were tough then and then they got worse?

JOHN MAJOR: I think if you look back of course you have regrets. I mean there were very special circumstances in the '90s. When I became Prime Minister we had already been in government for 11 years. We were heading deep into a recession. People forget the day I became Prime Minister we had interest rates at 14%.


JOHN MAJOR: We were heading into a recession, unemployment was rising. So it was a very uncomfortable period. And it was a period where since we had been there so long we were very unfashionable almost from the start, from the moment we won the '92 election we were pretty unfashionable.

The right wing press thought we weren't right wing enough. The left wing press thought we were too right wing. And trying to run a centrist, moderate Conservative government had very little friends on either side of the political divide. Now I think that has changed.

I think the Conservative party has learned you cannot win an election from the right, just as the Labour party had to learn you can't win from the left. And so I think they're heading now for what I would call centrist the slogan term is one nation politics.


JOHN MAJOR: But what it actually means is politics that addresses the everyday concerns of the people watching this programme, and those who are not. I think that's what's now happening.

ANDREW MARR: It's got to be a moderate mainstream party and you think the party itself has got that message?

JOHN MAJOR: I'm absolutely certain of it. I mean I spent a lot of time before the last election quietly going round speaking for individual candidates.

And there are some very attractive young candidates who were last time round. I think it's the best intake we've had for a long time. And I got a good feel from the Tory grass roots as to what they were looking for. And they're fed-up with losing.

We've been down an ideological road, perhaps for too long, and perhaps too deeply. We do not shed our convictions. Convictions remain. But I think you have to look at convictions in terms of what is happening in society, how is society changing?

The purpose of a government is to improve the lot of people and to hand on something better for the next generation. Now I think that message has absolutely got through now.

ANDREW MARR: Could you have taken on that struggle harder, in a more hard-edged way when you were leader?

JOHN MAJOR: Yes, I could. I could. And in many ways I wish I had. I mean I should have taken on those people who were so violently Eurosceptic and violently right-wing. I should have taken them on more head-on. And I regret that I didn't. the reason I didn't was that I was afraid from the moment that I became Prime Minister I was standing on a widening hole in the ground.

And I was concerned the Conservative party would split. So I probably gave too much emphasis at the time to making sure the party didn't split and that it stayed together. And it did. But in retrospect, yes, I think I probably could have done more.

ANDREW MARR: If you had confronted...

JOHN MAJOR: You look surprised!

ANDREW MARR: I am surprised at that, yes. I mean, because you rarely get people suggesting that it might have been better to split their own party, which is what you are suggesting. But you're suggesting that...

JOHN MAJOR: No I'm not suggesting...

ANDREW MARR: It would have been a splinter - well you would have lost some people...

JOHN MAJOR: I'd have lost some people, yes. But I think if I had pushed some people more to the side I think that would have been better. I also think it would have been better if we'd continued to seek to do that more rapidly after 1997. We had a very bad defeat in 1945, a comparable defeat, but we were back in office within six years.

Now I think we have learned the lessons that went wrong. I think the infection of too much ideology, and I'm not suggesting that we shouldn't have convictions, we must have. But I think the infection of too much ideology has drained away now. And I think the Conservative party is ready now to fight very hard to get back into government.

ANDREW MARR: Michael Portillo says that there's still what he calls repellent people in the Conservative party, and David Cameron or David Davis, whoever takes over, is going to have to confront them, deal with them?

JOHN MAJOR: Well there's a tiny minority. I think there is a tiny minority of people, whether they're repellent is - that's not an expression I would use - but they had views that I don't personally remotely find acceptable.

ANDREW MARR: We won't say the word bastards at this point!

JOHN MAJOR: No, no, no, it's a term of affection. But, yes, there are a handful of them. But they are a handful and they're increasingly being isolated in the Conservative Party. And I may say there are some pretty unacceptable people in the Labour Party as well. So it's not unique to us.

ANDREW MARR: Sure, sure.

JOHN MAJOR: It's not a problem that we uniquely face, but they're becoming a minority. If you look, for example, at this recent Conservative leadership election which I think has provided a very attractive focus on the Conservative party, we had five credible leaders. We're now down to two.

If the Labour Party had a leadership contest there's talking of a coronation, with one possible leader who's a bit shop-soiled, and who's policies may soon mean a lot of shops start to close. So I think you begin to see the change in the terms of the political trade.

ANDREW MARR: You think this is a sort of change in the weather moment politically?

JOHN MAJOR: It feels like it. I can't be certain but it feels like it.

ANDREW MARR: When you were leader, of course Europe was the great thing. It was the cause, the immediate cause of the argument. Do you think that's now gone away?

JOHN MAJOR: I think it's lost its salience. Of course it hasn't gone away it's still a very important issue. But I think if you look back at Europe, what has actually saved this country is the fact that in 1992 I negotiated an opt-out from the single currency.

And in 1995 I offered the country a referendum on the single currency that the Labour Party was forced to match. Now had I not taken those two actions I think the Labour Party would have taken us into the Euro in the late 1990s and we would have had a very difficult scenario.

So I think that was right and I think the many people who scoffed and said he's sitting on the fence, I remember the Prime Minister once saying weak, weak, weak, because I wouldn't commit myself to going into the Euro. Well, I was right not to.

ANDREW MARR: So he's done well...

JOHN MAJOR: And with a majority.

