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Foreign affairs
On Sunday 28 January 2007, Andrew Marr interviewed Margaret Beckett MP

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

Margaret Beckett MP
Margaret Beckett MP

ANDREW MARR: Margaret Beckett joins me now.

Welcome Foreign Secretary.


ANDREW MARR: Let's start with the inevitable - Iraq.

The American surge of troops into Baghdad is really a last throw of the cards isn't it?

MARGARET BECKETT: I'm not sure that I would say that.

But what I would certainly say is that it is very important, as I'm sure you know, the vast bulk of the security problems that there are in Iraq are in and around Baghdad, within about thirty miles of Baghdad.

And the Americans have had one go with some success at dealing with those issues. But they weren't able to sustain it.

And the growing belief has been that that's because they didn't have enough people to, to leave behind on the ground. And so that is what they're going to try and do with this new initiative.

ANDREW MARR: But if it doesn't work that's it really isn't it?

MARGARET BECKETT: If it doesn't work then they'll have to try something else. But we, we think there is a prospect that it could work. It's, we have been doing something not dissimilar in Basra.

ANDREW MARR: This is the so called Operation Sinbad?

MARGARET BECKETT: Operation Sinbad indeed. And that - I'm always nervous about tempting providence in these, in these conversations about how things are going well.

But actually that has had quite a bit of success. And why, why I say that, how I judge that, is that what we found is once Operation Sinbad started people in parts of the city it hadn't got to yet were asking when are you going to come here ...

ANDREW MARR: When's it coming here.

MARGARET BECKETT: When are you going to sort out our police ...

ANDREW MARR: And let's be clear. The idea is that we are able to hand over to the Iraqi Army control of Basra at some point before too long. And that at that point we can bring home a large number of the troops that we've got out there, several thousand.

MARGARET BECKETT: The last two pulses of Operation Sinbad were, were very - and I mean they've all been done in conjunction with the Iraqi forces of course. But they've had a more and more prominent role.

And, and as, specially as the operation continued they've had a more prominent role. And the intention is that they will lead the final one, obviously with our people in support and helping.

ANDREW MARR: And that will allow you to start bringing troops home, you hope, because there's no deadlines later this year?

MARGARET BECKETT: It will allow us to look at if, if all of this, once it's been assessed it's, it's decided it's sufficient of a success, it will allow the MOD to start deciding whether they can reconfigure their troops differently, as we have in provinces that we've already handed over.

ANDREW MARR: And we'll do this despite the fact the Americans quite clearly don't want us to?

MARGARET BECKETT: Well I don't think you can necessarily say that.

ANDREW MARR: Well that's pretty much what their ambassador said in Iraq.

MARGARET BECKETT: Well, what we're doing is quite consistent with what the Americans are trying to do around Baghdad. And we are very clear that we, not only we, but the Iraqi government as well as the Iraqi armed forces are very keen that we make this kind of progress. And obviously they too have a key role to play.

ANDREW MARR: But there is a tension between the ambassador for instance saying that the longer our forces stay together in Iraq the better and very, very strong feeling at home in Britain that troops should be pulled out as soon as possible.

MARGARET BECKETT: Well um I think there is a - people would like to feel that things had been handed over to a sufficient degree that it, we were able to begin to reduce the numbers of our armed forces.

But I don't think most people who are familiar with the subject and think about it really believe that it's credible to say that we just walk away now. And certainly that is not what the Iraqi government want, it's not what people in cities like Basra want. They want to be confident that they can draw on us if they need to.

ANDREW MARR: For a long time we were being told "Wait for the Iraqi elections. Wait for the elected government. That is going to be the moment when everything changes".

And frankly since then the war between some very nasty groups has got much worse. The number of people being killed has got worse. What are we waiting for now? What's the next moment of hope?

MARGARET BECKETT: Well don't forget it's only about eight months since that Iraqi government was elected. And we've all expected a huge amount of them. And they have, they have no experience of ..

ANDREW MARR: Failed to deliver it.

MARGARET BECKETT: No, I think that's unfair. As I said before most of the problems are in and around Baghdad. And the problems there are very serious. There's no doubt about that.

ANDREW MARR: But it's a bit like, it's a bit like the biggest civil war in Britain and people saying oh well it's only London, Manchester and Birmingham, so it doesn't matter so much. I mean that is where most of the people are - Baghdad.

MARGARET BECKETT: I mean but no one is saying that. But what people are pointing out is that most of Iraq is pretty peaceful. There are improvements in the supply of electricity, of water, access to schools, health care, a whole number of things. So a lot is changing for the better but not enough. And there's a lot more to do.

ANDREW MARR: In the, in the Commons debate on all of this which the prime minister didn't address but you did, you were criticised by the opposition really for blowing with the wind in Washington.

