Sir John Major’s Interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme – 27 June 2020

Below is the text of the interview with Sir John Major on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme on 27 June 2020.


MARTHA KEARNEY

There’s a focus on the terrible problems, the tragedies, caused by the pandemic. But we should also remember that there have been some positives too?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

There have been quite a few and there may be a lot still to come. Most crises throw up opportunities and I’m sure this one will. For example, they can change what was merely possible into something that becomes inevitable – because it is unavoidable.

So among the losses of the virus, there will be gains. Some are apparent already. We’ve seen one with rough sleepers. This has been a problem for 20, 30, 40 years and yet for health reasons, it has been absolutely necessary to take rough sleepers off the streets. That has happened, is very welcome, and is great progress. We now need policy to keep them from returning there. That’s one illustration, of which there will be many more.

MARTHA KEARNEY

It’s an indictment that it’s taken a pandemic to address a problem like that and to have this sort of urgent action?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

There are some things that tend to do this. It’s likely, not certain though, that the lessons of this pandemic will lead to a tipping point in our value system. The virus has showcased inequalities, and as a result of that public opinion and priorities may change.

If I can give some examples, everyone is aware of the remarkable job done by the National Health Service and the NHS is clearly going to have an even greater priority in funding, in research and in training than ever before. I think that the country as a whole will welcome that, and will want people who work in the NHS to be fairly treated.

But beyond that, we’ve learned that there are many unglamorous jobs in our economy, often lowly paid, that are crucial to our way of life. I have in my mind care workers, who are generally lamentably paid – but also cleaners, porters, the refuse collectors who protect our health by collecting our rubbish, shop assistants, a huge number of people who we depend upon in our daily life. I think that has become clearer, and will have an effect on policy. It has become evident that a lot of people have been left behind by the changing nature of modern life. That has been happening over quite a long period and it hasn’t been sudden, but the shock of the virus has made that crystal clear.

MARTHA KEARNEY

So many of those people have borne the brunt haven’t they in terms of their health and lives?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

Some have lost their lives, some have lost their health. Many of the people who have cared for the sick have themselves been living in fairly deficient accommodation. Many of those who supported them have done so too, and common decency suggests that this has to be put right. I think that the national conscience post-Covid may well demand it.

MARTHA KEARNEY

It’s not just a question of national conscience is it? It’s a question often of Government policy, such as care-workers and we’ve seen terrible situations erupting in our care-homes. Social care has been an issue that has been neglected by many Governments hasn’t it?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

I agree with that. I think that it has been under-valued, and I don’t think it’s possible to under-value it any longer – and that may be an advance. I’m very conscious that it is easy for me, who is not in Government and doesn’t have to enact policy to point these things out. These are very big issues, and they are very complex for any Government. The solutions will be expensive and some of them will have to be long-term. But some are immediate. I don’t know if I speak for others when I say this, but it seems to me that ending dependence on food banks is essential. It’s truly shocking that we have food banks in 2020.

Then there are the much bigger issues. Clean, healthy homes for example. We know that’s necessary, and steps have been made towards that by Government after Government. We don’t just need a policy for issues such as housing and those left behind by modern life. If we step back, we are still the fifth or sixth richest nation in the world and we have to acknowledge that. We need a crusade to improve the living standards of those people who have fallen behind.

If this Government, and its successor Governments (because this is a very long-term project) tackle hardship consistently and enthusiastically – a crusade for a decade as it were – then it will do a great deal to end divisions in parts of our society.

MARTHA KEARNEY

You’ve acknowledged that that crusade would be expensive and you think that there might be more of a public appetite for this, but what are you talking about? Are you talking about greater Government intervention? We were looking back at some things you’ve talked about in the past, in 2015, you said some people think the solution is easy, penalise the rich, cut defences, cut overseas aid, borrow more and spend more. You’ve said that that argument is simplistic and naive. So what should the Government be doing?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

None of this is easy for any Government of any political ideology, but it seems to me that it is going to be inevitable that the Government takes a greater role in what happens in terms of the future, in terms of social care, simply because there is nobody else who can do it. The attractions of small Government are always ideologically obvious, but the practicalities, from where we are at the moment, are that the Government is going to have to take the lead in policies that deal with many of our social problems.

