John Major: You Ask The Questions

Do you think Tony Blair should be impeached over Iraq? Is 'I'm gay and Tory' a contradiction? And should I bet on England to regain the Ashes?
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The Independent Online

John Major was born in 1943, and grew up in Brixton, south London. Educated at his local grammar school, he left at 16 to work for the Standard Chartered Bank, before entering politics in 1965 as a member of Lambeth Borough Council. In 1979, he won the seat of Huntingdon for the Conservatives and served in several posts, eventually becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1989. In 1990, Major succeeded Margaret Thatcher as prime minister, serving for seven years before resigning after defeat in the 1997 general election. He is now retired from politics, and published his memoirs in 1999. He is married to Norma and has two children.

John Major was born in 1943, and grew up in Brixton, south London. Educated at his local grammar school, he left at 16 to work for the Standard Chartered Bank, before entering politics in 1965 as a member of Lambeth Borough Council. In 1979, he won the seat of Huntingdon for the Conservatives and served in several posts, eventually becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1989. In 1990, Major succeeded Margaret Thatcher as prime minister, serving for seven years before resigning after defeat in the 1997 general election. He is now retired from politics, and published his memoirs in 1999. He is married to Norma and has two children.

What's the best thing about not being prime minister any more?
Sarah Barker, Southampton

I can now say, without embarrassment, that "I do not know" or "I'd like time to think about that", responses that, however honest, would be ridiculed if made by a politician in office. I enjoy the freedom of being out of politics as much as once I enjoyed the exhilaration of being a part of it. Probably the best thing of all is being able to return to personal interests, which get crowded out in political life.

Do you think Tony Blair should be impeached over Iraq, and if not, why?
David Lloyd-Howells, Abergavenny

Although, in the months leading up to the Iraq conflict, I expressed strong reservations about the aftermath of military action, I supported the war because I knew Iraq had possessed WMD in the past. I, like most people, assumed from the Government's oratory that there was irrefutable evidence that Iraq still had them, and that they represented a current threat. We have subsequently learnt that their evidence was flimsy and not subjected to rigorous analysis. But there are important factors in mitigation. First, Saddam's behaviour suggested that he retained such weapons. Moreover, intelligence is rarely absolute. It involves judgements on disparate information that can be misleading. For these reasons, those who feel aggrieved should vote accordingly at the next election. But I do not believe impeachment is merited.

In an unguarded moment, you famously referred to a few Cabinet colleagues as "bastards". If you had been living in the constituency of one of these "bastards" at the time of the 1997 general election, would you have voted for them?
Tony Martin, Hitchin (currently represented by Peter Lilley MP)

I spoke in frustration and the three I referred to, whom I have never named, would have received my vote at a general election. But there were those in the parliamentary party who disrupted, rebelled and colluded with the then Opposition. I would not have voted for them. Some have now left the Conservative Party and continue to attack it from the outside.

In 1998, on a school trip to the Houses of Parliament when I was eight, you strode up to us and gave me a big hug. I've never really recovered from the shock. Should I feel special?
Jo Beaufoy, 15, Oxford

Of course you should feel special - but not because of the hug. Everyone is special and should be treated with equal warmth, whatever their age, their background or the corner of life they inhabit.

If you could go back in time would you repeat rail privatisation?
Richard Haszko, Sheffield

I knew rail would be a difficult privatisation - but, yes, I would do it again because, however nostalgic one is about it, the nationalised railway was an unqualified failure.

From the outset, rail privatisation faced unreasoning hostility from Labour and other critics who, while condemning shortcomings in the private sector, they excused them in British Rail.

Privatisation halted a 50-year decline in freight and delivered a one-third increase in passenger miles; it increased investment, and carried forward an improving safety record. Critics of privatisation hate these truths but cannot refute them. It is telling that the Labour Government has not re-nationalised the railways.

With any major reorganisation adjustments are necessary in the light of experience. Any government would have made changes: longer timeframes to encourage investment by the train operating companies, for example, and probably fewer companies, provided these were sufficient to maintain competition. But whatever flaws critics perceive, I believe privatisation was right - and it is permanent.

Which British politician, living or dead, would you most like to take out for dinner?
Eleanor Brown, Cardiff

William Pitt (the Younger) - because the age in which he lived was fascinating and I'd like his views on Burke and Fox. Ramsay MacDonald would be a welcome substitute. His rise from extreme pov- erty to the premiership would make for compelling conversation.

Do you think "I'm gay and Tory" is a contradiction?
Karl Lucas,Cheshire

No. Many people who are gay vote Conservative, and over our long history, many who are gay have risen to prominence within the party.

Should voters be concerned with the moral character of politicians when they vote as well as with their policies and performance? If so, does this give the media the right to investigate all aspects of a politician's private life?
Patrick S Briggs, Teddington

It is right to expect people in public life to have high standards, but best to leave morality to the bishops. Do not expect politicians to be perfect, for they never will be: all individuals are fallible.

