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Breakfast with Frost
John Major, former prime minister
John Major, former prime minister

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

DAVID FROST: And new John Major is with us, who was prime minister, of course, took Britain into war against Saddam the first time back in 1991, and hasn't spoken publicly about the current crisis. John welcome.

JOHN MAJOR: Good morning David.

DAVID FROST: And just as a postscript there, do you think war is avoidable? I mean or unlikely to be avoidable?

JOHN MAJOR: I think it's just avoidable. I mean one can see a scenario in which Saddam Hussein leave Iraq and seeks sanctuary elsewhere. It's just conceivable he might be overthrown. It's just conceivable he might comply. All of those three things are possible - I think they're unlikely.

DAVID FROST: I think they're unlikely too, yes. And you basically support, not necessarily the reaction of this government, but Britain's policy.

JOHN MAJOR: I think the broad thrust of policy is right. What concerns me a little is I don't think people have fully fastened on the many differences between this war and the Gulf War of a decade or so ago. This one, in many ways, is much more complex and has many more potential hazards.

DAVID FROST: More complex diplomatically or ... military ...

JOHN MAJOR: Well certainly more complex diplomatically, well certainly so because in 1990 there was an Arab, an Arab alliance supporting the war, there was world-wide support for it. This time patently that isn't so. So diplomatically, self-evidently, it's much more, much more difficult. But even more important than that, it's more difficult in another fashion. The mission is different. In 1990 the mission was to evict Saddam Hussein and the Iraqis from their invasion of Kuwait. It was very clear cut. This time it's much more than that. It is to go into Iraq, disarm him and almost certainly effect regime change within Iraq. And that means, from Saddam Hussein's perspective, it's a much more dangerous and difficult problem. He was told, in unmistakeable terms in 1990, that there would be a very heavy response if he used chemical or biological weapons.

DAVID FROST: By Jim Baker, yes.

JOHN MAJOR: This time - yes it was Jim Baker - this time, of course, he's threatened, he's at bay, he knows at the end of this war he is likely to be dead or fled or on trial. Now that may open options that weren't open for him last time. He may exercise those options. And one of the things we have to prepare for, as a possibility - I don't predict it will happen, but it is a possibility - that he may on this occasion use all his arsenal and he has many targets he could use them on.

DAVID FROST: What targets would he choose? Would it be just approaching troops or beyond that?

JOHN MAJOR: No, no I don't think it will just be approaching troops. He could, conceivably, use chemical weapons on the approaching troops - I think that's the least likely of the options, as it happens. I think it's quite likely that he'll try and create Armageddon. You may recall when the Iraqis retreated from Kuwait they set on fire, I think, 1100 oil wells, they might well, to create economic chaos, set alight the oil wells in Iraq, and they may do that justifying it saying well America's after oil - not true, but that's what he would say. They may also use weapons to set alight the oil fields in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait or they could, of course, use their weapons and their warheads to strike either at Saudi Arabia or at Israel, possibly with chemical weapons. And the purpose of that, of course, would be, particularly with Israel, to try and draw Israel into the war in the hope that it will create a wider Arab coalition, muddy the water and create the maximum amount of chaos. Now none of these things are certain, but all of these things are possible and all of them must on this occasion be in the minds of the planners as they anticipate what might happen when the conflict starts.

DAVID FROST: No, we would say that it was extremely likely, obviously, that we would win. What happens then? Because that hasn't been much talked about really - whenever you ask people about it they say well we're thinking about it.

