The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1995Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Press Conference in Auckland – 12 November 1995

Below is the text of Mr Major’s press conference in Auckland, on Sunday 12th November 1995.


Let me just say a few words at the outset about the last week, since I left the United Kingdom. We have had a series of unexpected and unusual events. What has been a consistent theme through the week has been the number of occasions one has been reminded of the price that people can pay for peace, for democracy and for freedom.

At the beginning of the week I was in Jerusalem to attend the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin, who was murdered for seeking peace. This morning, Remembrance Sunday, I was at a small War Memorial in Arrowtown, it was a beautiful setting and a really rather lovely occasion, accompanied by both British and New Zealand veterans, the British veterans having travelled with me from the United Kingdom. At those two ceremonies I paid tribute to British and Commonwealth Servicemen who gave their lives for freedom in both the World Wars this century.

And over the weekend, at the Commonwealth meeting, although we had many other things to discuss, a large part of our discussions were overshadowed by the issue of freedom and human rights and by the judicial murder of 9 people, including Mr Ken Saro-Wiwa. That was murder, callous and brutal. It was a direct challenge to the Commonwealth. It was not to be tolerated. The death sentences were confirmed on the very eve of the Commonwealth meeting. They were carried out in the middle of the meeting, despite pleas for clemency from Jim Bolger, the Chairman of the meeting, from Nelson Mandela, from myself and from many others, pleas addressed to the Nigerian regime, in public and in private, and all set aside and ignored by them. Neither was this a single incident, it followed a long series of abuses against human rights and democracy over many years.

We have tried quiet diplomacy for some time with the Nigerians, and clearly it hasn’t proved sufficient. I believe the Commonwealth had no choice but to respond swiftly and decisively. It has done so by suspending Nigeria’s membership of the Commonwealth and making its readmission dependent upon a return to civilian democracy and the release of the political prisoners now held in jails there. If Nigeria does not comply, it will be not suspended, but expelled from the Commonwealth.

I believe this action is merited. And I would go further than that. If the Commonwealth had not risen to this challenge, if it had not decided that it would make living the Harare Principles on good government, then it would have been apparent to people that those principles were not worth the paper they were written on. I think after the last couple of days people know that the Commonwealth are serious about those principles, serious in the short term and serious for the future.

What we will now consider urgently with our partners is the most effective way of following up these immediate steps. Let me set out some preliminary thoughts for you.

I think that there should be the widest possible embargo on defence sales to Nigeria. The policy we have in the United Kingdom is already highly restrictive. We shall now bring in an immediate ban, on a national basis, and we shall ask our partners to do the same.

The Commonwealth has also put in place some permanent machinery for tackling violations of the Harare Principles. We have agreed upon a ladder of measures, of increasing severity, to encourage and persuade governments to return to acceptable behaviour. And those measures can result in suspension or expulsion from the Commonwealth. They are especially designed to tackle military regimes which have overthrown a constitutionally elected government, but of course they will be applicable in other circumstances as well.

We have also set up a standing body whose job will be to monitor the implementation of the Harare Principles and make recommendations for action whenever that might be necessary.

Before we had our discussions on Nigeria, we had an afternoon’s discussion on nuclear testing, and on this occasion we failed to reach agreement. I don’t think that was a surprise to anyone. I had spelled out on a number of occasions beforehand the principles upon which the British position rests: firstly, a recognition of our responsibilities as a nuclear weapon state; secondly, a determination to achieve a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996; and thirdly, a refusal to condemn France for the tests that it is carrying out. In the light of that, I was not prepared to endorse, or to stay silent on, a position which contradicts those principles and does nothing to achieve a test-free world.

I believe that it is a measure of the Commonwealth’s resilience and maturity that after a crisp disagreement amongst friends on nuclear matters we were able rapidly to work together to take decisive action on Nigeria and the Harare Principles.

So I think the outcome has been a good week for the Commonwealth. It has also been an outstandingly good week for British/New Zealand relations. And I would like to express my thanks to the New Zealand Government for this morning’s exceptional Remembrance Service.

I will take back, as I think Norma will as well, a very deep impression of a friendly country, a prosperous country, a modern country, a country with very old links with the United Kingdom, but very close links today as well.

Let me just tell you finally that this morning Commonwealth colleagues accepted my invitation to hold the next Heads of Government Meeting in 1997 in the United Kingdom, and we will take that forward over the weeks and months ahead.




On the Ken Saro-Wiwa case, do you wish now that you had actually met his son for the image and impression that would have given to Nigeria?


I think Lynda Chalker actually did meet Mr Saro-Wiwa Junior and he was aware, even before that meeting, of the support that he had from us. If you recall, I set out my position some time ago. I also set out very clearly yesterday morning the action that I thought the Commonwealth ought to take over Nigeria, and I am delighted that the Commonwealth did take that action. But I think we now know that those sentences were confirmed some time ago.