As I speak, I hear murmurs of "what about Back to Basics?" But this policy was never about personal morality. It was about bringing politics back to a human scale, to overturn ideas that had failed on crime, health, schools, social services. Its message was distorted by those who sought sticks with which to beat the Conservatives.

Does the media have a right to investigate? Yes - but with that comes a responsibility to be certain of their facts and not to embellish them. Revelations based on hearsay or anonymous quotes are poor - even corrupt - journalism if the quotes are fake.

Do you ever go back to Brixton?
Nick Coakley, Brixton

Sadly, not often, but I retain an affection for Brixton and, from time to time, revisit old haunts to relive particular memories.

Which current affairs presenter did you least look forward to being interviewed by when you were prime minister? And why?
Louis Hoareau, Codford St.Peter

There were no serious interviewers I disliked. I tended to avoid presenters who, instead of absorbing the import of an answer, would stick to a pre-arranged list of questions, which wrecked the free flow of an interview. Successful interviews depend on the skill of the interviewer as well as the interviewee.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Looking back at your political career, what do you consider your greatest achievement? And your worst failure?
Kewal Rai, by e-mail

On the day I became prime minister, we were entering a serious recession as a result of the boom of the late 1980s. Interest rates were 14 per cent, inflation nearly 10 per cent, and unemployment was 1.25 million and rising steeply. Growth was at 0.5 per cent and falling. It was a bleak prospect.

When I left office, interest rates were down to 6 per cent, unemployment was 1.6 million and falling rapidly. Inflation was under 3 per cent, and economic growth had been high for five successive years. This was the rosy prospect that Labour inherited. But I am proud that it was we Conservatives who left this foundation for prosperity.

I am glad, too, to have instituted the "safe havens for the Kurds" policy that saved many thousands of lives at the end of the first Gulf war; and the Peace Process in Northern Ireland, without which there would have been no Good Friday Agreement.

The failure I most regret is that the harsh political decisions that had to be taken due to the recession inhibited some of the policies I wished to implement to create a fairer society more at ease with itself.

What will history make of George W Bush?
Yvonne Parkinson, Bolton

It is far too early to say. If President Bush brings democracy to Iraq and stability to the Middle East, then his reputation will be very high. But - as for all heads of government - the final outcome of his policies may not be apparent until long after he has left office.

Could you describe the reason for your recent visit to British Columbia with George Bush Snr? We saw you on board local billionaire Jimmy Pattison's big yacht, the Nova Spirit, with a full RCMP, Canadian Military surveillance and well-armed ex-CIA security escort, so it's hard for folks around here to believe this was just a "Canadian fishing vacation".
Dwight Shipway, Campbell River, BC

It was a holiday and no more. George and Barbara Bush are close friends. We took a train ride on the Union Pacific and then a boat trip off the coast of British Columbia. Our only agenda was to enjoy ourselves - and we did.

Your government was at the forefront of the West's diplomatic and humanitarian effort during the Bosnian war in the 1990s in which some 200,000 people, mainly civilians, perished. Do you have any regrets about your government's policy toward Bosnia from that period? Is there anything you would have done differently?
Asim Zubcevic, Cambourne

When the conflict erupted, my first instinct was to put troops on the ground to keep the combatants apart. Military Chiefs of Staff told me we would need 400,000 troops to do so, about threee-and-a-half times the total size of the British Army.

We needed allies and, crucially, public opinion in the United States made it very difficult for the US administration to commit troops. None the less - against the foreboding of many Conservatives - we committed troops to a hazardous humanitarian mission. When domestic and overseas critics wished to bomb, military advice was strongly against it: it would have ended humanitarian assistance and may have increased casualties without ending conflict. When war weariness changed circumstances, I did sanction bombing. I have often wondered - and still do not know - whether it might have been right to bomb earlier. What I do know is the whole Bosnian situation was chaotic and anarchic. I did what I believed was right in a nightmare scenario in which we offered more troops and more aid than anyone else in an attempt to prevent the conflict from escalating.

My parents want me to go to university. I don't want to. Am I right? Or am I right?
Mark Patterson, by e-mail

I left school before my 16th birthday and studied privately. Leaving school early gave me experiences in life that might otherwise never have come my way. Nowadays, in mellow reflection, I wish circumstances had allowed me to study English literature or history at university. If I were you, I would go.

Say I'm down to my last £10; should I risk it by going down the bookies and backing England to regain the Ashes next year?
Mike Naylor, Blackpool

If you are down to your last £10, you have very little to lose, though you should seek good odds for your bet. I hope you win.

What music really gets your foot tapping these days?
Claire Pike, London

Since leaving office, I've been lucky enough to enjoy several concerts by The Rolling Stones - and if they don't get your feet tapping, nothing will.

I relax with more mellow music. My most recent CD favourites are Dreamland by Madeleine Peyroux, and the two Great American Songbook albums by Rod Stewart: the orchestration and arrangements on those are sensational.

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