JOHN MAJOR: Yes. Well I think there's an earlier question David - if I may, I'll come to winning in a moment - but I think the first question to ask is what happens when the conflict begins? Of course, almost undoubtedly there will be a bombing campaign and then there will be a ground campaign, and I think that is fairly generally accepted. But what happens inside Iraq during that period? If you look at the situation in Iraq, the Sunnis, Saddam has ruled Iraq in a despotic way for a very long time. Literally, hundreds of thousands of Shiites have been murdered by the Saddam Hussein regime over the last two decades. At the end of the Gulf War there was an uprising, a very brutal uprising in which anybody remotely connected with Saddam was murdered - often in a very horrible fashion. The possibility of an uprising coinciding with the landing of troops, coinciding with troops getting near to Baghdad must be quite substantial. The holy cities, Najaf, Karbala, Basra, have very heavy Shiite populations - they might well rise. There's a very heavy Shiite population in Baghdad, it could happen there as well. And one could take the short term view, well this shows how bad Saddam Hussein is, this shows that the invasion is justified, this is helpful to the allies heading towards Baghdad. In the short term that is true. But of course one would have to treat with these people afterwards and the difficulty is chaos after the war and that the American troops, the British troops, the Australian troops who go into Baghdad as liberators may find themselves kept there as peacekeepers, perhaps for quite a long time.

DAVID FROST: How long a time and do you - I mean is there a possibility - Colin Powell said forget about a Jeffersonian democracy taking over immediately in Iraq - but maybe the Americans, Tommy Franks or whoever will have to administer it for two years before you can get to an indigenous regime. I mean how do you see the political thing playing out?

JOHN MAJOR: Well I think it's going to be very complex. People are assuming that it may be easy, but it won't - it will not be easy. For a start, I mentioned the Shiites but you have to consider the Kurds as well. The Kurds have sought an independent home land in northern Iraq for a long time - I don't actually think they're going to get it on this occasion but it will add to the difficulties of administration after the war. And there are several options - I've read about the Tommy Franks option, I don't think that's especially attractive. I think a more likely option would be some form of UN-related government, perhaps with some form of coalition, if it can be cobbled together, for a period after the war. But I'm not entirely clear how you get the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds to work together in any form of stable coalition. I think it is going to be next to impossible to do that. And at some stage you're going to have to move from some UN regulated interim period, or a Tommy Franks interim, whatever it turns out to be - I would hope UN - but you're going to have to move that to some form of majority government. And what you're going to get, when you get a majority government inside Iraq, you are going to get a Shiite government. You're bound to get that because over 60 per cent of the population are Shiites. Firstly, that won't be remotely acceptable to the Kurds. It won't be remotely acceptable to the Sunnis and it will be very unstable. And secondly, we will actually then have in place a Shiite government in Iraq, side by side with a Shiite government in Iran. And that of course has potential - it depends on what nature of Shiites of course are in control - but that has the potential for very great difficulties in the future. Not least down the Gulf where there are lots of Shiites in Bahrain, lots of Shiites in the eastern regions of Saudi Arabia. So the problems of winning the war are clear. The problems of winning the peace, once the war is over, once Saddam and the whole hideous apparatus of his government have gone, the problems of winning the peace are going to be much more complex and probably take much longer than most people at the moment I think are yet imagining.

DAVID FROST: How long do we have to therefore reckon that we may need to have our boys in the new Iraq?

JOHN MAJOR: I don't think - I honestly don't think one can make a judgement about that. It could be quite a considerable period and presumably other people in the UN would, would join in, presumably it will be on a rota basis, but we've had occasions like this before where troops have been stationed, wherever the hotspot happened to be, for quite a long time. I don't know how long it will be. But one other thing is going to be crucial, and may lessen the time they're there - I think we have to consider what it is going to be like in Iraq when the war is over. The communication structure will be destroyed, the infrastructure will be destroyed, they will be short of food, they will be short of water, they will be short of medicine - they will be short of everything. And at that stage there is certainly going to be the need for a massive humanitarian effort and that will be necessary, and in my judgement merited, on its own humanitarian terms, but it is also going to be very important politically. If much of the Arab world didn't wish to see this war take place, and then it takes place - as I think it will - and then at the end of it, the Americans, the British, the Australians and others do not deal with the consequences of that war within Iraq, then I think the diplomatic difficulties that will follow it will be greatly magnified. So even now, I would imagine, and I would hope, that the Americans and the British and the others are turning their minds as to how they deal with the internal problems in Iraq once the war is over and some form of interim government has been installed.

