Former Prime Minister Sir John Major has spoken out against Brexit and says the North East economy needs more big investments like Nissan after the loss of its shipbuilding and mining industries.
In an exclusive interview, former Prime Minister Sir John Major, who served as PM between 1990 and 1997, says he feels leaving the European Union will weaken the United Kingdom in particular around trade deals.
He feels, while admitting he was partially to blame for the area’s mines closing during the 1990s, which led to thousands of workers being made redundant across the region, that more needs to be done to divide investment more equally across the country, so places like the North East can thrive.
He also says losing Nissan is something the area “emphatically does not need.”
Sir John, who was the guest speaker at the South Shields Lecture, organised and hosted annually by the town’s ex-MP David Miliband at Harton Academy, said: “The North East has had a very difficult time.
“They have lost shipbuilding, our cost structure is no longer competitive, we have the skills, but the cost structure is being undercut.
Unless we divide more evenly, the infrastructure and investment around the country, we are continually going to be in a position where different parts of the country have different levels of prosperity.Sir John Major
“We don’t have the mines. I remember the mines being closed in the 1990s, as I bear part of the responsibility for that and I remember what an outcry there was and how it upset the community.
“But they are not there any more, shipbuilding is not there any more. Nissan came into Sunderland, and the North East needs more big investments like Nissan.
“What it emphatically does not need is to lose the Nissan investment or even to stop Nissan from continuing to invest. “It is possible they could stay but not invest any more, but that is not what the North East needs.
“It needs Nissan to be here and for Nissan to continue to invest and it needs other people to invest.
“When we look forward, unless we divide more evenly, the infrastructure and investment around the country, we are continually going to be in a position where different parts of the country have different levels of prosperity.
“And that is not good for either politics, or social relationships nor the people who live in those areas. There is a huge amount to be done.”
Talking trade deals and the North East in light of Brexit, he said: “It was going to be the easiest trade deal in history, but it seems not to be so.
“We were going to get exactly the same relationship with trade that we had in the Single Market, it plainly is not so.
“We were going to get £350 million a week for the NHS. The reality is we are going to be paying £40 billion in departure costs, quite apart from the absolute huge costs in salaries for the vast number of extra civil servants who have been hired to see us through Brexit.
“Apart from which there is the huge cost on businesses in every conceivable part of this country - including the North East - in actually preparing for Brexit.
“Money they can well have done without spending to deal with whatever may happen and particularly if we get no deal.
“You add up those costs, they dwarf any benefit that was promised to us in the referendum. And I had not noticed any great sign of people rushing to do those trade deals that we were promised would be easy.
“What I have seen is that the European Union have started doing trade deals with exactly the people that we wanted to have trade deals with like Japan.”
Praising the work and education carried out at Harton Academy, under the leadership of executive headteacher Sir Ken Gibson, he said: “We need to make sure the young people at school are actually taught the skills that will make them employable, not just today, but in five years, 10 years, 15 years’ time. Because of robotics, because of the electronics, because of mechanisation, because of the global market.
“Our world is going to look very different in just a few years, and it’s no good preparing them for the world of yesterday, they need to be prepared for the world of tomorrow and that is especially true of areas like the North East which we can justifiably argue that it has been left behind.”
John Major on second referendum
Sir John Major says a second referendum should not be ruled out as talks continue in a bid to reach an agreement as the UK gets set to leave the European Union.
As Prime Minister Theresa May battles to thrash out a deal with the member states ahead of the November deadline, the ex-Prime Minister has his doubts whether we will be any further forward in reaching an agreement by that time.
But not to rule out completely that an agreement could eventually be reached.
He feels part of the problem is people voted for what he called a “fantasy” Brexit which was undeliverable, which is why he says a second referendum should not be ruled out.
He said he doesn’t buy a further referendum would be undemocratic in light of the information people now know, and that the country should be given the chance to vote on the “facts” they know now and the reality and impact of leaving the European Union.
He said: “People voted for a fantasy Brexit, they voted for a Brexit that was never going to be negotiable. And anybody who had ever negotiated with Europe knew it was undeliverable.
“Not because the European Union were out to do down poor little Britain. But because the European Union is a rule based organisation.
“It is difficult to get an agreement around a family table sometimes on something, and you have to get an agreement against 27 nations and they have their rules, and they are not just going to surrender their rules to a nation that chooses to leave. So what was promised in the referendum was never going to be deliverable.
“So when people have in front of them about what the deal might look like they are in a better position to reach a decision than they were when all they had in front of them was uncertainty and promises.
“So I would certainly not rule out a second referendum.
“I don’t buy the argument that is used by some people that this is undemocratic. I can’t see anything undemocratic in asking the nation what it wishes to do. If the second referendum is undemocratic, then so was the first.
“Politics isn’t something that stands still, it moves on like a rolling stream and that is true of people’s opinions as well.”
He added: “The negotiations are way behind where they should be. We should be a great deal more further advanced than we are.
“Plainly the negotiations are in quite a lot of difficulty. The proposals the Government have are not acceptable to the European Union, so it’s extremely unlikely they are going to be concluded.
“And that raises the question as to what happens if there is no deal. And that is an issue the Government will have to face pretty soon, if they are either to get a withdrawal agreement in November, or a further agreement on future trade relationships thereafter.
“There is a whole series of different scenarios. Maybe, the European Union or the British Government changes its position so that we can move closer towards an agreement, that is how negotiations normally works, that is why it is called negotiation.
“People just don’t set out and say this is what I’m having and people agree, because it would be far apart so they have to make sacrifices in their position in order to reach an agreement that both sides can live with. That is still an option.
“With the European Union agreements are often made at the very last minute, that is certainly with my experience over a long period of time, so do not discount that both sides may be able to reach an agreement.
“If there isn’t an agreement, one will have to see if the House of Commons can agree with whatever that is agreed.
“And at the moment on the scenarios we know about, it is far from certain that there will be a majority for any of the options in the House of Commons. And then there will be some very difficult decisions to be made.”
Fears for national security
Security of the United Kingdom is one of the main concerns the former Prime Minister has, as the United Kingdom looks to leave the European Union.
With China becoming stronger and Russia behaving like as what he describes as a “rogue” nation he says he has genuine concerns over the country’s security if we are to go it alone.
Over the years, the threat the country faces has advanced from physical attacks to cyber attacks which can bring companies to its knees having a knock on effect to the residents on the street.
Last year, thousands of NHS patients faced disruption to their health care and cancelled appointments following the by the WannaCry ransomware attack on its computer system.
NHS England at the time said no patient data had been stolen or compromised during the attack. Several UK banks have also been targeted in recent times.
Sir John said: “I wouldn’t be in position that Theresa is in now. I’m not saying this to undermine what the Prime Minister is doing, but I voted remain as I believe that is the best position for the United Kingdom, not just for now but for the future, particularly for the future of our young people - but also for our security.
“We are now living in a very different age than a few years ago. For a very long time we have had two extremely close partners in the United States and the European Union.
“And now what is happening, as the United States moves away from us and further towards the East, we move away from the European Union, so instead of having as our partners two of the strongest blocks in the world, we are losing our closeness and possible relationship with both of them. And that is, as Lady Bracknell might have said is careless.
He added: “We are in a very different position, and here we are, weakening Europe and weakening ourselves, at a moment when China is becoming stronger and America is removing itself from many forms of leadership and Russia is behaving like a rogue nation at the Eastern end of Europe. That doesn’t seem to me like very good timing to be deciding to go it alone.
“We talk a lot about jobs and well being and the future of the young and that is very, very important, but so is the security element of being close to Europe.