When the Iraq Study Group came out with its ideas including an international conference involving Syria and Iran in Baghdad, that got quite a welcome, initially from yourself and from the British government. When George Bush decided to do something entirely different, that also got a welcome. Do we really have an independent policy in Iraq?

MARGARET BECKETT: Well since patently on for example the issue of contact with Iran and Syria we have maintained contact throughout and do now. I'd have thought the answer to your question is self evidently yes. There's, there was a little of un.., understandable mischief making on the part of the opposition.

We welcomed the analysis in the Iraq Study Group Report, very much. It chimed in with our own. We welcomed the ideas they'd put forward. We didn't say we sign up to everything that they have suggested and that we believe the American government should do everything they've suggested.

ANDREW MARR: When you were - indeed. When, when you were asked about relations with Iran and, and putting out the hand of friendship, you replied if I recall "It's very hard to be friendly with people who spit in your eye". How worried are you about Ahmadinejad and the regime in Iran at the moment? How worried are you about relations between them and Israel?

MARGARET BECKETT: We are concerned. I think everybody has to be concerned. When you have the president of a country talking about wiping another country off the map it's hard not to be alarmed. And, and we are ..

ANDREW MARR: The, the Israelis are ratcheting things up too aren't they?

MARGARET BECKETT: Well the Middle East is, is, is in a very interesting place at the moment. Because with Israel and Palestine there is the ceasefire in Gaza which despite considerable provocation is holding and long may it do so. And I really do think that there is an opportunity between Israel and Palestine in that part of the Middle East, to begin to move things forward.

It's one of the things that I think is one of the challenges for particularly the year ahead. But going back to Iran, I think everyone in the Middle East, in fact most people across the world are seriously alarmed by what is perceived by most of us to be Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapon. I know that Iran says that all they want is civil nuclear power. And no one denies that they have every right to have it. But that is absolutely on offer.

The international community, there's, there's six of us, on behalf of others have made Iran an offer that could give them everything they could possibly want for modern civil nuclear power and they don't want to negotiate on it.

ANDREW MARR: We have done everything we can it seems to negotiate peacefully and got absolutely nowhere at all. And so when we hear from Washington and Israel that there are plans for some kind of military strike it makes perfect sense doesn't it?

MARGARET BECKETT: Well you say we hear from Washington and Israel, ... people who are not speaking on behalf of the American or I think the Israeli government makes remarks. But certainly a Whitehouse spokesman said only the other day what we have consistently said, which is that there is no planning for military action against Iran.

ANDREW MARR: Well we know sometimes things are planning and sometimes they're not planning. But if diplomacy doesn't work, if sanctions don't work - and that's the case with both of those things - what other options are there?

MARGARET BECKETT: Well we've barely started with sanctions. And I know people usually say - I don't, I don't dispute that sanctions are not always an easy route to travel. And we didn't want to travel them. And still don't.

ANDREW MARR: They didn't, they didn't work with Saddam. They didn't work with Mugabe. Any real reason to think they'll work with a country as rich and surrounded by as many relatively friendly neighbours as Iran?

MARGARET BECKETT: Iran's position is not quite as rosy as that. They have real economic difficulties at present. And they're extremely dependent on yes substantial income but from an oil industry which is lacking investment and which is under quite considerable pressure.

So it's not a simple picture with Iran. And this is why it's so sad, that at the moment, up to now, the Iranian government has not shown signs of wanting to come into the negotiations, that everybody in the international community wants them to join. But we shall see. It's ...

ANDREW MARR: But sanctions are in your view the next step?

MARGARET BECKETT: Well we have as you know at the Security Council, just before Christmas, took a, taken a decision to bring in a sanctions regime. That of course is now being worked through. The European Union discussed it last week. And how we move forward with that. So it's a bit early to say it isn't going to work. It's definitely going to be tried.

ANDREW MARR: Do you agree with your colleague Peter Hain that the neo-con experiment around the world has been pretty much of a disaster?

MARGARET BECKETT: Well Peter has his own phrases.


MARGARET BECKETT: And, and his own sometimes slightly extravagant language. I have to say I can't, I don't entirely agree with him for example that this is the most right wing American administration in history. Although it's not my job to ...

ANDREW MARR: Well he said I think in living memory. Would you agree with that?

MARGARET BECKETT: Well - no. I mean I rather felt that Ronald Reagan's administration was pretty right wing.

ANDREW MARR: Right. So more right wing than that. What about - I'm not going to run through the entire Cabinet. But what about what Hillary Benn said about Iraq which struck a note with a lot of people I think. He said the debaathification was wrong, the intelligence was wrong, the decision to disband the Iraqi army was wrong. And it was important to look at those mistakes with a full sense of humility about what we'd got wrong in Iraq. Do you agree with that?