DAVID FROST: And in terms of the hearts and minds, in addition to the humanitarian efforts which as you say will be necessary for humanitarian reasons as well as hearts and minds, is there anything else we can do to try and win back the hearts and minds of that part of the world? I suppose some would say if we could make progress on the Palestinian state.

JOHN MAJOR: Of course. The poison in the well in the Middle East, for a very long time, has been the lack of progress in Palestine. I think a crucial part of ensuring that the relationship between the Muslim world and the non-Muslim world begins to improve after this war is a really determined effort at a peace process in Palestine - because apart from anything else without a peace process there's a vacuum, and we have seen what happens in that vacuum. There is no hope and you get unwise young men, foolishly advised, walking into Israel as living bombs, murdering people. You then get the retaliation. The bitterness grows. The hatred grows. The division grows. And not only do we need a peace process - and my goodness, we need it desperately and urgently - not only do we need a credible peace process, but if you've ever been to Gaza you will understand what I am about to say, I went there in 1996, I think the first head of government to go there. Gaza is awful. Gaza is a place without hope. They have nothing there. And in addition to a peace process in the Middle East, we will need economic assistance for Gaza. If you give people in Gaza hope, rather than leaving them in a hopeless position, then you have a better opportunity of preventing them being influenced by the evil men who pour nonsense into the ears of these young men and women and send them into Israel as human bombs. So I think statesmanship would approach it that way. Not just a peace process but an economic package to ensure there is hope where at present none exists.

DAVID FROST: Thank you very much for that. It's very good to have you with us, John, and of course you have kept a low profile for the last six months since the Edwina Currie bombshell. That must have been the worst shock of your career?

JOHN MAJOR: Oh David, this was something that happened 15 years ago. Fifteen years ago! I'm not going to comment on it now and I don't expect to comment on it in the future.

DAVID FROST: Do you sometimes wish that you hadn't gone into a profession where people's private lives are automatically public property?

JOHN MAJOR: I never wish that I didn't, that I hadn't gone into politics. I have enjoyed almost all of my political life. I'm glad I did it. I wish more young people watching this programme, in the universities, in the schools, would actually contemplate a political career. One of the worries I think we have in our political system at the moment is that it is narrowing. For a range of reasons, fewer and fewer people are actually finding a political career attractive, and I think that is damaging. I'd very much like to see it widened. And these days, it doesn't matter where you come from, it doesn't matter whether you come from the backstreets of Brixton or whether you come from the high roads of Epsom, you have an opportunity to get into politics with any of the parties, that appeal to you philosophically, and make your mark in politics. And I would hope young people would do that.

DAVID FROST: And in terms of the future, the events of the last six months, or the events of six months ago haven't changed your plans - I mean people wondered if you were stepping out of public life, except for, obviously you're no longer an MP, but basically your plans now are to continue from this point on full steam ahead with public statements where likelihood and all of that.


DAVID FROST: No change because of - because of events of six months ago.

JOHN MAJOR: I'm out of parliament. I have been out of parliament for some time. I don't intend to be a regular contributor to each and every aspect of political life. Where there is something about which I think I might be able to contribute, and these will be occasions, matters of some importance, not irrelevant matters, then very probably I will comment. But I am now a private citizen, I chose to leave the House of Commons, I chose not to go into the House of Lords, and so I have become, once again, a private citizen. That doesn't mean I'm not a Conservative - I am. I started as a grassroots Conservative, I am now, I suppose, a grassroots Conservative again. And I care about what happens in our country and where it is appropriate I will talk about it. But I'm not going to get involved in the messy trivia of politics. On issues of importance, where I think I may have something worthwhile to say, then I will certainly say it.

DAVID FROST: And the people who complain about where does that leave the whole thing, Back to Basics and all of that sort of thing. You, in fact, always made the point very clearly that that didn't involve personal morality everywhere, but people, people did interpret it that way, didn't they? But not as you, not as you would have wished?