I said that this is going to be extremely expensive, but there are other positives that are not as expensive. So how does the Government handle this? Let me make one point first, I think to put up taxes before the economy has recovered, which may take a while, would in my view be a mistake. Over time, there is little doubt that taxes are going to rise. For the moment, because interest rates are so low, and likely to remain so, it’s possible for borrowing to take the strain in a way it couldn’t have done a quarter of a century ago.

MARTHA KEARNEY

So even though our debt levels are now more than 100% of national income, which is eye-wateringly high in historic terms, you think there is still a case for more borrowing?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

I think it will be inevitable in the short-term. It would be politically impossible for any government not to deal with these problems. They will neither wish to, nor will be able to ignore them and I don’t think that, at this moment, they can tax. So I think there is scope in the short-term. Not forever – and there is no magic money tree, let me make that clear – but for a period, until the economy has recovered and taxes for some people can then go up.

MARTHA KEARNEY

The money would be spent on the left behind people? Continuing perhaps with the furlough scheme in some sense after it’s due to end?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

I don’t want to be prescriptive about what needs to be done. There is a whole range of options and priorities may become clearer as we move out of lockdown. But clearly the Government is going to have to borrow a great deal, and there are one or two imaginative things that previous Governments may have been against, which they may wish to look at. As an example, I think you can use borrowing as a social tool. For decades, our nation has been told to save for retirement and, over the last few decades, many people have done so in order to be secure in their retirement.

With interest rates now at their present level, which is in some ways helpful, the people who have saved and who have done what Governments have asked them to do, are now earning nothing on their savings. This is causing resentment and embarrassment.

One option might be to offer very long-term bonds, say twenty years, to UK nationals at a slightly higher rate of interest, and perhaps with the added advantage that if the investor dies during the period of the investment, then the sum they invested is excluded from inheritance tax. There are lots of variants, investment in bonds for hospital building or social housing. Of course, the Government can borrow more cheaply from the markets, but that often means a foreign commitment rather than a domestic commitment. I think there would be an appetite for domestic investment from many people in the UK.

MARTHA KEARNEY

I wanted to move onto another very important area and one which I know you care a great deal about, the future of the United Kingdom itself. We’ve seen different parts of the United Kingdom, different countries, moving in different directions and at different speeds over coronavirus measures. How do you see the future?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

The priority in the future is, in my mind, to keep the United Kingdom as a single entity. I believe every part of it is better off within the United Kingdom rather than split away, for a range of complex reasons that I and many other people have made clear in the past.

As policy develops, it would be much more difficult for the Scottish Nationalists, for example, to win a referendum in the short-term, because of the economic difficulties that they, too, will face as a result of Covid. In that period, the UK Government should work very hard to try and reconnect to a greater extent with the way the Scots think and act, and try and persuade away the arguments for breaking away from the United Kingdom.

There may be a breathing space to do that, and we should hug the regions closely and make sure they are properly consulted – as they should be. They need to be given a great deal of freedom as they are now, but we must do everything we can to keep the United Kingdom as an entity. Without it, we are all much weaker.

MARTHA KEARNEY

And finally, we’ve been talking about the kind of lessons to be learned in social terms and in economic terms? What about the way that the pandemic has been handled so far? Do you think that there’s an urgency that we look at what has been happening in recent weeks in order for us to be able to handle any potential second wave more effectively?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

In due course there will be a full-scale Inquiry, but the time for that is not yet. It might be practicable to have what you might call a “quick and dirty” look to see what lessons can be learned in case it returns in the winter, or next year. But we mustn’t overlook, and I hope we won’t, the many positives there have been across the country that have arisen solely because of the crisis that we’ve passed through.

MARTHA KEARNEY

Sir John Major, many thanks indeed for talking to us.

SIR JOHN MAJOR

Thank you.