ANDREW MARR: So he's done well out of that weakness and you would also say presumably that they've done very well out of your economic legacy.

JOHN MAJOR: I would certainly say that. The economic legacy that Gordon Brown had in 1997 was the best that any incoming Chancellor's had, probably at any time this century. And the European problems, many of them were drained away for the present government by the policies that were enacted by the previous government, and for which they faced a huge amount of criticism. So yes, I would say that.

ANDREW MARR: Given all of that, were you sad to see Ken Clarke removed from the race so early?

JOHN MAJOR: Yes, I was. Ken's a very old friend. He'd have made a very fine leader of the Conservative Party, a very fine Prime Minister. But I live in hope that when we have selected one of the two Davids that we'll have a Shadow Cabinet that includes Ken Clarke, Malcolm Rifkind, William Hague, David Davis, Liam Fox, people like David Willetts, Alan Duncan.

ANDREW MARR: Leader of the Lords, Lord Major?

ANDREW MARR: (laughs) Oh no no, I think not. And I think if you matched the top, the likely top ten in the Shadow Cabinet once we have selected a leader they are a more impressive group intellectually and politically than the present government.

And that's what I mean by this may be a moment when the terms of political trade begin to change. And what takes a while to work through but it's on its way now.

ANDREW MARR: What's the great issue that the Conservatives should be picking up domestically do you think?

JOHN MAJOR: Well there isn't one single issue. I think there's a range of things that we should do. And I think it's partly, it's primarily of course policy. But partly style. I think there should be some changes in style.

I think when people look at this Punch and Judy show that takes place between the two main parties, it's very entertaining once or twice, but then it gets very tedious and very boring. I think we should change that. I think also there should be no more of this spin and sound-bite. I think it has soiled politics. I think you need a Civil Service Act to restore the independence of the Civil Service.

And I think also in terms of policy we need to start looking, not at tomorrow's headlines, but at the deeper issues we have to solve over the next 20 years and there are many of them - pensions, in a very great problem now, not least because of the taxes out of pensions the present Chancellor has taken. Education, where I think, I listened to Ruth Kelly earlier with interest.

And I think every government for the last 30 years has got education policy wrong. I think there are things that do need to change.

ANDREW MARR: What should be done now then?

JOHN MAJOR: I'll come back to that. I think towards longer-term policies on the environment. Those people who are often scoffed at as people with beards and green wellies 20 years ago are turning out to be largely right.

Transport policy. All of those things need a very long term examination so that we can see where we're going, not just between now and the next election. Not just some snippy little sound-bite, but a really long-term policy.

And in people like Oliver Letwin and David Willets, we have people who should be sent into the back room and think about the next 20 years.

ANDREW MARR: These things are all going to be difficult and controversial. I mean you can't have environment policy.

JOHN MAJOR: That's fine, politics is difficult and controversial.

ANDREW MARR: Exactly, which doesn't tackle what Margaret Thatcher used to call the great car economy and the congestion and the pollution.

JOHN MAJOR: It's wider than that, it's a good deal wider than that. Of course there are problems with CO2 emissions for example, and the damage that's undoubtedly doing to the environment generally. But also you do need to look, as you say, at cars. You do need to look at the elements of public transport.

You do need to look at pricing policy. You do need to look at how you get investment into the private sector of transport which of course was a reason for privatising British Rail some years ago. A whole range of things, none of which I agree with you, are easy.

Not all of which will be popular. But I think I'll have a little bet with you about one thing. I think the first politician who raises his voice above the clamour of everyday disputes and says in a clear-cut way "these are the problems we have to face in the next 30 years" and this is how I think we should move towards meeting those problems.

I think there is a huge audience of people who've switched off politics, waiting to hear that message, who will rally to the politician and the party that begins to produce that message.

ANDREW MARR: You live, if I may say so, in the slightly rarified world of former global leaders and business leaders around the world. You don't sound to me like somebody who has lost his appetite for domestic politics entirely?

JOHN MAJOR: I've lost my appetite for being part of domestic politics. I think that is probably true. Have I lost my interest in it? No. I try and look back honestly at the things we got right and the things we got wrong. Somebody once said experience is the name people give to their mistakes.

And I think we can learn from what we did right and what we did wrong. And I do actually care about what happens to the country and I do actually care about what happens to the Conservative Party, it did go too right wing for my taste, I didn't like it, I wasn't comfortable with it. I'm getting much more comfortable by the day.

And from what I hear going round the constituencies that is true of many, many, many other people. And I think it's a very attractive direction in which we're now heading.

ANDREW MARR: So the old right wing Tories that you had so many terrible, terrible fights with, are going off the stage, aren't they?

JOHN MAJOR: I think they are diminishing in importance. They're always there. The Conservative party is like a bird, it has a right wing, it has a left wing. But it keeps its brain in the centre.

ANDREW MARR: But the right wing, in your view, it was so big that it was falling over.

JOHN MAJOR: I think the right wing had too much power, too much authority. And it had enormous support from the media at the time. People misread the 90s as though they were in the 80s.

In the 1980s you had an unelectable Labour government and a country that had been on its knees in 1979. You could safely move to the right and carry the public with you. In the 1990s you couldn't do that.

The Labour party were more electable and the problems that had brought the country to its knees had largely been solved and yet there were still people who wished to move to the right.

ANDREW MARR: In the late 2000s we will see. John Major thank you very much indeed for joining us.


NB: this transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy

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