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Last Updated: Sunday, 13 November 2005, 11:41 GMT
Political hot water
On Sunday 13 November 2005 Andrew Marr interviewed Sir Christopher Meyer, former UK Ambassador to USA

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

Sir Christopher Meyer
Sir Christopher Meyer, former UK Ambassador to USA

ANDREW MARR: Now, the publication on Thursday of Sir Christopher Meyer's memoirs has delighted everyone who enjoys top level gossip and dismayed those who think that diplomats have a lifelong duty to be very diplomatic.

Sir Christopher was our man in Washington in the run up to the Iraq War and before that served as official spokesman and confidant to the Prime Minister John Major.

In the book Meyer writes of his time as ambassador and a succession of Labour ministerial visitors - pygmies, in his words - Jack Straw was tongue-tied, stumbling, with an uncertain touch; John Prescott insisted on discussing the full range of foreign policy issues but never appeared sufficiently up on them and got into a terrible tangle.

Tony Blair is described as failing to use his leverage on Bush and asks at the height of the Lewinsky affair "What exactly is Clinton supposed to have done?"

Sir Christopher is also charged with disclosing secret briefings to key allies, "At my lunch with Wolfowitz I empathised with the PM's commitment to regime change but the Foreign Office legal expert's advice was that the regime change would not alone justify going to war."

Well, Sir Christopher is with me now. You've had a fair amount of ordure of one kind or another flung at you over the last few days. Let's put to one side what the politicians have said, because perhaps that's predictable - you were disobliging about them and they were disobliging about you. What about those former and serving diplomats who say the problem is this: next time we're in a room with the Americans or whoever it's going to be, they're going to be thinking that guy is going to publish what I'm saying and the, the honesty of that inner conversation is going to be compromised fatally?

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: Two answers to that. First of all, from those who have read the whole book as opposed to some of the exerts in the newspapers, you will see that I am extremely careful to protect sources in Washington - people are not named. Where they are named, as you said in the introduction, Paul Wolfowitz, I was able to do that because the account of my conversation with Paul was leaked to a national newspaper in this country last year. So it was already all out there. So in that instance, as indeed in two other instances where I have used conversations, the contents had already been revealed.

ANDREW MARR: But diplomats, Foreign Office people and, as I say, civil servants, not about politicians, are very, very worried about this. They do feel that you may have been cleared to publish this but somehow you've crossed a line that makes their life harder afterwards.

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: Well you, I mean you go to a very good point here - cleared to publish. I mean what actually is going on here. I write a book and make a judgement between what I think it is right to keep confidential and what it is right to bring out into the public gaze. The book goes into the Cabinet Office, it pops out a couple of weeks later and I'm told they wish to make no changes to the text, and then we publish.

ANDREW MARR: And if they'd told you "I'm really sorry but we don't think you should say this or that," would you have listened to them?

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: Well it depends what they would have said, it depends what they would have focused on. I can't answer that hypothetically - I have to say that my instinct is publish and be damned, because I do think that there are areas of activity in foreign policy and in government where it is right to shine the light of day.

ANDREW MARR: Does that go for civil servants as well ..

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: Well, let me put this point. I think the terms of trade have changed enormously over the last six or seven years - actually in the lifetime of this government - and what we have seen since 1997, while the government is in power, there is a succession of ministers who have either just left office, in one case while still in office, publishing really quite extensive memoirs of what they did in government, which of course embraces exchanges with civil servants. Now I think, against the background of a kind of spew of books, by former ministers, special advisors, that the civil servants are now put in a position of disadvantage. I would like to see a new dispensation with clarity and, above all, consistency across the board on these issues.

ANDREW MARR: Because the special advisors, for instance Lance Price, always say that they keep the civil servants names out of their - and the civil servants - well they say - out of their memoirs, but of course when you are publishing you can't possibly keep the politicians out of yours because they're the core thing.

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: No and I think, and I don't think that's a fair analogy really, because the politicians are elected officials, they're chosen by us in elections. I think it is legitimate and reasonable to be able to describe, in some detail, not in total detail, how they perform their job when they go abroad.

