Sir John Major’s Interview on the Andrew Marr Show – 11 April 2021

The text of Sir John Major’s interview on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on 11 April 2021.


ANDREW MARR:

1992 was famously the Queen’s annus horribilis. The failure of three of her children’s marriages, and then the fire at Windsor Castle. Now, the prime minister at the time, the man who had to help support the royal family and sort of difficult financial problems was my next guest, Sir John Major. He was later appointed special guardian to princes William and Harry, and from all of that, of course, he dealt with the late Duke of Edinburgh pretty regularly. Sir John, welcome. Fondest memory?

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

There are so many, but perhaps for this moment I could give you an early memory. I had just been elected leader of the Conservative Party and I bumped into Prince Philip and he came up looking extremely mischievous and he said, “I see your party are electing outsiders now.” He knew what it was like to be an outsider.

ANDREW MARR:

Of course he did.

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

And he often came out with very cryptic remarks like that.

ANDREW MARR:

Now, one thing that you shared, I know, is an enthusiasm for cricket, which involves sitting down for many, many hours and watching test matches, sometimes together. What kind of conversations were you having? I think it could be fairly intimidating to be sitting next to the Duke of Edinburgh for that long?

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

It wasn’t intimidating at all, because we either talked about cricket or we watched the cricket. Nothing is more irritating in life than somebody sitting at your side babbling away when you’re trying to enjoy a cricket match. I felt that way and so did the Duke. But what did happen about cricket, frequently, when we met on occasions, he would sidle up to me with a grin on his face and say, “what’s the cricket score?” if there was a test match or an important game on. He was an off-break bowler, he had an interest in it. He’d been President of the MCC twice, I think, and he maintained that interest in cricket, as in other sports, throughout his life.

ANDREW MARR:

Now, I mentioned the annus horribilis there of course. 1992. You had a lot of engagement with the royal family, lots to talk about, lots of difficulties happening, including over money, and I wonder to what extent, people talk about this being almost like a joint monarchy, he was very involved in its decisions. Did you get an impression that he was engaged from the palace side in taking decisions, in negotiating a way through?

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

He wasn’t so indiscreet as to talk about it in quite that clarity, but I had not the slightest doubt from my discussions with the Queen and with him that he was very much involved with what was happening. It was of course an annus horribili, there was more than one of them. He had them and they rather coincided with mine. I had the odd difficulty at the same time, I recall, with a little help from my friends. And of course we discussed those issues and there was no doubt about the depth and concern of Prince Philip for what the monarchy was facing, and in particular, the Queen.

ANDREW MARR:

Now, he was very involved, as you said, in understanding politics, took a close interest in politics. There was a famous moment, I think, in Ghana, when he was asked about the Ghanaian parliament, and he was told there were 200 Ghanaian MPs and he said something like – I’ve got it here – said, “quite right, that’s about the right number. We have 650 and most of them are a complete bloody waste of time.” Does that really reflect his view of parliament, do you think?

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

I’m not sure. You’d have to ask someone who knows him better than I do. But I rather agree with him about the number of MPs, I think there are too many and there are certainly far too many in the Lords. I think that is self-evident. But often those remarks that he made, those that were regarded as gruff and sometimes caused offence, I think they were remarks to put people at ease more than anything else. It wasn’t intended to be offensive. He was trying to put people who were nervous at meeting him at ease. If you’re meeting the Queen or Prince Philip for the first time, if you’re a normal person you’re nervous. His determination was to put people at ease and by saying something from left field, something that’s a bit anti-establishment, because parliament is the establishment of course, that does create a different perception in the mind and eyes of the people he’s meeting. It relaxes them, and I think that is what he’s about. He often suffered extremely bad headlines and stories as a result of that.

ANDREW MARR:

And offended people too presumably?

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

Indeed, and I think that is what he was about.

ANDREW MARR:

Now, apart from cricket and apart from some of the aspects of politics, what do you think really drove him in terms of his, as it were, broader political passions? What excited him?