And I very much regret that the Nigerian government do not seem to have been open to any of the pleas made by myself, by Mr Mandela, by Mr Bolger on behalf of the Commonwealth Conference, and by many others. And what I should say is that we have been making representations to Nigeria over a range of matters, not just over the last 48 hours but over some time.

QUESTION (Paul Reynolds):

I don’t know whether you can answer this question, having been locked up in Queenstown, but John Bruton, the Irish Prime Minister, has made a speech in which he said the support for the British government for a reasonable compromise on the remaining issues for all-party talks is now needed to move the process forward. Is that something you would favour?


It depends what is meant by a reasonable compromise. We had a position, before the summit that never was some time ago, that was an extremely good compromise, and it was not the British government that backed away from that compromise, it was the Irish government that did not proceed with that meeting because it came under pressure from Sinn Fein and from other people. So it is very frustrating for John Bruton, and for me, that we have not yet had a summit and that we have not yet been able to provide the conditions for all-party talks. And I know the Irish government have been under very considerable domestic pressure over the fact that they have not been able to make progress on those talks.

Getting all-party talks is what all of us want. But there is no purpose whatsoever in launching all-party talks until we have a basis that will make sure that there is some chance that those all-party talks are likely to succeed. It is not the Taoiseach’s fault that we are not yet in that position. And neither is it the British government’s fault that we are not yet in that position. The problem, above all, lies with Sinn Fein and Sinn Fein’s complete reluctance to tackle the question, even with an international body, of how their arsenal of weapons and explosives are going to be taken out of commission. And that is important. That is not a semantic point.

When we keep hearing from Mr McGuinness and Mr Adams that there is a fear of violence returning, I ask: from what source is that violence going to return? It is going to return from the IRA and that is effectively what they are warning. And when they are warning that they might return to violence, it is hardly surprising if other people say: before we will sit down with you in round table talks, we want some evidence that you are not going to return to violence. There is no point in Adams and McGuinness saying to us over months, we are set on peace, if a few days later they start making statements which suggest that unless they get their way, on each and every issue, with conceding nothing themselves, that they will return to violence, it is hardly surprising that the Unionists and others believe that we need to be more certain about what their long-term actions are.

So I share John Bruton’s frustration that we are not yet ready to move forward to all-party talks, but the blockage to all-party talks is Sinn Fein and their reluctance to address the problem that must be addressed, of ensuring confidence in the community in the north and ensuring that there is going to be no return to violence. And when I hear Martin McGuinness and others warning that violence may return if parties don’t come to the table, he makes precisely the reason why the other parties will not sit down with him because they fear that that is the position that the IRA will take. So the blockage is theirs and no weasel words to the contrary will change that hard reality.

QUESTION (Robin Oakley):

How many other Commonwealth countries do you see in danger of falling foul of the new disciplinary machinery? And with what the Commonwealth has decided on Nigeria, how worried are you about a backlash on British and European companies with large investments in Nigeria?


Upon the latter point, I cannot say what the reaction of the Nigerians will be. But Nigeria is an important country where there are very substantial human rights abuses. What we are seeking to do is to take action against them to persuade them to return to a proper democratic way of life where there will then be long term advantages both for Nigeria and for the companies trading with them. So I can’t judge what their response will be.

As far as other countries are concerned, there is no country in exactly the same position as Nigeria or the same situation would have arisen over the weekend and they too would have been suspended. There are some countries about whom there are concerns and the Commonwealth will be seeking to persuade them to move to early elections and back to civilian governments and there was some discussion over that at the weekend. If they don’t then I think the Commonwealth would judge them in the same way, and with the same criteria and for the same reasons that they have acted against Nigeria over the last couple of days. But I don’t think that is imminent. we will look at the countries in difficulties

[Small section indistinct]

QUESTION (Simon Walters – The Sun):

Do you fear that Mr. Bruton’s comments might be taken by some people as bolstering the case put by McGuinness and do you think it was rather inappropriate for Mr. Bruton to make these remarks in London while you are away on Remembrance Sunday of all days?


John Bruton has worked very hard to try and promote the circumstances where we can move forward to all-party talks and get complete agreement. While I have been here, I haven’t had the chance to read the details of all he had to say. All I can say is that it is usually in character for him to try and find a way forward, not to frustrate a way forward, so I don’t quite know. Perhaps it was frustration that lay behind this particular speech but the important thing is for us to continue to work together and to make sure that the democratic governments and the democratic parties set the right sort of conditions so that we can have all-party talks.

