“Being Prime Minister doesn’t sound like much fun”, began journalist Ian Birrell. “In your case, just two of the evils you had to deal with were Black Wednesday and Tony Blair. Why on earth did you go into politics?”
We were at The 2018 Politics Festival to see Sir John Major being interviewed. Now in its second year, the Festival attracts a fantastic line-up of guests; last year, I saw Harriet Harman interviewed, and only wish I could have attended more sessions both then and this year.
Sir John cut a relaxed figure as he considered Birrell’s question. “Actually, politics can be fun and satisfying”, he responded, before adding, “but it is also extremely hard. Sometimes that’s your own fault, sometimes your opponents’ and sometimes it’s down to circumstances.” However, he would still encourage talented youngsters with some life experience to enter politics (interestingly, Lord Paddy Ashdown said much the same thing).
Sir John himself wanted to enter politics as early as the age of 13, following an encounter with the Labour MP for Brixton Marcus Lipton, who invited him to a debate at the House of Commons. It was 1956 and the Finance Bill was under discussion; Sir John clearly remembers seeing Harold McMillan on the benches and being blown away by Parliament’s history and the fact that this was where the history of the country was determined. He was hooked.
Given your humble beginnings, asked an audience member, why join the Conservative Party? It’s true, Sir John acknowledged, that he had a tricky start to life: when he was just six years old his father went blind and lost his job and the Major family had to move from their Worcester Park villa to a two-bedroom flat in Brixton. Lambeth Labour Party was sympathetic towards their situation and promised that, in due course, the family would be moved into better accommodation – but Sir John remembers thinking at the time that he preferred the idea of his family helping itself, if possible. “Compassionate Conservatism” is what he believes in.
It is, Sir John thinks, still possible for someone from a humble background to achieve what he has – in fact, it is becoming easier, given the changing nature of the House of Commons. He is pleased about the increase in diversity over the past 20 years – although admitted, in response to another audience question, that there were no women in his first Cabinet (arguing that he did promote women to ministerial level).
Sir John himself had an extraordinarily quick rise through the ranks, including 94 days as Foreign Secretary. “I look back on that time as a golden period”, he quipped, “when we weren’t at war with anyone.” He loved that job, but was moved from it into the Treasury – “because Margaret fell out with Nigel Lawson – again.”
Ah, Margaret Thatcher. It was inevitable that her name would come up in conversation, given that Sir John helped topple her from power and replaced her as Prime Minister. So, what was their relationship really like? “She and I held differing views on the social aspect of politics”, began Sir John, “but not on the economic aspect. We both hated inflation; I had personal experience of what it does to families.”
They did argue, though, Sir John recalling one particularly fearsome argument that they had during the early 1990s when, Treasury Whip, he took it upon himself to tell her what the Party thought of her economic policy. She “took great umbrage” at this, thinking it Sir John’s personal view – and a fierce row ensued, during which neither of them held back.
Later that night, Sir John was told by another Whip that his career was over – only to be interrupted by Denis Thatcher saying, “Actually, I think Margaret rather enjoyed that.” The next day, Mrs Thatcher told Sir John that she thought they should discuss Conservative economic policy with the other Whips; three weeks later, he was made a Minister.
How does Sir John feel now about Margaret Thatcher? “There were several Margarets”, he began, carefully. “The real one – and the Margaret Thatcher of legend: an artificial construct.” He clarified this by saying that he doesn’t believe the “bored, sniping” version that we saw after she was deposed was the real one. “Margaret was ill by then – and her illness influenced her outlook on life; what’s more, she never got over the way she left 10 Downing Street – or seeing someone she’d nurtured from the back benches take her job.”
From one controversial topic to another: Brexit. Leaving the EU is a “monumental error”, believes Sir John, pointing out that the timing could scarcely be worse, with the U.S. adopting an isolationist policy, Russia “misbehaving” and China growing in military and economic power (here, his views reflect those of Paddy Ashdown and Gordon Brown). Margaret Thatcher, he continued, would have understood that, even though she had her frustrations about Europe, some of which Sir John shares. But those frustrations don’t mean that we should turn our backs on Europe and walk away.
