Speech

Transcript of the PM's Al Jazeera interview with Sir David Frost

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Transcript of the interview with the Prime Minister David Cameron and Sir David Frost for 'Frost over the World', Al Jazeera on 9 September 2011.

Interviewer

Prime Minister, you’ve now been Prime Minister for 16 months or so. What are the ways in which it’s been different and what ways has it been entirely predictable?  Has it been like you expected?

Prime Minister

It is unpredictable and I think whatever preparation you think you’ve done for the job, there’s nothing like the learning you do on the job.  I think the things that you’ve spent a lot more time on than perhaps you expect are actually foreign affairs, security, the issue of terrorism. So I’ve spent a huge amount of time on that.  But otherwise I suppose much what I expected but you have to be very ready for the unexpected.

Interviewer

Absolutely.  Well of course, as we speak it’s just the weekend coming up that commemorates the tragedy of 9/11.  Ten years ago do you remember where you were when you first heard about it?

Prime Minister

I remember exactly where I was.  I was in my house in the constituency in West Oxfordshire, and I was watching the television and saw what happened.  And my wife Samantha was actually in New York that day in Manhattan that day, and I’ll never forget the hours of ringing her mobile over and over again and not being able to get through because the mobile phone system was, was down.  I remember exactly where I was when I finally did get through and how pleased I was to hear her voice.  And it had a huge impression on her because of what happened in New York that day and what people felt about it.  And obviously it’s been one of the defining events of this century.  And I think we’re still coming to terms with it and trying to get our response to it right.

Interviewer

Do you think we’re near to having a situation of winning the so called ‘War on Terror’?  I mean is Al Qaeda now losing? Or is it beating a tactical retreat and it’s still as dangerous as ever?

Prime Minister

I think what you see is that the growth of democracy, the values we have in the West that I think are shared across the world, I think are very strong.  And I think that actually we’re now much smarter and better at our response to this problem of violent Islamic extremism and how we deal with it.  And I think there have been some notable successes in setting it back.  But there’s still a huge amount of, of work to be done.  I mean what I would say is that some of the early things that were done were absolutely necessary.  It was right to get rid of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan that was hosting Al Qaeda.  But I think what we’ve come to see that as well as the very tough measures like that that needed to be taken, there was also a huge amount of work to undermine the whole narrative of the extremists and to set up an alternative to young Muslim particularly men, who want to see change in the world.  And I think the exciting thing about this year, ten years on and the Arab Spring, is you see in what happened on the streets of Libya and Egypt, you see people actually yearning for a voice, for a job, for greater democracy, for an end to corrupt governments, for an end to autocracy.  You see people who are seizing an alternative to the poisonous narrative of the extremists and that gives me great hope and optimism for the future that actually we can see the spread of democracy and rights in those countries rather than the spread of extremism.  Al Qaeda’s had almost nothing to do with the Arab Spring.  They’ve been irrelevant.  This has been ordinary Libyans, Egyptians, Tunisians reaching for a democratic future where they get rid of corrupt governments.

Interviewer

And so you think that the Arab Spring is not just a blip in history, but is something that’s going to have a permanent effect?

Prime Minister

Definitely.  I think already you can see what’s happened in Egypt, what’s happened in Tunisia, what I believe is now happening in Libya, even if it stopped there I think the Arab Spring would be seen by future generations as a hugely important moment.  Remember that for years there were people saying: well of course Muslim countries, Arab countries can’t do democracy.  We just have to put up with these corrupt dictatorships.  That’s the only alternative to the terrorists, to Islamic extremists.  I think we’re seeing, and it’s early days, there’s a huge amount still that could go wrong, but we’re seeing that is being overturned and disproved.  And I think that’s a hugely optimistic and hopeful moment for our world.

Interviewer

There were perhaps some tactical errors do you think?  Do you think Guantanamo Bay was, is a mistake?

Prime Minister

Yes of course mistakes were made and of course you know what happened at Guantanamo Bay, there were mistakes made. But I think we have to be careful not to sort of rush immediately to judgment and forget what an extraordinary difficult period it was in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.  Remember how many British people, how many French people, how many Germans, how many people of all nationalities were killed on September 11th.  All of those governments and the American Government, if you remember go back to that time, were thinking this is going to happen again.  This is going to happen very quickly.  Maybe it’ll be a chemical or biological attack.  That point was made very forcefully.  So we have to remember the immense pressure that those governments were under.  Yes, we can certainly see with hindsight and in some ways at the time, mistakes were made in that we lost some of our moral authority, which is vital to keep when you’re trying to make your case in the world.  I think one of the strong points about our intervention in Libya is that this was led by the Libyan people, backed by the Arab League, sanctioned by the United Nations.  It wasn’t an occupying army.  This was action we were taking backed by international law and the international community.  We never lost our moral authority in what we were trying to do.  Now it’s easy to say that in 2011 and I don’t think we should be too judgmental about everything that happened post 2001 because of the difficulties I spoke about.