I have to make this clear: what is not a starter is for people make it clear that they would resort to violence if they don’t get their way in talks and then expect to be admitted to talks on that basis. That isn’t on, it isn’t on for us, can’t be on for the Irish Government, other governments that have an interest, the Unionists or any of the democratic parties. We need evidence of good faith and words suggesting a return to violence hinder the chance of talks, they do not add to them.

QUESTION (Philip Johnston – The Daily Telegraph):

Prime Minister, you are returning home to quite a critical time in the political calendar with the budget coming up and the Queen’s Speech. How do you propose over the next year getting out of the position you are in at the moment, 40 points behind in the polls and facing a likely election defeat at the hands of the Labour Party?


I would like to know which part of the political calendar isn’t critical. I’m open to suggestions as to when it may be. In the 16 years I have been in the House of Commons, I have never found a part of the political calendar that wasn’t critical for one reason or another and the last opinion poll I saw was nothing remotely like the one you just quoted, in fact it was rather half that and rather less than half of that and if one tends to look at what is happening in the local election results, you will see a different picture already beginning to emerge so the opinion polls will begin to change.

What is substantially the basis of my confidence about the next election is when you look at the really big issues to see whether things are going well or badly. If you look at the economy, for example, I am not sure if any of the distinguished people here this afternoon can recall an occasion when we had inflation so securely under lock and key, interest rates so relatively low, growth at the upper end of the European level, unemployment having been on a downward curve for over two years and growth in the economy fuelled by investment and exports rather than a short-term artificial consumer boom.

That position is becoming more apparent month after month and I could range over a series of other issues as well. I think in terms of other policies, European policy, there is now a much greater understanding of our policies that were criticised both abroad and at home some time ago and it is becoming apparent to people that the long-term position we have taken is right and not wrong so I am confident. I remain confident about the future position and I always enjoy the run-up to an election period even though it may be a lengthy run-up to an election period. We may well have another 18 months or so before the election but I shall no doubt enjoy every day of it.

QUESTION (Ian Black):

On Nigeria, Prime Minister, you talked about the widest possible embargo on defence sales. How will that differ from the existing embargo on defence sales? On punitive measures, there have been quite a lot of calls in the last 24 hours for tougher action against Nigeria including economic sanctions, oil exports and so on and so forth. Are you contemplating anything beyond what you have just referred to?


I said there should be the widest possible embargo. Of course, I was speaking beyond the United Kingdom when I said that. As far as the United Kingdom is concerned, I went on to say there will be an immediate ban on a national basis. That differs from the present situation, which is highly restrictive but not a complete ban, so that is the extent to which it varies there.

As far as other matters are concerned, we will look at the options. The High Commissioner has come home and we will have consultations with him over the next few days and make our announcements in due course.

On the general question, traditionally with things like oil embargoes and trade sanctions, they tend generally to function only under a United Nations mandate when there are threats to international peace and security. The difficulty is that the judgement we have to make on things like that is whether within the Nigerian economy they would cause worse unemployment, worse poverty, worse misery and worse starvation that is already being suffered and those are judgements we would have to make.

In the long term, what we seek is economic improvement for Nigeria, not economic destruction for Nigeria, not least for the reasons I set out a moment ago about the Nigerian people but at the moment we haven’t had a chance to consider these matters in detail and some of them, such as the one you raised, would need to be considered internationally in any event.

QUESTION (Chris Buckland):

Prime Minister, you have spoken about how well you got on with Mr. Bolger and how prosperous New Zealand is. Mr. Bolger’s government is well known for its drastic cuts in the welfare state. Have you learned anything from him on this and are you tempted down this road? Do you think it would be successful?


I will tell you what I did learn from Mr. Bolger, very much and it is probably relevant to the question Simon nearly asked but didn’t quite get in! There was a time before the last election when Mr. Bolger seemed a long way behind in the opinion polls and nobody thought he was going to win but he did win and that is a very useful thing for everyone to observe I think. We will look at control of public expenditure and we will make our announcements at the end of this month in the budget speech.

QUESTION (Nick Wood – The Times):

Prime Minister, you have been pressed repeatedly, I think, in the last months to rule a single European currency in the next Parliament. Do you see any prospect of you so doing at some point in the run-up to the next election?


I have set out our position and I have nothing to add to it today.

QUESTION (Simon Walters – The Sun):

The point I wanted to make was that you are that far behind – 40 points behind or 20 points behind on your figures – and the arguments that you put of inflation, the economy and other factors have been put for the last one, two, three years.

The fact is it is having no effect whatsoever. Your deficit in the polls has stayed exactly the same, the election is now getting closer and closer and it is becoming harder and harder to see you overtaking the Labour Party and not least, look at the way that Keating is behaving; Blair is going there for Christmas and they are acting as though they think Tony Blair is Prime Minister in-waiting.


