John Major: Weaker Political Commitments Will Help Revive Politics

The former British prime minister on his greatest management error, Europe's ability to compete, and why he wouldn't take Bill Clinton's calls 


Reuters/Jo Yong hak

John Major, the former British prime minister, was born with the name John Ball. Major was the stage name used by his father, a retired Vaudeville showman and circus conductor, whose work led John to spend the first 20 years of his life in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His mother was an actress 23 years his father's junior, who had spent the previous months nursing Ball's previous wife as she died.

It is not the kind of biography one expects from the rigid British governing class, particular at the conservative end of the spectrum. Today's conservative party, led by David Cameron, pulls nearly its entire leadership from the alumni of Eton College, the world's most elite high school. The school has educated 18 British Prime Ministers, each of them conservatives, and royalty from around the globe. Students wear tailcoats, pinstriped pants, and bow ties per the dress code. Major did not attend Eton College, nor did he advance to a university of any caliber. He left school just before his 16th birthday.

While Prime Minister, Major oversaw British involvement in the first Gulf War; set the peace process in motion in Northern Ireland; held the conservative party from splitting at it seems; and handed over the healthiest economy the United Kingdom had enjoyed since 1933. But the collective conscious tends to forget honest John. Thatcher's boldness and gender and Blair's rapid ascent and media savvy have largely washed Major's six and a half years from many minds.

Major also kept the UK out of the Eurozone. As the process of integration moved forward, each currency tried to keep a steady valuation relative to the dominant German Deutsche Mark, the markets moved against the pound sterling. Famed investor George Soros made more than $1 billion from the collapse.

With his party hugely divided, Major took the decision to stand against joining the Euro, a policy Tony Blair would wisely follow. "I looked forward 15 and 20 years and I saw a united Germany being very economically efficient and operating at a more efficient level than anybody else in Europe," Major told me. "I saw Europe locked in a currency that was right for Germany but not right for anybody else."

It's the root of the problem in Europe today, as Greece, Spain and Ireland look for ways out of financial ruin but lack the policy tools -- weakening the currency, for instance -- to stimulate a recovery.

When Bill Clinton and I sat down, he said, "Major literally risked having the whole damn government fall" to pursue peace in Northern Ireland. "I never thought he got the credit he deserved in history. When a person sticks his or her neck out, you have to ask yourself not only what do they get, but what do they have to lose."

I asked Major what might have brought him to tears while prime minister. "The Warrington bomb," he said without hesitation. "This was days after I had been assured through our secret link from the IRA that they were giving up violence," he explained. "It was a Saturday, and I was home walking around the garden, looking at the daffodils. It rang so long I realized it was either a member of the family or it was Downing Street. I went in and answered it, and I was told there had been a bomb in Warrington. Then a few hours later, I learned that two little boys had been killed, Tim Parry and Jonathan Ball.* Jonathan had been killed immediately and Tim was so badly injured he died later. That was a bad moment. I had invested a great deal in the Irish peace process and I thought this was probably the end of it. And then I thought of those two little boys. And, I decided we had to go on with the peace process notwithstanding, because, other than that, there would have been more little boys killed by bombs. That is the thing that I most remember that brought tears to my eyes."

There is a story that when Bill Clinton invited the leader of the Sein Fein party and likely the militant IRA as well, Gerry Adams, to the White House on St. Patrick's Day in 1995, and after you refused to take Clinton's calls.

It is a true story. We had been promised by the White House that they wouldn't do it and they did. It is all very well for the White House to invite Adams because Bill Clinton was put under pressure from the Senate. But the money that was being collected in America was being used to blow up British soldiers in Ireland. I don't think people in America understood that. After 9/11, they did. I was beside myself with anger over it. It was a direct betrayal.

Who had promised you in the White House? Do you remember?

I do remember. But I'm not going to tell you who it was. The promise came not directly to me. It came to my chief of staff. You can make your own judgment as to who it was. But it was someone who was in a position to make a promise on behalf of the president and had it delivered. And the promise was explicit. It was not casual. The promise was sought, considered, offered and accepted by us, and then it was reneged on.

And when you spoke to Clinton eventually, what did you say to him?

Well, I told him what I thought about it. We discussed it, and he said, look, we can't go on like this, and of course you can't. You can't descent into a standoff like that. We have too many joint interests, our two countries. So of course, we had to put it behind us but I thought it was necessary to make it clear that we may be the junior partner in this alliance, but we are not going to be pushed around. We don't expect to be treated like that, so that is what lay behind it.

If you were to jump back to that first day of being prime minister and were to do it all over again, to live the whole thing once more, what would be the difference in your leadership style?

Where do you start? I mean where do you start? I mean if you have ever found a politician who says, "No, no, I would do everything exactly as I did," then you can tell when he is lying because his lips are moving.

Jimmy Carter.


Very few regrets. But in terms of the general trend, you were recognized as someone that really sought consensus and listened to everyone in the room.

I think the biggest mistake I made was this wretched ability to see both sides of an argument. That was true within my own party, but also I could always see that, in some respects, other parties had the best script as well. That has served me hugely well in negotiation, particularly in the Irish problem. It didn't serve me so well in political management.

So I would have told myself to have been a little less consensual and a little less able to understand the other person's point of view.

I think the other mistake I made was if people looked to me in the eye and said seven and seven are 20, I tended to believe that they were telling me the truth. Whereas in fact, seven and seven aren't 20. Too many people looked to me in the eye and did not tell me the truth.

I was with the former Spanish president Jose Maria Aznar last week, and he says that threat of multiculturalism -- particularly with regard to Islam - is the greatest threat to Europe at the moment. We see the French President Nicolas Sarkozy saying that the Burqa is not welcome in France. I wonder, as you think about coming century for Europe, the population in decline, immigration undoubtedly increasing, do you have concerns about the fabric of European society?