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

I think he was excited by things that worked and things that had an element of compassion underneath them. I think that was the driving force for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. It really was a remarkable thing that he began, and of course it was aimed, not exclusively, it was aimed at all young people, but I think it was particularly aimed at young people who weren’t sure they could meet their potential. He wanted to show them that they could meet their potential, here were things that they could learn to do that perhaps they thought they couldn’t do. And if in doing that it gave them confidence, helped them mark out what their future might be, well so much the better. It was amazingly successful and his compassion for that was absolutely genuine. And of course it spread, I think, probably far further, far wider and for far longer than he possibly imagined. But it was indicative of what lay underneath the gruff, the occasional gruff manner. It was the real
Philip, I think, who appeared when he pursued that.

ANDREW MARR:

There’s one phrase that everybody uses about him, they said he was great support to the Queen. But, I wonder, what could that actually mean?

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

Consider the position the Queen is in, she is the head of state. That is a very lonely position in many ways. There are a limited number of people to whom she can really open her heart, to whom she can really speak with total frankness, to whom she can say things that would be reported by other people and thought to be indelicate. Of the handful of people to whom she can speak frankly, her husband Prince Philip was obviously the first one, and I am sure that happened. That is why, I think, the Queen said at a later stage that he was her great stay and support.

At times of difficulty, he was the person who was there. He was the person to whom she could unburden herself. When you’re facing a sea of problems as she so often was, and sometimes when you’re overwhelmed by what has to be done, someone who understands that, someone who can take part of the burden, someone who can share the decision making, someone who can metaphorically, or in the case of Prince Philip, I think probably literally, put their arms around you and say, ‘it’s not as bad as you think. This is what we have to do, this is how we can do it. This is what I think.’ I think when you talk of him being a great support, that was it.

If you saw them at receptions together the Queen would lead, Prince Philip would be behind her, but it would be Prince Philip who would often bring people up to meet the Queen who were too nervous to meet her. So in every way I think he was an astonishing support.

ANDREW MARR:

Which leads sort of inevitably to the question how will she manage without him?

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

Well, it will be difficult. There are no doubt millions of people watching this programme who have lost a partner, a spouse and it is a very lonely time. The Queen and Prince Philip had 73 years of marriage together. That is extraordinary, I can think of no one else who’s had a marriage of that length, in my experience. So it will be an enormous hole in her life that suddenly Prince Philip isn’t there.

How will the Queen manage? I think there are several things to say about that. Firstly, I hope she will be given some time and space. I know she is the monarch, I know she has responsibilities, but she has earned the right to have a period of privacy in which to grieve with her family. After that I think there are two things effectively to say. Firstly, Prince Philip may physically have gone, but he will be in the Queen’s mind as clearly as if she was sitting beside him. She will hear his voice, metaphorically, in her ear. She will know what he would say in certain circumstances, he will still be there in her memory.

ANDREW MARR:

His loud echo is there still.

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

The echo will be there and it always will be, it is with very close relationships. I think after that the Queen is both a stoic and a remarkable public servant. She will return to her work, but I do hope she’s given a little space and a little time and a little freedom to grieve in the way anybody else would wish to do so after having lost their spouse.

ANDREW MARR:

Let me ask you about him as a father and as a grandfather. You were special guardian for Harry and William during a very difficult time. Tell us a little bit about the support he offered them.

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

I saw more of Prince Charles and the boys than I did of Prince Philip. But, of course, he spoke to me about it and he was deeply concerned to make sure that they were getting proper care, and they were. The first time I went to see Prince Charles in the capacity of guardian ad litem, the two boys were there, they were very young still. If you remember, it was a tragic time in 1997, so they were still quite young, but the affection between Prince Charles and the boys was evident. In terms of being a guardian, I had nothing to do with their emotional care, that was in very good hands with their family, and that included Prince Philip.

ANDREW MARR:

Now of course there’s been a lot of trouble since then and there is now a funeral coming where the whole family will be together. Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Roman Catholic cardinal, has said that “many a family gather and get over tension and broken relationships at the time of a funeral, something very profound unites them all again, and that will be true for this family, I am sure.” Do you agree with him?