If you had had my conversations with Paul Keating, you would have been better informed.

Let me deal with the question of the opinion polls. When you have two opinion polls within a week that are 23 points apart, I think you might have a certain scepticism about opinion polls. I have very great scepticism about opinion polls and you see that phenomenon occurring to a greater or lesser degree in places all over the world where opinion polls change very rapidly. To take a separate example, if you look at the referendum in Canada, at one stage the people in favour of separation were ahead by double figures within two or three weeks of the campaign, then they were 7 points behind and in the event it was almost a dead heat. That suggests not just in the United Kingdom but in other places as well – I will give you other examples if you wish – opinion polls are becoming an increasingly erratic and unsatisfactory guide and I think that is the case.

I prefer to look at what has happened in the past, look at what is beginning to happen in the local elections which is beginning to show a marked improvement and also recall what happened in the last General Election where five days before polling day I don’t think there was a single newspaper represented here this afternoon who did not write off our chances of winning the last General Election. We were actually 7 points ahead on polling day. I think there may be one here that thought we would win but most of them didn’t. On the back of that, Simon, you will understand my scepticism over your assertions.

QUESTION (Simon Walters):

Is a dead heat the best you will get?


That’s not what I said, Simon. Even you can’t produce that headline out of what I said.

QUESTION (John Deans – The Daily Mail):

Prime Minister, will the suspension of Nigeria from the Commonwealth have implications for British immigration or asylum policy?


I will have to look at that. We will have to look at what all the ramifications are but at the moment they are suspended from the Commonwealth, they are not expelled from the Commonwealth. Let me make that point but I will need to look at precisely what the position is. I am not aware that it is likely to have an impact upon individual Nigerians and for this reason: our squabble is not with individual Nigerians, our squabble is with the Government of Nigeria so I think we would look with that in mind at any internal changes in the United Kingdom.

QUESTION (Evan Black):

Going back very briefly to the seminar, do you think that the behaviour of Patrick Nicholls asking questions and then asking for shares from the company concerned is helpful to your fight back?


I have not the faintest idea what you are talking about. I have been in Arrowtown and I am not going to answer it on the basis of your assessment of it, Evan.

QUESTION (Robin Oakley – BBC):

Prime Minister, you mentioned the row over the French nuclear testing in the Pacific. There was a lot of puzzlement among people here at CHOGM that you played it as toughly as you did afterwards in the sense that Australians and New Zealanders felt that their leaders had been a little bit soft and maybe given away too much to you. Why were you so angry? Were you perhaps just deliberately picking a fight for presentation at home?


I thought it was grandstanding to be blunt. I was angry because I think they were wrong. It was grandstanding. Britain has been seeking a comprehensive test ban treaty, they have encouraged other people to have a comprehensive test ban treaty but the world is not yet safe enough for the nuclear-weapon states not to have nuclear weapons. If you are going to have nuclear weapons, you need to make sure they are safe.

Britain is in the position that it doesn’t have to test. France is not in the position that it doesn’t have to test. Am I to say to the President of France: “Throw away your nuclear weapon because you mustn’t test!” and diminish the security of Western Europe? I don’t think I am likely to say that and I also took the view, to be blunt, that there were a large number of people present at the Commonwealth meeting who in case of need would certainly look to Britain for support and help on matters military just as in the past when we needed help they came to our side so I thought there should have been a better understanding of the position.

I looked at it as a matter of principle. It wasn’t a matter of tactics, it wasn’t a matter of picking a row or any of that nonsense that I read about, it was a matter of principle. It is not yet safe in my judgement for there not to be nuclear weapons. When it is safe, no-one will be more pleased that I am but the happy day hasn’t yet dawned.

We didn’t need to test, the French did. I think the fact that there is a British deterrent and a French deterrent makes the world safer than it would be without them and if one looks at any of the less stable states who may be near to nuclear weapons or biological weapons or chemical weapons, I think you see the strong reasons why Britain wants to maintain its nuclear weapon and will retain its nuclear weapon until we consider it safe not to.

What I found very striking in that whole episode was the way in which the British Labour Party jumps around trying to score domestic points that can have only one implication and the implication is that the British nuclear weapon would not be safe if there was a British Labour Government. It is another illustration where the gap between what they say and what they really think is very wide and when what they really think comes out, as it did in their attempts to be difficult on that issue over the last few days, you see that they have not moved nearly as far in policy as they have occasionally with their oratory. There is a great gap between what they think, what they really believe and what they say and that was exposed yet again over this issue.

QUESTION (Robin Oakley – BBC):

If your scientists came to you tomorrow and said you needed to test, you would test?


My scientists have come to me and told me I don’t need to test so it won’t arise but that wasn’t the happy position that President Chirac was in.