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Last Updated: Sunday, 23 March, 2003, 14:24 GMT
War with Iraq
Former Prime Minister, John Major with Sir David Frost
Former Prime Minister, John Major with Sir David Frost

Breakfast With Frost Interview with John Major Former Prime Minister, 23 March 2003.

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


In a few minutes we'll be going live to central command headquarters in Qatar to talk to the man leading Britain's forces in the Gulf - Air Marshall Brian Burridge.

But first, the last time Britain was fighting a Gulf war, that was when John Major was Prime Minister. Saddam Hussein's armies were beaten by the coalition forces but the Iraqi leader was left in place, as we well know. And when we spoke to Mr. Major a month ago he feared that if diplomacy broke down and war started it was feasible, feasible, dangerous, that in his own words Armageddon might follow.

Well, John Major is currently in Singapore and I spoke to him about an hour ago. And that was about the time when we got the first news about the RAF plane that we've been talking about, possibly downed by US missile. And actually that news came through just at the end of our interview.

I started by asking him about the pressure of giving the order to fight - the awesome responsibility of all leaders in ordering their troops to war.

JOHN MAJOR: I can put myself perhaps better than most in Tony Blair's mind. I can understand exactly what's going through it.

Sending young troops abroad to fight in a conflict isn't an easy proposition, it isn't something you do lightly, your mind returns again and again to the justification for it. I think you're very well aware that as Prime Minister, for something that you care about, you're putting other people at risk, in danger, a danger from which they may not return.

That's always with you and so, I think, is the fact that every young soldier out there, every young serviceman out there, they have a family at home - a mother, a father, brothers, sisters, friends, who are snatching at every conceivable scrap of news to find out what's happening until they're safely home again.

DAVID FROST: And then when the first bad news comes, in this case it was the crashed helicopter. All that comes back again of course.

JOHN MAJOR: Well, we had some tragic deaths in 1991 from friendly fire and any fatality is heartbreaking for the families concerned. When it comes from an accident like that I suspect there may even be an added dimension. It's truly awful for them.

DAVID FROST: In general I suppose there's been less bad news and less of that sort of news than we might have expected so far, at least in terms of, even in terms of Iraqis where only a whole night's bombing apparently, only three lives were lost. I mean in that sense I suppose the loss of life so far has been not as bad as it might have been.

JOHN MAJOR: No, I think that's exactly right on both sides. War is a hazard and one can never be exactly certain what will happen, the unexpected may reasonably be expected. But what is so astonishing in this particular conflict, the increasing precision of the weapons that have been used to hit military targets, as opposed to even ten years ago, is quite astonishing.

And so you're seeing two things at exactly the same moment, very severe attacks indeed on military targets at exactly the same time that civilians are being avoided more perhaps than we may have hoped and Iraqi soldiers are being encouraged to surrender and not kill, when perhaps they might have been.

And I think everyone is trying as hard as one possibly can in the midst of this sort of conflict to cut down on the number of fatalities that there may be. I think that's wise policy and thus far it seems to have been pretty successful.

DAVID FROST: In our interview a few weeks ago you said that American, Australian, British troops, might be there in Iraq, particularly in Baghdad, for a very long time. Has that changed at all in your mind?

JOHN MAJOR: I don't think it's changed at all. At the end of this conflict the whole of the hideous apparatus of Saddam Hussein's government and the Republican Guard will have gone, there'll be no effective government, but there may be a great deal of internal chaos and certainly a great deal, a tremendous humanitarian effort will be needed.

So I think there are going to be a lot of troops there in peacekeeping duties, for perhaps a very long time. And it's likely to cost also, this is a secondary matter of course, but it's likely to cost a huge amount of money.

The Congressional budget office estimates something like a quarter of a million dollars per peacekeeper. So we're talking 15, 20 maybe 25 billion dollars a year for peacekeeping alone.

That is quite apart from any restoration rebuilding, and quite apart from humanitarian aid. So it's going to be a very big exercise indeed I think.

DAVID FROST: You pointed to the danger of Armageddon as well, in our conversation. Do you think that might now be avoided?

JOHN MAJOR: Oh I very much hope so. I mean thus far the Iraqis haven't, thus far, been so foolish as to use chemical weapons and I think the speed with which many of the oilfields have been secured by British and American troops is absolutely remarkable and splendid.

We've had a few oil wells set on fire, others mined, but the mines removed before they were actually ignited. And that of course has held back the ecological difficulties that there might have been substantially.

Too early to celebrate, but thus far I think that's a very welcome piece of news.

DAVID FROST: And how far has all of this dispute, particularly with France and Germany, how far has that gone to kill off the idea of a common European foreign and defence policy?

JOHN MAJOR: Well I think it's a big setback. I mean, personally I've never been wildly in favour of it, as you know. So I'm hardly heartbroken about that. But I think certainly it's put it back.

The sheer difference in political determination and political view of what needs to be done illustrates the difficulties of such a force. I also always thought that it would be damaging to NATO, and I think at the moment when NATO's rediscovering the role we can do without a European defence force, so personally I think it has harmed the concept.

I don't myself find myself very concerned about that. But there are going to be many other differences to be solved, with some of our traditional partners, with France, with Germany, also with Russia and China. There's going to be a lot of work for the Foreign Secretary and others afterwards, to repair some of the relationships that have been fractured.

DAVID FROST: And how did you find over the time of the first Gulf War and what you perceive of this one, the relationship with our allies the United States. Obviously we're very much a junior partner. Did that always work smoothly for you?

JOHN MAJOR: I had no difficulty with it at all. I mean it is an extraordinary relationship. In terms of sheer military power, it is perfectly true that the United Kingdom is the junior partner. In terms of diplomatic clout of course, the United Kingdom is extremely important and you've seen that with the efforts the present government have made over the last few months.

The relationship at the top between the President and the Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary and the Secretary of State and Foreign Secretary is very close. They will be in daily contact and unless I miss my mark, they will find that almost invariably, quite invariably but almost invariably, they will have a common view and a common perception of the problems and the relationship at military level is absolutely extraordinary.

There is a complete openness to share information, that when I first saw it in 1990 it frankly astonished me. It astonished me the scale, the speed and the clarity with which both sides would open up one to the other, information that they would not willingly have shared with anyone else. And I've no reason to believe it's different on this occasion.

DAVID FROST: John, as we've talking there are reports coming in here that an RAF plane is missing and that it could well have been shot down by a US missile and you mentioned friendly fire earlier, this is a terrifying example of what can happen.

JOHN MAJOR: Well I hadn't heard that. I'd heard just before we began to speak that a plane was missing. I hadn't heard what the likely cause of it being missing was. I think that's very tragic if it's the case. I'm desperately sorry if that has happened. These things have happened in war before.

When people refer to the fog of war in many ways they speak literally and this may be another tragic illustration of that. I think the loss of anyone in a military conflict is invariably desperately sad anyway, but I think there is an added dimension when it happens in these particular circumstances and that will be felt not just by the families of the people on the plane that has been shot down, but also I think throughout the forces of the coalition.

DAVID FROST: Our thanks there to John Major.



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