Interviewer

In terms of the Iraq war, part one as it were and so on, you voted in favour of it in the House of Commons.  If you had known then what you know now would you have voted no rather than yes?

Prime Minister

Well I don’t choose to go back and have this out all over again.  I made my decision.  I voted the way I did. I remember explaining to my constituents why I’d done what I did.  Saddam was a menace to the world.  He was in breach of UN resolutions.  He’d gassed his own people.  He had invaded other countries.  The world is much better off without him.  I made my decision.  I don’t go back and choose to say that I’d do things differently.  I did what I did and I defend it.  And at least now Iraq does have the chance of a democratic future and some form of democratic stability.  And you can at least now see that country debating how to share its immense oil wealth with the people of that country.  In the past all it had was this corrupt dictator taking the money for himself and for his family, and absolutely no chance of development of that country.  At least now we have that chance.

Interviewer

Exactly.  Is there a situation with the pressures of sort, of Libya and so on that there may be other Libyas and so on, that in fact you’ve got a sort of quandary there.  On the one hand you’re passionate about the Coalition having defence cuts and so on, and on the other hand you’re eager that Britain should be a big player militarily in anything that comes along.  It’s a difficult one to balance that isn’t it?

Prime Minister

I don’t think.  Look, I believe Britain should try and punch above its weight in the world.  I think that is part of our history, it’s part of who we are.  We care about what happens in the world and we’re a global player.  Now, what we’ve done with our defence budget is have a defence review to make sure that we have the sort of defence equipment we need for the world we live in today.  Yes, at the same time we’ve made a small defence cut.  It’s an eight per cent cut over five years.   It’s not a big reduction.  And as I think as we demonstrated in Libya, together with our allies, we still have very great capabilities to project power and power in the force of good.

Interviewer

And what would have happened in Libya if the allies had not come to their aid as it were?  It would have been the tragedy that you feared in Benghazi?

Prime Minister

Definitely. I think we could see when Gaddafi started bearing down on Benghazi, and remember that is a large city of many hundreds of thousands of people, I think we would have seen a massacre.  And I think we’d now be debating if we hadn’t intervened, why did the world stand idly by when a dictator butchered his own people and we wouldn’t be talking about the Arab Spring, we’d be talking about the Arab Winter.  And I think the point about Libya is that not only was there a moral obligation to try and help stop this slaughter, and Britain and France played an absolutely key role with Arab partners and America in stopping that.  But also we were able to do it.  There was if you like a moral obligation but there was the ability to do it.  It could be done. So it doesn’t mean that you intervene everywhere.  It doesn’t mean you try and invent some new doctrine.  I think it just means Britain and allies should remain engaged in the world, working within international law to try and do the right thing.

Interviewer

And in terms of coming to all of that, Hakim Belhaj, one of the things you mentioned the word torture earlier one of the stories there of him and the bad treatment he received from our side and so on, torture is the real curse of -

Prime Minister

Yeah.

Interviewer

Of the last ten years.  People in the world, we could always at least say we never torture anybody.

Prime Minister

Yeah, I think -

Interviewer

And in the last ten months, ten years that’s been unfortunately blurred.

Prime Minister

I think that’s right.  Look, we should be very clear.  Britain does not torture people.  We do not believe in torture.  We think torture is wrong.  It is always wrong.  The information you glean from torture is completely unreliable but torture is morally wrong in any case.  And I think we need to be very clear about this.  And also that Britain should never be complicit in torture.  Britain shouldn’t be trying encouraging others to do that. So on this specific case what I did almost a year, over a year ago now, is set up a proper judge-led inquiry into allegations that Britain was somehow complicit in torture, or complicit in rendition and that inquiry will be able to go through all the cases, including this Libyan case, to get to the truth.  At the same time I started mediation proceedings with any Guantanamo Bay inmate who was then suing the British government to settle those cases, to remove the stain from Britain and to make sure that our security services could get on with their work.  At the same also we have issued and published, which many countries don’t do this, published guidance for what our security service and intelligence services personnel for the processes and practices that they should follow, ‘cause torture is always and everywhere unacceptable.

Interviewer

Absolutely, absolutely right.  There’s a major issue coming up of course at the UN in a couple of weeks’ time from now, which is obviously Palestinian attempt, passionate attempt to achieve Statehood and so on, and all of the members of the UN will have to vote on that.  How will Britain vote on that?