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

I’m sure he’s right, I hope he’s right. I believe he is right and I certainly hope so. The friction that we are told has arisen is a friction better ended as speedily as possible. They share emotion, they share grief at the present time because of the death of their father, of their grandfather, and I think it’s an ideal opportunity. I hope very much that it is possible to mend any rifts that may exist.

ANDREW MARR:

Now, he was a reformer of course, the Duke of Edinburgh, at the beginning of his time. Very active and challenging when he thought it was stuffy protocol in the way things were done now. Do you if somehow he could be back now as a young man again he’d be reforming the monarchy again? Is this an institution that has to keep changing to survive?

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

I think he was an evolving reformer. He didn’t want to tear things down and start again, he just wanted to ensure that it kept pace with modern times. If you consider not all your listeners will remember the monarchy as it was in the early 1950s, when Her Majesty became Queen, but it has moved an enormous amount, faster in the last 50 years than in any previous 150 at any stage. I think Prince Philip would have been one of the guiding forces behind that. But the Queen too of course. I remember when it was made evident in the time I was Prime Minister, that the Queen thought it was right for her to pay tax. So there is a constant consideration of reform, and I think the Duke, the Duke as a young man, were he still a young man, would be keen to see the monarchy evolve so that it retains its rationale, it retains its centrality, its importance to British life. It is extraordinarily important. You’re seeing it now with the number of people who had never met the Duke, who had never dreamed of meeting the Duke, but they are upset that the Duke has died.

You have probably had the same experience that I have. People have phoned Norma and I from abroad to express their condolences to us because the Duke has died, because they know us and they don’t know the Duke. Now, that will have been multiplied right across the United Kingdom, and only I think damped down by the wretched effect of this virus at the present time.

ANDREW MARR:

Now one thing which doesn’t unite us is that I wasn’t invited to Harry and Meghan’s wedding and you were. I wonder will you be attending the funeral?

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

I have absolutely no idea. I think funerals tend to be family occasions but I have absolutely no idea who will be attending at all.

ANDREW MARR:

We talked about change and reform. Because nature takes its course, inevitably takes its course, we are probably living through the final act of the great Elizabethan age, of this Elizabethan age. Have you any reflections on how the monarchy might have to change in the next period?

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

I think and hope they’re going to be quite a lot of curtain calls over the next few years. I think it is evolving, the central portion of the royal family has become more evident in the last few years. You can see that gradual change occurring.

ANDREW MARR:

So a smaller royal family at the core perhaps?

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

A smaller core taking a higher profile and I think over the next few years, for a raft of reasons, not least the Queen’s venerable age, you will see Prince Charles and Prince William and other members of the family taking a greater role. The burden will be spread a little wider, a little deeper than it has been in the past, I think those changes will come. People often overlook how much the royal family has opened up in the last few decades. I think that is going to continue. I don’t think we’re going to become a bicycling royal family, if I can put it in that way, but I do think they are becoming more open, more evident, more aligned to what happens these days. Particularly as the wider members of their family make that difficult step away from the royal centrality and form lives of their own amongst the grandchildren. That will speed it up, I think.

ANDREW MARR:

Now you are no longer Prime Minister and therefore when the House of Commons resumes you will not be speaking for the nation as it were about this, but if you were, what would you be saying now to the country about the Duke of Edinburgh?

SIR JOHN MAJOR:

I would be expressing my admiration for the way he has behaved as Consort to the Queen for so long. I would recall a point I made earlier about him being her stay and strength. That is absolutely true and now that stay and strength is no longer there, but the people they have cared about for the last 70 years, the four nations of the United Kingdom, the 50 nations of the Commonwealth, the people within it, their family, they’re still all around. I think it might be a nice legacy for Prince Philip if we began to return to the Queen some of the support that she has given to the country, to the Commonwealth, to the family, to the nation during this difficult period of time. I think it is something we owe the Queen. I think it would be a good legacy for Prince Philip. I very much hope that that is what happens, I think it would be a wonderful tribute to him were it to do so.

ANDREW MARR:

Sir John Major, thanks very much for talking to us this morning.