ANDREW MARR: Do you think New Labour just didn't like you?

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: I have no idea, ask New Labour. I liked an awful lot of them, I have to say.

ANDREW MARR: Well yes - up to a point - Lord ...

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: I mean, yeah, well there's an awful lot of them, there's an awful lot of them - and I would say that for the most part there were very, very few that I disliked.

ANDREW MARR: But you were pretty rude about most of the key ones, weren't you? I mean Tony Blair - useless on the detail?


ANDREW MARR: ... pygmies

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: - you're going to say this is a cheap commercial plug and I'm trying to exploit this programme - but actually if you read the whole book -

ANDREW MARR: I have read the whole book.

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: Well you've got - congratulations - a man of taste and discernment.

ANDREW MARR: I have read the whole book. It's pretty rude.

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: What it shows - what it shows - well who am I to say, every reader's got to make his or her own judgement - it does show what complex characters and what complex problems politicians have to face. And above all I think Tony Blair comes out in all that complexity. So it is, I hope, not a cartoon portrait of him - nor of anybody else.

ANDREW MARR: The reason I asked you about what they thought of you was there were a couple of moments where you can really sense your anger in this book about the way that you were treated. There was a key dinner where the new Labour apparatchik, I think it's fair to say, tried to keep you out of the dinner with the Bushes. That kind of thing rankles, this is your revenge.

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: Yeah, no, that's completely unfair because the kind of people who are responsible for that situation were way down the food chain - I do not blame the Prime Minister, I do not blame the big beasts around him and I don't even mention whom I think was responsible. So the -


CHRISTOPHER MEYER: You're welcome if you'd like to. It's not worth it - it's too trivial. So I wouldn't transfer that to the senior members of the Downing Street party that day. That's not true.

ANDREW MARR: Let's turn to precisely what you do say about the key players. The accusation against Tony Blair is not that he was, in your view, dishonest or actually dishonourable in going to war on Iraq, but that he simply wasn't across the crucial details and that he did not have the leverage - he had much more leverage with George Bush than he perhaps understood and certainly was prepared to use.

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: Well I think that, in a nutshell, is perfectly fair. I think that is the assessment in the book, although I make a very - I hope - rigorous attempt to separate what I thought at the time and what I think now two and a half years later.

ANDREW MARR: Of course.

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: Which is why you have a hindsight chapter towards the end. And it is, this is particularly, I think, a hindsight judgement. Sitting here now, looking back at those years, I think to myself by God we did have an awful lot of leverage and we could have used it more. And above all we could have used it to think about post Saddam.

ANDREW MARR: But even without hindsight, at the time there were moments where you hoped he would speak up and he did not speak up. Had he spoken up, had he used that leverage, what do you think we could have achieved?

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: Well I come from a very particular position on this. I was in support of the war, I thought Saddam ought to be removed, I haven't changed my opinion, what is clear to me now - a lot of people disagree with me, I have already said this much - is not that we should not have gone to war but that we should have gone to war in better order. And better order would have meant not starting the campaign until the autumn of 2003.

ANDREW MARR: What would that have meant to what's happened in Iraq after the war and to that appalling sort of swirl of argument, bitterness and so on before the war?

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: Well what happens -

ANDREW MARR: What would have been different?

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: Well what could have been different was - I mean there are a number of things that could have been different and I set these out in the book - but one of the key things that would have been different - could have been different - was time properly to plan for what you were going to do after Saddam Hussein was deposed.

ANDREW MARR: But that means, if I may say so, that there are many people now dead in Iraq who would have been living had that been done properly. That many of the appalling things that have happened in Iraq, the atrocious numbers of civilian casualties, the British dead as well, that might have been avoidable, some of it, had the proper planning gone in beforehand.

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: Well proper planning, obviously, would have made it a better situation.

ANDREW MARR: So this is not an abstract criticism, this is quite serious stuff.

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: Well, of course it's not an abstract criticism but it is a criticism made from hindsight, because I can now see, and I hope I explain well in the book, that had we given ourselves another six months to get these things sorted out, we should have been, we should have been if we took that extra time properly, better equipped to handle Iraq after Saddam was removed, and to do a lot of other stuff in the diplomatic and political field which proved impossible on a spring timetable. That is the judgement.