Prime Minister

Well obviously we’ll have to see what exact proposition is put forward.  But we’ll be guided by some very clear principles.  I mean first of all we do support the ambition of the Palestinians to have statehood.  I want to see a two state solution.  A secure Israel and a State of Palestine.  Now it seems to me the key to what happens at the UN is does what is going to be discussed move the peace process ahead?  Because at the end of the day it’s not the UN that can confer statehood on the Palestinians.  The only way statehood is going to happen is for the Israelis and the Palestinians to sit down and negotiate and agree the terms of the Israeli State and the Palestinian State.  That is what has to happen and that is what I think Britain should be -

Interviewer

That’s much more important than the debate at the UN?

Prime Minister

So the test for me is does what we’re about to debate and vote on, does that move the peace process ahead?  Does it commit the parties to negotiation?  Does it mean that we’re going to get closer, not to a state in theory, but a state in practice?  That is what needs to happen and Britain will judge whatever comes forward with our allies according to that rule.

Interviewer

So, but it’s quite conceivable in a vital issue like this that UK and US might vote differently?  That you might vote yes for Britain and the USA might abstain?

Prime Minister

Well we will…

Interviewer

That’s possible isn’t it?

Prime Minister

We will judge what comes forward on its merits on the issue of settlements. Britain and America didn’t vote the same way.  I’m very clear that the growth of settlements is unacceptable.  It’s making a two state solution more difficult to achieve.  It’s altering the facts on the ground.  And there have been occasions, Britain and America are very, very strong allies.  We work together on so many things.  In this job you really see the benefits of the huge cooperation and the work that we do.  But on this issue there have been times when we’ve voted in different ways, particularly on the settlement issue, and Britain will always do what it thinks is right.

Interviewer

What next in Afghanistan do you think?  There are these firm rumours and there was Mr Mitchell with his piece of paper mentioning that in fact Mr Karzai, who I must say has always been a very revealing and disarming in fact if that’s not a pun, but in terms of dealing with issues and so on. But he seems to have said privately but not formally, that he is not going to run in the next election.  And there are those people who are pleased about that.  Are you pleased about that?

Prime Minister

I’m a strong supporter of President Karzai and we have a strong relationship and I welcomed him here to Number 10 Downing Street.  I’ve spent time with him in Afghanistan and elsewhere.  He has an extremely difficult job.  Afghanistan is a very fragile State and we’re trying extremely hard to help provide the safety, security, stability for Afghanistan for the future.  And I think the path is now very clear.  The NATO ISAF partners have all agreed that we’re in the business of transition.  We’re building up the Afghan army, the Afghan national police force. That’s actually ahead of schedule.  And we’re beginning to transition districts and the provinces to lead Afghan control.  Where we are in the south of the country in Helmand, Lashkar Gah, the capital as it were of Helmand Province is actually being transitioned.  So, look, it is immensely difficult.  There is still an insurgency.  It’s actually been repressed quite successfully in the south of the country.  There’s still a huge amount more to do.  But the idea of handing over to Afghan control, to putting them in charge of security so that British troops are not in a combat role after the end of 2014 and not there in anything like the number they are now, that is going to be achieved.

Interviewer

But if in fact Mr Karzai does in fact go through with, confirm that he is not standing at the next election, will you be pleased about that or will you regard it as a blow?

Prime Minister

Well it’s a matter for him.  Look, I think he’s given good service to his country.  As I say, you know, you’ve got to remember that when the Taliban government left, this was a country that had been racked by civil war, that had seen its GDP decline, that had, you know, gone from what had been in the sixties the sort of, the beginnings of a growing success story to an impossibly difficult situation, and he’s had a difficult situation to try and put things back together again.  I think that we’ve worked with him well.  It’s his decision about whether to stand again.  I completely understand politicians who’ve been at the top who don’t want to go on for ever.  But I think he’s done some very good work.

Interviewer

And in terms of what happens, what happens next in terms of Afghanistan, how will we know the time is right is the first thing.  But then how will we know if the time is wrong?  By which I mean if we withdraw our troops from Afghanistan, and the Taliban which has resurged somewhat in any case from its dog days unfortunately.  But if the Taliban were to seize greater power again in Afghanistan after we’ve withdrawn, would we ever consider going back?