Well, I have concerns about the effectiveness of Europe to compete.

 Financially, economically.

Economically. I mean if you look at Europe, it has a higher degree of social on-cost than the United States, China, India or Asia. Over a long period of time, either we become technologically more advanced than China, India, Asia or America, or we will find ourselves becoming relatively less efficient. And relatively less efficient ultimately means relatively less rich and relatively less powerful economically and militarily.

My concern is that Europe looks inward too much and outward too little. It ought to be realizing it is not a question of Germany competing with France, competing with Italy, competing with Spain, it is a question of whether all those four countries and the other Europeans can compete with the United States and the hugely competitive countries of Asia and increasingly Latin America. So my big worry for Europe is the old Europe, if I can use the term that some use, is still so concerned with navel-gazing. They do not lift their eyes often enough to see what is happening in the rest of the world.

But culturally.

Come on. That is a difficult question to ask me. I lived in Brixton at the time of mass immigration. I lived in a house that had as many black people in it as white people and I heard people forecasting the end of the world. We had better race relations in this country than we have ever had. You go to a test match or a football match, you will find some of the players playing for England are black. You will find a large part of the crowd supporting are black. I have always been liberal to things like race and I still am, but I would point back to my own experience. There were people in the 1950s and early 1960s forecasting disaster because of immigration. It hasn't happened.

If you were to draft a letter to the next generation of presidents, prime ministers on what you have learned about leadership, what you uniquely understand now having sat behind that desk, what would it say?

If I were writing a letter, to a successor, I would first say, keep a hinterland. Don't become so obsessed with politics. Not only will it affect you, it will affect your judgment. Keep a hinterland. It doesn't matter what it is -- baseball, cricket, music, literature. Anything.

Was yours cricket?

Oh blimey, lots of things. Politics was never every aspect of my life at all. And becoming prime minister at 47, I knew there was going to be a long life after I had ceased to be prime minister. In the worst of days, it was the best of remedies. So my first advice for people would be to keep a hinterland.

The second advice to someone would be read history. Almost nothing is new. It may be freshly wrapped, but it isn't new. Someone has faced it before. See what happened and how people reacted and you may be a long way along the road towards deciding how best to deal with it.

Thirdly, when you consider a policy, consider not only how it looks now, try and put your mind 20 years ahead and ask how history will look back on it. And fourthly and finally, ask yourself one question: Am I truly at ease with what I am about to do?

But were there were surely moments when you went to bed at night saying I made this decision, I really don't know whether it is right or wrong but --

Every political leader has nights like that, absolutely everyone. If you don't have that quantum of doubt in your mind, then you ought not to be a leader. Because people who have absolutely no element of doubt in their makeup are the people who lead countries into total disaster. Never be absolutely certain. Always let that nickel of doubt be slightly there. I can think of some who wouldn't agree with that, but I think it is right

Aides of yours have said that you would never walk by, would pass the newspaper without picking it up.

That is not true. It is one of these stories that people get hold of and they grab it. Did I read too many newspapers? Yes, I did. I mean we live in the days of spin.

Let's talk about that, because you write about the closing days of the campaign against Tony Blair in 1997, and the ads that your campaign made but you wouldn't allow it to use, showing this kind of Faustian combat with Blair and the devil. Can we retreat from that still?


Can we go back to campaigning atop soapboxes?


There is so much money involved.

And it has sunk politics so low. Have you ever known politics so badly regarded as it is at the present time? No.

It is the only politics I have ever known.

Well, why do you think Obama won so well? People saw him as aspiring to something better. I hope he delivers. The people saw him as aspiring to something better.

Here, in this country, there is more distaste for politics and politicians today than I have ever known and it is because they no longer believe what they told. Are they being told the truth or is this a bit of spin? The days have got to come back where people in politics, if they say -- if the government speaks, the public must know -- whether they agree with it or not -- that they are hearing the undiluted, unspun truth. Anything less is unacceptable.

I refuse to believe we can't go back to that. I think public distaste, particularly in this country at the moment for the way things have gone is so high there is going to be a counterrevolution. And if you want a historical analogy, consider the movement from Cromwell's Puritans to Charles II's post-Restoration England, where morals and everything else went absolutely the opposite direction and then turned back again. Consider Regency England and then Victorian, so these things change; they are fashion; there are cycles; there are pendulums. This will change.

I go and talk a lot to universities and youngsters and sixth formers, and they are wholly different from the sixth formers of 20 or 30 years ago. The sixth formers of 20 or 30 years ago all had political opinions. They were either very right-wing or very left-wing. As youngsters are, they had a firm view. And seeing across the divide, it is not the great strength of 16- and 17-year-olds and a large number of them wanted to be in politics or public services. Today, they are much less committed to any political party and they don't want to go into public service. It is a huge change. People are often knocking this generation. My experience of them is quite the reverse that they probably do more charity work than any earlier generation I have known; that they are good kids, they are not political bigots.

Political parties have far fewer people who naturally align themselves these days. The number of people who say, "I am a Republican or a Democrat or a Tory or a Liberal or Labor body" is lower than it has been for many years. They are much more rational-thinking beings. They judge on personality and policy, and I think that is attractive.

So I think, yes, it can change. In fact, I'm absolutely certain it will change. It sunk so far, it cannot sink much lower and it must rise.

This post was adapted from Brian Till's new book, Conversations with Power: What Great Presidents and Prime Ministers Can Teach Us about Leadership.

* This post originally misidentified Jonathan Ball as Jonathan Powell. We regret the error.