ANDREW MARR: And we would have a better Iraq now if we'd been able to do that.

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: Well we could have had a better - I mean I'm not going to sit here and say, you know, I guarantee certainty that it would have been all milk and honey if we had gone in the autumn instead of the spring. What I am saying is it would have given us more time to put in place the kind of mechanisms, allowances, arrangements that might have avoided all that bloodshed which we have had to suffer since then.

ANDREW MARR: You make the point in the book that the Prime Minister is in some modes a remarkable politician but the problem, you say, is that he doesn't go deep; he doesn't really understand the briefing; he doesn't go into the details.

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: I wouldn't say he didn't understand the briefing, I mean he -

ANDREW MARR: Or he didn't read the briefing -

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: - I mean he is an extraordinarily impressive man and his ability to encapsulate what was at stake when the time came to, to deal with Saddam, and indeed after 9/11 -

ANDREW MARR: Do you think he was just a bit intimidated by George Bush ... ?

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: No I never saw any evidence of that at all.

ANDREW MARR: Why did he fall silent then at those crucial moments?

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: Well I don't know - you'll have to ask him, one of these days when you have him on your programme. But I think, it's not so much that he didn't grasp the details, he's a different kind of political animal from the two prime ministers I knew something about -Margaret Thatcher and, even more so, John Major - and both of those prime ministers were, apart from their other virtues, sticklers for detail. They worked for detail and if you didn't know the detail you got yourself into trouble with them. I never felt that Tony Blair was that kind of prime minister.

ANDREW MARR: And Jack - and below that level - Jack Straw, Geoff Hoon, John Prescott -frankly not up to it really.

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: Well I didn't have, I mean I didn't have an awful lot to deal with them.

ANDREW MARR: That's the impression that you give.

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: Well, read the book and draw your own conclusions.

ANDREW MARR: Well I'm putting to you the conclusions I've drawn.

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: No I'm not going to para - I'm not going to paraphrase my own book but, again, these are not actually cartoon characterisations. I mean some of the quotes that have been pulled out and used incessantly.

ANDREW MARR: As you know, that's what the newspapers do.

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: Well they do indeed and one attempts to write vividly in order to draw the reader's attention -

ANDREW MARR: And it's a very, very vivid book.

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: - and you want to draw the reader's attention but actually underneath it all you're trying to make some very serious points about foreign policy, the importance of the diplomatic service, the importance of embassies and posts abroad, that you can't do everything from ...

ANDREW MARR: What do you say to those who have said this week that this is the kind of operation where X or Y would like to complain to the PCC, but you're the boss of the PCC, actually there is an obvious conflict of interests, even putting the money to one side, you should step down?

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: Well I refute that entirely and I think I have the support of the industry on that. There's a very straightforward answer: if somebody wants to complain about the serialisation or whatever may be written in the newspapers, which is attributed to me or involves me in any way at all, there is a very clear procedure for dealing with this at the PCC. I would recluse myself, I would stand back from any procedure at the PCC, any adjudication - I've done this already, actually, two or three times.

ANDREW MARR: So there's no chance - you've got no plans whatever to stand down.

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: Absolutely no plans whatsoever.

ANDREW MARR: And do you have any - I mean looking back at the serialisation, looking back at what's happened over the last week - looking back at some of the things former colleagues and friends have said about all of this - do you have any regrets at all?

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: Well of course I don't like disagreeing with former friends and colleagues and, but I think you just have to take it. I knew what I had written would not go down well with everybody, so you expect to be criticised, and you just have to ride it out.

As I say, a lot of people who have, who have criticised, particularly former members of the diplomatic and civil service, I'm not sure they entirely understand how things have changed in the last six or seven years. We can't go back, I don't think, to a 19th century view of all this. We're at the beginning of the 21st century and I really look forward to discussing these points with the public administration committee of the House of Commons

ANDREW MARR: We shall -

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: - who are going to have a hearing on this.

ANDREW MARR: All right. Sir Christopher Meyer, 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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