John Major: leaving Afghanistan 'morally incomprehensible'
The departure from Afghanistan leaves a 'stain on the reputation of the west', the former prime minister tells the FT Weekend Festival, as he discusses Britain's place in the world, and says nationalism in Boris Johnson's Conservative party needs 'rooting out'
Produced and edited by James Sandy; Filmed by James Sandy and Silverstream TV for FT LIve
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Hello, Alec, how nice to meet you.
Very, very nice to meet you. Thank you for coming.
It's a pleasure.
Here we are at the FTWeekend Festival. I have just had a fascinating interview with Sir John Major. He was incredibly outspoken on a host of issues, in particular Afghanistan, America's place in the world, Britain's place in the world post-Brexit, the state of the Conservative Party and the future of the union. So let's hear what he had to say.
So I think everyone would agree we have to start with Afghanistan.
I think we were wrong to leave Afghanistan. I think we were wrong morally, but we were also wrong practically. 50 per cent, a little more of the Afghan population are under 21. They have lived the whole of their lives in an improving situation under local governments, but effectively sponsored by Nato with growing freedoms without those 21 years. And the probability is, nothing is certain, but the probability is that will now be reversed and they will go back to a much more difficult situation. I find that morally incomprehensible.
But then if I may take the wider point, it's also, I think, strategically very stupid. What does America and her allies leaving Afghanistan actually mean for their prestige and their own security? Do we think that Ukraine feels a little safer from Russia as a result of our scuttle from Afghanistan? I don't think Ukraine feels safer? Does Hong Kong feel safer from China or does Taiwan, or does South Korea, or does Japan, or does the Philippines? I think the answer to all those questions is no. And in my considered view, leaving Afghanistan when we did, how we did, with so little consultation even between the closest allies, so much for global Britain, the fact that it was left in that fashion will leave a stain on the reputation of the West that will for a very long time and certainly through the whole of the lifetime of those people in Afghanistan whom we have returned to Taliban rule.
Over the years, America's role, until some recent disasters, has been overwhelmingly benevolent. Now, it does seem from what the president has said that they are retreating from external responsibilities. It isn't just Afghanistan. I seem to recall reading, I'm not sure whether they've actually done this yet, but they are proposing to move aircraft carriers away from the Middle East and into the Pacific. If you leave a vacuum, who is going to move in instead of America. And the answer to that in the Middle East is going to be probably, primarily, Russia, but also to an extent China. That is a trend in international politics and diplomacy that I don't like and that I don't think is good for our future security.
British prestige, for generations, was built up by the fact that we were ensconced centrally between the United States and the European Union. And then we chose to leave the European Union and the United States, it appears, are moving away from us and towards the East, which leaves us in a much less satisfactory and powerful position in terms of diplomacy around the world.
We are not a superpower. Let us brush that away. There are three superpowers - China, America, and the European Union. We are not among them. But we are still a very significant nation, partly because of our history and partly because of our economic and, to some extent, moral authority. And we should use that. We should use that to convene people for good purposes. The need to look again at the post-war settlement, a large part of which is no longer working as once we hoped it would. The United Nations is not working as we hoped it would because of the blockage in the Security Council of China and Russia on so many areas. The World Health Organisation has been disregarded to a large extent, self-evidently after this pandemic. There ought to be an international effort to improve its funding and its activities.
Now, I think Britain can act as a coordinator. In many ways we can be a voice for the voiceless in many parts of the world. I think we should do that. And I think we should strike out with more homegrown initiatives, rather than just hanging on the back of initiatives that were either European-inspired or American-inspired, which tended to be the case when we were inside the European Union. So there are some things we can do outside and I think we have to pursue them.
I do think we are at risk of the union breaking up. Far from being global Britain, if we lose Scotland or Northern Ireland, we'll be seen as broken Britain. I don't think it's imminent. I don't think we're going to lose it this year, next year, or the year after. But I think over the timescale of a decade, unless we work at making the relationship a good deal better, unless we look again at the devolution settlement, unless we stop doing things that actually take powers back, we've just taken powers back from Europe, but we haven't given them to the devolved assemblies. We've kept them at Westminster and that has caused a great deal of resentment.
And I'm sorry this is lengthy, but there's one final point. Scottish nationalism is a dangerous, Northern Ireland nationalism is a dangerous, Welsh nationalism is dangerous. None of them, not even collectively, are as dangerous as English nationalism. If English nationalism begins to take root and seriously interfere with what would have been the traditional British policies of the United Kingdom government, then I think that will be a death knell for the union.
There is a nationalist cuckoo in the nest of the Conservative Party as a whole. And it needs rooting out. It's always been there to a degree, but it used to be a tiny minority stuck on one wing of the party. And the sooner it retreats to that, the better it will be for the Conservative Party.
When some of the most miserable people in the world facing repression, perhaps death, perhaps famine, perhaps war up sticks with their wife and their children because they have no future there and they seek elsewhere, I'm afraid Europe and the United Kingdom are closing their doors in a way that is quite difficult to actually comprehend. There is legislation proposed, not yet passed, I hope it isn't, that criminalises their activities. Now, when you consider, you will remember 1763 very well I'm sure. The then Lord High Chancellor, as he was called Lord Henley said and I think I quote accurately, he said, "If a man steps foot in England, he is a free man." That was in 1763. In 2021, if a refugee steps foot in England and not having come through the official route, they are not a free man. They're a criminal and liable to be sent to jail. I don't think that's an advance, but that's populism.
Thank you very much for coming to talk to us.