MARGARET BECKETT: I don't think anyone disputes the fact - I mean it's in every human endeavour, mistakes are made. No one disputes the fact that some of those things were not handled as well as they should have been. But what is important now is to help the Iraqi government which as I say was only elected some eight months ago and bears little responsibility for any of these problems to move Iraq forward in the way that its people want.

ANDREW MARR: Do you feel embarrassed about the Iraq saga yourself?

MARGARET BECKETT: No. Hillary is right to say that the intelligence, which incidentally was believed by every intelligence service in the world, clearly was defective. But we took a decision in good faith on the basis of the information and the understanding that we had. And that's all you can do in politics and life.

ANDREW MARR: But do you not think that we went into that country, kicked the door down, in the famous phrase, without a proper plan for what to do afterwards and that therefore in some respect we are also responsible for the terrible things that have happened there since?

MARGARET BECKETT: No I don't think that there was not a proper plan. But I think that the planning that was done dealt with what people expected to be a situation and sometimes their expectations were not, the situation turned out to be rather different from what people had expected.

And perhaps maybe it's arguable, maybe we didn't adjust to, to some of what was experienced in time. But if you're saying to me do I regret the fact that one of the most vicious dictators in the world can no longer have at his mercy an entire people, no I can't regret that.

ANDREW MARR: No it's, it's not that. But it's as you know, that wasn't what I was asking. It was what happened afterwards that I was talking about really.

But let's move on to - because you've got a lot on your plate. Let's move on to the European Union where Angela Merkel for Germany is leading the charge for a new constitution or a new mini constitution which some people say might be agreed as early as this June's summit.

MARGARET BECKETT: I think that's over interpretation of what the Germans have been saying. Because what I understand from my German colleagues is that yes they're, they're charged with the duty of trying to find out whether there is, what common ground there is. Whether there is room for a consensus.

What kind of consensus. But they were, have been very clear both that they believe that that will mostly happen towards the end of their presidency in May, June.


MARGARET BECKETT: And secondly that they think it's, it's wholly unrealistic to expect that they will just be able to resolve all the problems in their presidency. Now I suppose it's not totally impossible ..

ANDREW MARR: Impossible, but unlikely.

MARGARET BECKETT: .. they'll find a simple package by June but I don't think they are saying that. That's ..


MARGARET BECKETT: .. if I may say so media commentators.

ANDREW MARR: Okay. But if it proved possible, as quite a lot of people on the continent seem to want to bundle up parts of the old constitution into a new mini constitution, can you promise people that this country would still be given a referendum on that?

MARGARET BECKETT: I'm not going to say what we think the judgment will be on a package that hasn't even been considered or drawn up. One of the things that I think is a bit missing from the debate here is that a lot of the stuff that was in the constitutional treaty actually is in existing treaties.

And so that's obviously something that people are looking at to see whether there are things that we already have the capacity to do that might improve the working of the European Union. And you, you wouldn't have a referendum on anything like that. I mean that would be ridiculous. We've already, it's already in the treaties. So we'll judge the situation when we see what kind of proposals are coming forward. And it would be great if we see them as early as June but I'd be a bit surprised to be honest.

ANDREW MARR: All right. All right. We saw you in that film, we heard that you were talking to John Reid. Given the roasting that he's having in the papers at the moment, isn't it the case that actually he has lost authority?

That the Home Secretary is in, is in an unwinnable position now the stream of stories is so awful that he's going to have no, no real authority when it comes to the Commons and when it comes to his own officials? MARGARET BECKETT: No, I don't think that's true at all. He's been in the job a comparatively short time. Things are very difficult at the moment.

He's made the point himself that if you are, particularly in a department of the size and capacity of the Home Office, if you are having a thorough going assessment to see what changes you need to make, all sorts of, of, you're going to turn over the stones, you're going to find all sorts of things people didn't know about before or, or see them in a new light.

So no I don't think that's true. The Home Office does unfortunately go through these terrible phases from time to time and this is one of them. It'll come out the other side and so will John Reid.

ANDREW MARR: Going to be a new Prime Minister very soon. Is there going to be a new foreign policy? Is there going to be any kind of change in our attitude to Iraq or don't you know?

MARGARET BECKETT: I think that there will be, I mean Gordon has made it plain for example if he were to be the Prime Minister, and he'd be the first person to say you can't take that for granted, that he wants an increased emphasis on education or he would be very interested in poverty in Africa.

And that of course is, is something that I think probably would be common to anyone who might become Prime Minister in the period ahead. Because I think these are areas where there are real opportunities that any of us would want to follow up because we all share the same values. That's why we're in the same party.

ANDREW MARR: Margaret Beckett 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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