Sense of humor amid the issues
Sir John Major became the seventh head of a government to speak in the William W. Siebens American Heritage Lecture series at Buena Vista University Friday, sounding notes of warning from the war on terrorism to the American political system.
Major collided with the issues in straight-ahead style, mixing in a sharp-edged sense of humor and an engaging British charm.
His first appearance in Storm Lake was for an annual panel discussion with selected BVU students in Schaller Chapel, where the foremost issue on many minds was the controversial and ongoing war on terrorism, in which the U.S. and the Brits have been partnered.
Major has experience in that arena, having helped to broker peace in Northern Ireland while in office from 1990-97, and as a major player in the Persian Gulf conflicts against Saddam Hussein.
The former prime minister predicts a long fight - and one that will not be won by military might.
"In a sense, to call the war on terror a 'war' is a misnomer. We are dealing with a very large number of very small groups, which may have dissimilar motives and are utterly ruthless," Major said.
"It is a war that is going to be won with the cooperation of many nations, not just by military means."
Major said that the only effective strategy against terrorists is to attack their sources of finance and to eliminate their safe havens.
"No one should think that it will be over in 12 months, 24 months, 3 years or 4 years... it will be a very long job indeed."
Major recalled that British troops were dealing with Iraq in the 1920s, and that during his time in office, it was still a volatile region where violence was always to be expected. "Iraq has always been the pickle," he said.
It will be impossible to negotiate with terrorist groups like al Qeida, he told students later. "There is nothing to talk about... they are filled with festering hate. We need to isolate them, cut off their sources of supply, destroy them if we can."
In fielding the students' questions, in one case he refused to answer. Elizabeth Kennedy, from Storm Lake, asked Major to compare the work of one of his contemporaries, George H. W. Bush, with his son George W. Bush, on the Iraq issues.
"I have been in politics 40 years, and in those 40 years, I have learned which questions not to answer," Major responded, smiling. Later, in response to another probing question from the same student, he told Ms. Kennedy, "I am reminded of what Kipling said of the female of the species." (The poet famously wrote, "For the female of the species is more deadly than the male...")
Major spoke of his own background, noting that his political enemies used to characterize him as a maker of garden gnomes. In fact, Major did make lawn ornaments for the sum of $8 a week as a young man, having dropped out of school at age 15 after his laborer father had gone blind and his mother become ill.
The family had moved to a two-room slum apartment, and the money Major made was the difference between keeping the family afloat and not being able to pay the bills. He worked at many labor jobs, including electric work, was once turned down as a conductor on London's double-decker buses because he was too tall to duck under the roof, and at the beginning of his 20s volunteered to go to war-torn Nigeria in order to earn more for his family, a first step in his public career.
"You can say that money is the root of evil, but I can tell you that it is also the root of progress, if you wish to eat," he told the students.
He said he never "gave a hoot" about political opponents who criticized his common beginnings.
"I remember the people who had sneered at my father, who was also a maker of lawn ornaments, and then and now I believe that those people were not fit to wipe his boots."
Major said that he still regrets the things he might have learned if he had the chance to attend university, but that the experiences he has been able to have around the world in the "university of life" has made up for it.
There is also no guarantee that someone who receives the highest of degrees in the best of universities will make a success of themselves with it, he said.
Conversely, with no higher education he was able to in his way into Paliament, and was appointed to the British Cabinet by Margaret Thatcher, who preceded him as BVU American Heritage Lecture speaker in 1994. Queen Elizabeth bestowed on him the rare Companion of Honour status for his work in bringing peace to Northern Ireland.
Major had words of warning about the American political system, a system that he said he takes a special interest in, as his father grew up in America.
As voter turnout goes down, the system faces the danger of less and less active participation by the general citizenry, according to Major.
"I think the weakness of your system is that you have too many elections," he added. The system ensures that a president is a "lame duck" for the last two years of every four year term, he said, and Congressmen are so busy constantly running for office and raising campaign money that they become obligated to financial sources instead of their conscience. Also, a large percentage of U.S. Congressmen are so unaware of what is happening in the world around them that they do not even own passports, Major said.
Along with changing Congressional terms, he said he would encourage Americans to limit spending on elections, which Major feels has become appalling and achieves nothing. In his country, spending limits apply, and spending as U.S. campaigns do would be seen in his nation as "buying votes."
Major spoke of the future of politics, as well, saying that it has been suggested that "there are no great issues left."
"If you are going into politics, please don't think you'll have nothing to do," he told the audience of young faces.
Half the world lives on less than $2 a day, science is bringing a whole new field of ethical questions to the forefront, and the environment is suffering with polar ice caps melting, ozone being depleted and whole species of creatures disappearing, Major said.
The conflicts and poverty in Africa will be a critical dilemma for the future's leaders, and the attitudes in some Muslim regions make for a more threatening world environment than has been seen in many years, he feels.
In other issues, Major spoke of the increasing needs of security and the need of balancing that with protection of civil liberties - as an example saying that it is wrong to allow government the unchecked power to tap its people's phones.
He blamed a divisive debate over where power would be concentrated for the failure to ratify a European Union, and predicted the Great Britain may never go along with the unified Euro money system, which he said most European leaders saw as a political gain rather than an economic one. "It was the wrong time for the wrong reasons," he explained.
He spoke of the burdens of national leadership, including the many appointments that must be made. In making those choices, he said he always looked for the person who wasn't afraid to tell him that they thought he was wrong. Part of the problem in world leadership is that the leaders may surround themselves with clones to their own way of thinking, and then there is no one "to tell the national leader when he is being foolish."
Major gently chided countries for using too much gasoline, and for the impact that is causing on the environment, suggesting that it is time to finally make an electric car that works well and looks decent. Although the world has looked down on the environmentalists with the beards and green boots and outlandish views, it has turned out that "the beards and green boots have been proven right."
Economic globalization is the best bet for eliminating the poverty situation in underdeveloped nations, but Major pointed out what he sees as a paradox - the powerful nations sending large amounts of aid to the poor, and then refusing to allow third world farm products to be exported into their own countries for fear of competition with domestic goods. He also pointed out that the third world must help itself in some ways if aid is going to translate to better economic conditions - such as clearing out corruption in their own leadership.
In response to other queries, Major ripped the British media for choosing "drama" over substance and becoming too aligned with political parties; and he criticized politicians for reducing themselves to a series of "sound bites" rather than addressing issues.
Some of the BVU questions and answers were more lighthearted.
When asked what is the hardest question he has ever faced, Major replied instantly - "Why?" He joked that if you know the answer to a question you tell it, if you don't know the answer you give the answer to a different question, and if you don't understand the question you attack the questioner for daring to ask such a question.
When asked about making cricket an Olympic sport, he joked that the sport was one of America's greatest losses, and drew laughs as he alluded to the American revolution: "We view the loss of the colonies as a short-term setback. We will be back."
Asked about princes William and Harry, Major said that he had served as their financial guardian after Princess Diana's death, not as a lifestyles advisor, suggesting that the latter job is their father's to do. "I think they are growing up pretty well," he mused.
Major praised the U.S. as "an extremely generous place" that has treated him well, and applauded the student panel, suggesting that their questioning would be "more coherent" than he was used to from the House of Commons.