JOHN MAJOR: Well I think anyone who comments on that ought to go back and look what I said, which is sharply different from what people subsequently said it was about. But that's a long time ago, we're now on the - almost certainly sadly - on the eve of a war; we have a great deal to do when the war is over, there is a government that I think is failing in many respects - right the way through the pledges they made I think they have let people down. I think they've been very slippery. I think once the war is over it will be quite legitimate to turn and discuss the performance of the government.

DAVID FROST: And at this particular point, this week of course it's been huge headlines and Iain Duncan Smith saying today, to those mad and all of that, and bringing in Barry Legg as the head of the party there, and in that situation, I mean what would be your advice this morning, as an incredibly wise though still young man?

JOHN MAJOR: By an elder. By an elder.

DAVID FROST: What would be your advice to Iain Duncan Smith?

JOHN MAJOR: Well I'm incredibly wise enough not to get involved David. I'm wise enough to know that everybody who begins to talk and add fuel to this particular bonfire does no good to the Conservative Party. Now I said a moment ago I'm back as a grassroots Conservative. I joined it on my 16th birthday, I care about the Conservative Party, I always will care about the Conservative Party but at this moment I think people are absolutely losing patience with the squabbles there are. I think, I wish to concentrate on bigger events like Iraq and I'm certainly not going to add to the bonfire that's been lit over the last week.

DAVID FROST: But you would be allowed, you would be permissioned to have a wry smile, bearing in mind your own experiences with him when Iain Duncan Smith pleads for loyalty and unity. You're allowed a wry smile.

JOHN MAJOR: I'm allowed a wry smile, you may say that David, I couldn't possibly comment. What I am -

DAVID FROST: He smiled.

JOHN MAJOR: What I am concerned about is that people focus on the big issue at the moment - and there's no doubt that the problems in the Conservative Party or the manifold failings of the present government both sink beside the problems that are immediately ahead, where you have British troops in the Middle East on the eve of a probable war.

DAVID FROST: No of course, one is - one is world-wide and one is - but the point which you made in one of our previous interviews, you said the party risks permanent opposition unless it finds a way to coalesce as broad church, to embrace those who it had not in recent years reached out to. And that process, which you talked about a year or so ago, has not effectively started yet.

JOHN MAJOR: Well you're very tempting David, and you're tempting me outrageously but I'm not going to be drawn on the Conservative Party - not at this particular moment, nor indeed am I going to be drawn upon the government at this particular moment. Later, perhaps.

DAVID FROST: But at the moment -

JOHN MAJOR: But not now.

DAVID FROST: But at the moment you think we should be concentrating on Iraq.

JOHN MAJOR: I have not a shred of doubt about it. I think we actually owe it to the troops who are out there. I just wonder what the troops who are out there think when they see political controversy in the government, in the opposition, rather than a predominant concern with what they are there and have been asked to do.

DAVID FROST: What are the priorities, because you've been through this, but in your case there was public support, but in this particular situation what is it like to lead a country into war when a majority of the country itself seems to be against it? Is that more difficult for the soldiers or for the leaders?

JOHN MAJOR: I can't speak for the soldiers. I think the soldiers are hugely professional in the British Army and I think they will do their job in whatever circumstances arise. But I do think it is better if there is a, if there is support. Clearly I think it is better. In the Gulf War there was general support. But I can tell you this, if you happen to be prime minister when there is a war, it is not, it's a very lonely business sending people off to war. However confident and certain in public people leading a country into war may be, I can assure you in private they have many occasions when they run again and again through the arguments, questioning whether they're right, questioning the validity of what they're doing, wondering how it is going to turn out. Each time they may decide that it is right - I'm sure Tony Blair does - but the belief that he and George Bush and others are not sitting there carefully thinking, worrying, being concerned about that isn't so. I assure you, they are.

DAVID FROST: Thank you very much indeed John.

JOHN MAJOR: Thank you.

DAVID FROST: Thank you for being with us.


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