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Last Updated: Sunday, 16 July 2006, 08:53 GMT 09:53 UK
Government sleaze
On Sunday 16 July 2006, 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

Now I'm joined here in the studio by the former Prime Minister Sir John Major. Welcome.

JOHN MAJOR Good morning.

ANDREW MARR: I'm going to go straight into that same story. I think you've known Shimon Peres reasonably well over the years. How did you respond to what he was saying this morning?

JOHN MAJOR Well I have known him very well. He's one of the foremost statesmen of the Middle East and a man for whom I have a huge regard.

But what we've just heard over the last ten minutes or so really makes one despair.

Here you have a classic non-meeting of minds. Both sides think absolutely that they are right.

There seems to be no point of compromise at all. And the problem with what's going on at the moment, with all the violence and the deaths that are going on at the moment, is that it will entrench bitterness, it will entrench hatred, and even if Hezbollah is defeated, even if the head of Hezbollah is cut off, a new Hezbollah will arise.

At the end of the day this is going to have to be solved by negotiation, and what is happening at the moment - apart from the immediate destruction - is making the prospect of fruitful negotiation almost impossible. So I think we have stepped back from where we were a few months ago very dramatically in the last few weeks.

ANDREW MARR: Grim stuff.

JOHN MAJOR It's very grim. It's very grim, and one sees little reason at the moment for any optimism at all.

ANDREW MARR: Had this not been happening this weekend I suppose the front pages would have been dominated by what's going on in southern Afghanistan where British troops are being support and increased and have made a major offensive, I think the biggest since the original war in Afghanistan. I know that you've been interested in this and observing it. What are your feelings about that?

JOHN MAJOR Well British troops are superb in the field in terms of conflict. But I think there are a number of reasons to be very concerned about what is happening in Afghanistan. For a start it's not entirely clear, even to many of the military figures I've spoken to, precisely what the mission is. When the troops were first sent there my John Reid it was quite a low key mission.

There wasn't any suggestion of any real conflict. We saw just over the last day or so that there's quite substantial conflict. We've seen a number of thefts. And now it seems the mission has escalated in a way that is really quite extraordinary. Apparently rather than just training local policemen and the modest mission that was originally there, it now seems to be to defeat the Taliban, to destroy the poppy crop, and in some form or another to nation build. Well that is a wholly different proposition to achieve with 3 ˝ - 4 ˝ thousand troops with reinforcement.

ANDREW MARR: So you think we're being sucked in to what is in effect a new war in southern Afghanistan?

JOHN MAJOR Well I don't know exactly what we're being sucked into, but I think anyone who looks at the history of Afghanistan would be concerned about the present circumstances. If you look back historically, admittedly a long time ago, there were three Afghan wars in which Britain didn't even come a good second. In more recent years the Russians were there with 120,000 men for ten years.

ANDREW MARR: During your time as Prime Minister of course ... Foreign Secretary and then ...

JOHN MAJOR Foreign Secretary, yes. It ended just as I became Prime Minister but there was no connection. They were there for ten years, the Russians had 120,000 troops there. They lost, I think, 15,000. They had innumerable wounded, and they retreated defeated. So if we haveż if we really have a mission, as it now looks, that is to begin to resurrect and provide a new stable, democratic Afghanistan, it's hardly achievable with 3 ˝ thousand troops and 900 replacements just coming into theatre.

And I think it is even less achievable when you consider exactly what those troops are ranged against. They're ranged against the Taliban, they're ranged against Al-Qaeda, they're ranged against the warlords, against the drug lords, against infiltrators from Iraq, bandits from Pakistan, and the local population, who exist through their poppy crop and believe that is going to be destroyed, and if it is destroyed have nothing else upon which to have a livelihood whatsoever. Now if you mix those ingredients together, it's a fairly unsavoury stew to be handled by 3 ˝ - 4 ˝ thousand troops.

ANDREW MARR: Put that way you make it sound virtually like mission impossible.

JOHN MAJOR Well, if the mission is as it now seems, and if we are going to stick with 3 ˝ to 4 ˝ thousand troops I do not see how the mission can be achieved however skilful the troops are. I have extraordinary admiration for them. I remember going out just before the first Gulf War and seeing our troops and being hugely impressed, but I also noticed they were very young.

They were 19 to 23, 24, 25 and so will be the vast majority of troops out there. Now I think we owe it to them to be absolutely transparent about what their mission is, to ensure they have the best backup, and at the moment I don't believe they have. Their Land Rovers are clearly inadequate.

The helicopter situation I think is dire, both in terms of attack helicopters and support helicopters. The last information I had, and I've not heard it denied, is that they were having to cannibalise some helicopters in order to have others flying, and last week we had - I paraphrase, this may not have been exactly what he said - but the Defence Secretary seemed to be saying, "We will try and tease some helicopters out of our NATO partners."

ANDREW MARR: To fight a war ...

JOHN MAJOR To fight what is increasingly looking like a very substantial engagement, if not a war.

ANDREW MARR: And yet that leaves the country, Prime Minister particularly, with a very stark choice. Either pull out of what seems to be developing into a war of a kind, or else heavily reinforce and dig in for the long-term. So which way do you go?

