Sir John Major’s Interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme about the Platinum Jubilee – 3 June 2022

The interview between presenter Nick Robinson and Sir John Major, broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme on 3 June 2022.


NICK ROBINSON

What do you think the public value most from their Monarch?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

I think there are lots of things to celebrate and there are lots of answers to that particular question. I think probably the Queen’s service to the nation, that has been impeccable. The dignity and grace with which she has carried out her work over such a extraordinarily long period. I think they are two absolutely key objectives, although you could mention many others, her sheer decency and the way in which she has represented the instincts of the British nation for such a long period.

NICK ROBINSON

This has been such a long reign, we have many moments remembering where we were, were you there at the time of the Silver Jubilee? Do you even remember as a boy of the Coronation?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

I remember the Coronation better, I was ten at the time. From heaven knows where, my mother and father had scratched together enough money to buy an old 12 inch flickering black and white television and our neighbours crowded in to watch the Coronation. My job throughout the day was to make a constant supply of tea and bring it in and out, bring in the tea, take out the cups, bring in the cakes, take out the plates, but it was still a very memorable occasion.

I remember particularly that at the end of that day, my father who was then 75 made a brief speech. I can’t remember precisely what he said, but the text was this, ‘the grey days have gone, we’ve now got a splendid young Queen, better days are coming’. I remember him saying that and everyone dutifully clapped and I could see my mother crying in the corner. Of course, the better days did come.

NICK ROBINSON

If someone in that room on that day, if someone had said she would still be on the throne seventy years later, few of you would have believed it. Now when you look back, do you have a sense of how she managed to stay popular and relevant during that time?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

It is extraordinary isn’t it? I cannot think of any other public figure, any other celebrity, and other president, if we had a political president, who could possibly have remained so popular and after seventy years the country would be celebrating that they had been there for seventy years. It is quite unique. I think there are a number of reasons for it, the Monarchy has evolved and it is immeasurably different from the Monarchy of 1952, much more open and much more informal. For those seventy years, the Queen has effectively been the ship of state as we’ve moved through all the things that have happened.

Also of course, she’s very familiar to everyone as her life has been played out in public. The highs, the lows, the good bits, the not so good bits, but yet through it all the Queen has represented our better selves for over seventy years. Those are some of the reasons for her popularity, but there are more of course, but I think that is fundamental.

NICK ROBINSON

I want to come in a second to the almost unique relationship you had with her as a Prime Minister, seeing her in private. You talk of that popularity, but there were difficult days, you were Prime Minister during the time of what she referred to herself as her Annus horribilis back in 1992, during her 40th anniversary. The separation of Charles and Diana, various Royal tabloid scandals, Princess Anne’s divorce, the awful fire at Windsor Castle. What in her character do you think enabled her to get through those times?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

She is amongst other things a stoic and I think at the difficult times her instinct was to put her head down and keep going, ‘and this too shall pass’ I think was her motto. Whatever happens, the daffodils will be there next spring. I think that capacity to put things in a box, to realise that they pass and they’re not eternal and things will improve and change. Whether it’s an instinctive part of her natural nature or whether it’s something she learned, I really can’t possibly know. But I think that is the way that she has managed to maintain grace and dignity under pressure, for there has been pressure. You cannot be in public life as much as she has, for as long as she has been, without facing pressures of all sorts of unexpected kinds.

NICK ROBINSON

This year was extraordinarily difficult for her, not just because of the loss of her beloved husband, but the trials of Prince Andrew, the dispute that was clearly going on in the family about the role of Prince Harry and Meghan. Again though, somehow she seems to have got through all that?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

It has been a trying time in many ways, but I think she draws a great deal of strength from the support that she gets across the country. If you go back to the Diamond Jubilee, which in a sense we’re repeating with the Platinum Jubilee, I remember people hanging out of the windows as her boat went down the Thames, even in pouring rain, standing in their thousands at the side, simply to show their support, and I think their affection for the Queen as well. I think that’s immensely helpful.

NICK ROBINSON

Are you confident that now this really will be the celebration that she has hoped for that would bring everyone together, regardless of class, or gender or race or ethnicity, or is this a party for some and only for some?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

By everyone, if you mean everyone of the 70 million, obviously not, but if you mean the vast overwhelming majority of the British nation, I think the answer is that they will come together. There will be some who are Republican, there will be some for their own reasons feel differently, but in terms of the vast overwhelming weight of public opinion and public instinct, I think it will bring people together at what is a very difficult time. I think that bit of unification comes at a hopeful and worthwhile time for our country.

NICK ROBINSON

You mentioned about the role that she played. What do we not see that you as the country’s elected leader saw in terms of how she was helping? If not you as a politician, but you as the leader of UK PLC?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

The Queen is a hidden asset, she’s part of our soft power. You only have to see that whenever you see her with Presidents or Prime Ministers of other countries. You saw it recently at the G7, you saw it in spades at the Commonwealth conference where leaders, whether long-serving, experienced or powerful leaders in their own country, are a little in awe of a Queen who has become iconic with her number of years on the throne. They’re keen to meet her, they’re keen to shake hands with her and keen to be photographed with her. You see the worldwide reach of the Monarchy. When people in almost every part of the world speak of the Queen, they mean our Queen.

NICK ROBINSON

Did you find her more than just a good listener? Was she a good adviser too, was that a valuable part of your week rather than just a duty?

SIR JOHN MAJOR

It wasn’t a duty, it was something to be looked forward to, in many ways it was cathartic. You could discuss things with the Queen that you couldn’t really discuss with hardly anybody else. Politics, even amongst the closest of colleagues, tends how best can we put this Nick, can be a little leaky. One thing about the meetings with the Queen is that no-one is there, just the corgis, behaving or not, as the case may be, and you could speak in absolute privacy. There is no Private Secretary there, no notes were made, you could say exactly what you wish, exactly what is on your mind and so can the Queen. That is very valuable.

You ask if she’s a good listener. Yes she is, but I think more relevantly, she’s a good questioner. Gently, she asks the right questions and I think people would be surprised at the depth of knowledge she has of how people who are not close to the Monarchy actually live in their own lives. She knows a great deal about it and her questions are very pertinent and it was always extremely useful because it was a completely external view from someone who knew politics, who had been looking at state papers for 28 years at the time I became Prime Minister. There is no-one in the world who has ever seen as many state papers over such a long period as the Queen and of course she has learned a great deal from that. I often came away from those meetings thinking to myself what a shame she isn’t in the Cabinet. I have to say though, I’m not sure that she shared that view.

NICK ROBINSON

I’m not sure that she would have accepted the promotion!

SIR JOHN MAJOR

I think not sharing her view is another example of her wisdom.

NICK ROBINSON

Thank you for sharing your memories of, and your tributes to, the Queen.