The “golden future” outside the EU that Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage promised us is “fanciful”, believes Sir John. For a start, we will lose the 53 free trade deals that we enjoy as an EU member. We will not be able to replicate them. We also need to find a solution to the Irish border question – a “highly complex and difficult” problem to which no-one seems to have a solution. Both sides will need to make concessions.
Where does he think the Remain campaign that he campaigned for so vociferously went wrong? It needed to appeal to both hearts and minds, mused Sir John – but had problems getting coverage in the big-selling newspapers. And the Remainers missed a trick in not explaining how Brexit will destabilise Europe, not just the UK (Germany, for example, is becoming increasingly isolated).
What on earth made David Cameron call a referendum in the first place, wondered another audience member. Here, Sir John expressed some sympathy for the former PM, saying that the way things were going in Parliament, a referendum on Europe was inevitable. He believes, too, that Cameron was unlucky in his timing, given that it coincided with Angela Merkel’s decision to take in 1 million Syrian refugees – and the subsequent backlash.
“I grew up in a multi-racial house in Brixton”, Sir John continued, “and I don’t want the doors closed. But free movement in Europe will have to change so that countries can take in people as appropriate – otherwise, it leads to a terrible strain on healthcare and education systems.”
Was Theresa May right to trigger Article 50 when she did? She was in a difficult position, nodded Sir John, with a large chunk of her own party, the media and Labour clamouring for her to do it. That kind of pressure is hard to withstand.
Sir John describes himself as “deeply concerned” about the rise of populism and attacks on democracy that we’ve seen across Europe and the U.S. Populism, he believes, doesn’t lead people; rather, it follows them and their prejudices: “We can only hope that it doesn’t grow roots and flourish”. Quizzed as to whether he agrees with Baroness Warsi that Islamophobia exists within the Conservative Party, Sir John responded that yes, he thinks it does, amongst a handful of members – but it is not endemic.
Nor does he believe the UK’s political system to be “broken” (another audience question). Not everyone on the front benches is to his taste (disappointingly, he refused to be drawn on whom), but he has faith in the “burgeoning talent” coming through the back benches.
There was time for one more controversial topic: the privatisation of British Rail. Does Sir John have any regrets? Yes, he told us – in respect of the separation of rail from track, which hasn’t worked. He admits to being disappointed by how the private companies have performed, but says that a return to nationalisation is not the answer: “How can it compete with the needs of the NHS and of the military?” It would be better, he argues, to improve the performance of the private companies than to nostalgically hark back to a golden era of British Rail that never actually existed.
Moving on to cheerier topics, and which Labour politician does he most admire? “I got on well with most of them, including Neil Kinnock – who never let me down.” Sir John also admits to having had a soft spot for the late Labour leader John Smith, a “brilliant debater”; the two of them used to drink whisky together after Prime Minister’s Question Time. And he and Tony Blair “worked well together” during the Northern Ireland referendum campaign. Sir John also praised Lord Paddy Ashdown, who promised support during the Maastricht debate and never wavered: “He could probably have brought the government down – but he chose not to. I respect Paddy greatly for that.”
Following some discussion of the roles of NATO and the UN and how both organisations need to be brought into the modern world, Sir John was asked whether he has any regrets about his political career. “Many”, he answered. “A lot of the things I’d wanted to do my whole life I was unable to achieve when I reached office, due to financial restraints.” Chief among these was a reform of the education system and the implementation of more “practical” institutions.
This was a very interesting evening. As with the Lord Paddy Ashdown and Gordon Brown interviews, I hadn’t known what to expect, but all three politicians surprised me with their intelligence, eloquence and – dare I say it – humour. It’s such a shame that we tend only to see inside the House of Commons when politicians are braying and heckling each other. How reassuring to find out that their ‘real life’ personalities, certainly in the case of these three, are worlds away from that.
That doesn’t mean that I agree with everything each of them said; that, after all, is the beauty of living in a democracy. I’d love to hear your thoughts – please post them in the ‘Comments’ box below.