JOHN MAJOR Well this is largely a NATO exercise. It isn't just for the British. I think if you are going to ask the troops to carry out a mission of the scale it now seems to be - perhaps the government will say it isn't that scale and draw it back - but if it is of the scale it now seems to be, then I think there is certainly going to be a need for better equipment, better backups, more troops, much greater liaison with NATO and perhaps more troops other than from the United Kingdom. But here again you have a problem. Many of the other nations who are in Afghanistan have particular national caveats. There are things that they will not do that we will.

They have different rules of engagement, things they will not do that we will. And I hate saying this when British troops are in the field but I think someone has to make it clear that however skilled they are, however brave they are, however well led they are, they do need the logistical backup and they do need an absolutely clear and unmistakable mission that is achievable.

ANDREW MARR: Yes.

JOHN MAJOR And in addition, we need to know what the exit strategy is. What do they have to achieve before mission is accomplished and they come home? I don't know and, more worryingly, I don't think they do either.

ANDREW MARR: Ten years ago, as Prime Minister, you were facing endless newspaper allegations of sleaze and you lost quite a few ministers one way and another. Now we have the prospect of the Prime Minister being investigated by the police and one of his closest associates arrested. It was never quite like that in your time. Do you think this is, in the end, a media storm, or do you think it's a serious moment for the democracy?

JOHN MAJOR Well it certainly wasn't like that in my time because if you actually look at what happened, I mean the question of sleaze and mud was originally invented by the Labour Party who threw it at the Conservative Party to damage us politically.

What goes around comes around and they're now suffering from that themselves. But if you looked at what happened in the 1990s, most of the so-called sleaze events in the 1990s were pieces of individual behaviour by people, either backbenchers or on one or two occasions ministers, they did not involve the government as a government. Let us be quite clear about that, they did not involve the government as a government. And those issues that people say were most serious - cash for questions being the most obvious one - actually took place before the 90s, they actually took place in the 80s, they just became apparent in the 90s and were used to wrap around the last government's neck. But let me finish this point because I think it's a good point.

Where there is something that needs to be said, it has become very standard practice to refer to the last Conservative government in terms of sleaze. It is inaccurate. I remember the principle members of that government: Heard, Heseltine, Clarke, Bottomley, Gummer, Shepherd, Brooke - where are the sleazy members amongst that cabinet and amongst that government? That is short-hand by the press for a whole series of incidents unconnected to the government but sometimes within the government party, that I concede, and on one or two occasions amongst ministers, that I concede.

ANDREW MARR: But now?

JOHN MAJOR But not endemic to government. So there is, I think, a clear distinction between what happened then and what is happening now. And I think the other point about what happened then was that we had been in government so long, about 15, 16, 17, 18 years ...

ANDREW MARR: There's a natural exhaustion. I understand that.

JOHN MAJOR Everything stuck.

ANDREW MARR: But nonetheless, as a Prime Minister, you had to raise money, or people had to raise money on your behalf to fight general election campaigns. Now any suggestion that Tony Blair has been involved in trying to enrich himself personally, he's trying to get the Labour Party enough money to fight their next election campaign or in this case the last one, is there an endemic problem with having Prime Minister of the country, leader of the opposition out there with a begging bowl, a cap, amongst all sorts of individuals desperately needing money?

JOHN MAJOR Most of Labour's money still comes from the trade unions, over 50% over the past few years, it still comes from the trade unions which is why so much of their policy is still subordinate to the trade unions. But as for the rest of it, I can only speak for my time in office. When I was in office the fundraising was done by the party treasurers. No.10 was not involved in the fundraising, there were no personal envoys. Now what is happening now is the subject of investigation and I don't wish to cast stones until I know the result of that investigation.

I know what happened before, I know it was arm's length from No.10. It was dealt with by the Party treasurers and I know there was a very stringent system there afterwards, not least to the Honours Scrutiny Committee to ensure that everything was proper, as I firmly believe that it was. But I don't know what has been happening under the present government, and until I do know, I think I'm happy to leave it in the hands of those investigating it.

ANDREW MARR: You've been pretty keen on the way David Cameron has performed so far, but is 'hug a hoodie' going just a little too far for you?

JOHN MAJOR I think you have to look at what David Cameron is seeking to achieve. He's trying to produce a Cameron brand so that people can see that the Conservatives have changed. A long time ago, because of the success of the 1980s and the first two thirds of the 1980s were perhaps the most successful period in government for any party for a very long time, the first two thirds, perhaps up until 1990 ...

ANDREW MARR: (laugh) You were about to say 1990, that's when you took over.

JOHN MAJOR Up until 1987 they were hugely successful, and I think that we have to pay a great degree of credit to that. But some of the people still look at what was appropriate in the 1980s and think it is still absolutely appropriate and nothing else is in the 1990s and in the 2000s.

And of course the country has moved on, the world has moved on and we have to move on, and that is what David Cameron is trying to do to produce his own brand. And you can always find a single issue, if you look hard enough, that any single member of any party with any Prime Minister won't agree with. But I think he's moving us in the right direction.

ANDREW MARR: The right direction. Sir John, thank you very much indeed.

JOHN MAJOR My pleasure.

INTERVIEW ENDS


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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