Prime Minister

I would sort of see the question entirely the other way round.  I mean if I may, I mean first of all, if you look at the part of the country that Britain is responsible for with the US Marine Corps in the south of the country, Helmand, actually the number of attacks, the level of insurgency is right down.  It was something like 40 per cent down on a year ago.  So I don’t accept that the security situation is getting worse.  The second thing I’d say is look, we’ve set this deadline that British troops will not be there in anything like the numbers they are now, or a combat role, after the end of 2014, and we will stick to that.  I believe the security transition is on track to deliver that.  But why I’d put the question the other way round is if, you know, if it was necessary for foreign troops to go on in the sort of role they’re in now in 2016, ‘17, ‘18, ‘19, I think that would be evidence itself that our approach hadn’t succeeded.  Nobody wants foreign troops to be in Afghanistan in their role now in the long term.  The Afghans don’t want it.  The contributing countries don’t want it.  The Taliban don’t want it.  I mean it’s clear that Afghanistan has got to transition to Afghan control, and as I’ve said many times, if the Taliban want to lay down their arms there is a political process for them to join so they can effectively be part of the future of this country.  That is what President Karzai himself said.  This must be an Afghan-led process, that all Afghans have a role and a future in this country if they accept non violence.

Interviewer

Do you expect the future of the Euro to be a real headache in the next few months?  Do you feel there is a danger of the Euro splitting in two or cracking altogether?

Prime Minister

Well it’s certainly in a very, you know, this is a difficult situation in the Eurozone.  There’s no denying it.  If you look at what’s happened in European bond markets, if you look at countries like Greece that have required repeated bailouts and support, it’s clearly some very great stresses and strains in the system.  Britain is not a member of the Eurozone.  We’re not going to join the Eurozone.  We’re a big enough country to have our own currency and be successful outside the Eurozone.  But we are part of the European Union.  We want the Eurozone to get its act together, to deal with its problems, to sort itself out.  We’ll be helpful and constructive.  I believe that European countries are trying to do that.  They’ve got some big tests ahead of them.  But I wouldn’t underestimate the political will there is amongst countries like France and Germany and Italy and Spain to make a success of the Euro.  They will put a huge amount into trying to sort out these problems.  But the problems are, there’s no doubt they are great and they are substantial.

Interviewer

They are substantial.  But at the same time, Britain has very much a vested interest in a way really in the Eurozone, prevailing really hasn’t it?  Because if it gets into really severe difficulties, so do we.

Prime Minister

Yeah -

Interviewer

Even though we’re not in the Euro itself.

Prime Minister

Forty per cent of our exports go to Eurozone countries, and while, you know, I was an opponent of the Euro, I didn’t want Britain to join. I’ve always had my doubts and misgivings about how a single currency operates in an area that doesn’t have a single economic policy.  I’ve always had my doubts about that.  There’s no doubt that a break up of the Euro or disorderly debt defaults would be a very bad outcome for Europe and a very bad outcome for Britain.  So it’s in our interest that Eurozone countries deal with problems of debt, such as in Greece, and as I say make the Euro a good functioning currency area.  Huge challenges but don’t underestimate the political will that there is in Europe to sort them out.

Interviewer

Are you confident there won’t be a double dip recession?

Prime Minister

Well the economic forecasts published about the British economy still predict growth.  And you see that from [INAUDIBLE: INTERVIEWER OVERSPEAKING]. Well the difference today is that we don’t publish our own growth forecast.  It’s not a government growth forecast.  We have a separate Office of Budget Responsibility.  They publish forecasts. The IMF publish forecasts.  All those forecasts are for growth, and this year actually the British economy so far has grown faster than the US economy.  But I think what you see all over the world is very challenging circumstances.  You’ve got the problems of debt in America.  The problems of the Eurozone.  You see the French economy posting no growth in the last quarter.  The German economy only growing by 0.1 per cent.  There’s no doubt there are big challenges.  What the world has to do is come together at the G20 level and confront all the challenges, whether that’s debts in America, problems in the Eurozone, the need for a world trade deal. But each of us as individual countries have got to ask what can we do to improve our growth rates.  And in this country it means reforming a planning system, it means getting construction going, it means making it easier to employ people, it means leading trade missions round the world.  I’ll be taking one to Russia next week.  Er, it means active government getting to grips with the things that can help make an economy grow.  But above all it means sticking to your plans about dealing with debts and deficits because we’re not going solve our difficulties by putting our, our um credit ratings at risk.

Interviewer

One question about Syria at this point.  There’s no UN Security Council consensus about taking action on Syria, which has been accepted by anyone as blocking it ever happening.  But if there became a consensus in favour of taking action in Syria, would we want to be part of it?

Prime Minister

Well we’re in favour of the UN Security Council to start with taking a tougher and more robust approach.  I think it’s been very disappointing that the Security Council hasn’t been able even to have a tough resolution about things like travel bans, asset freezes, targeted sanctions, more condemnation of what President Assad is doing.  I mean let’s be clear about what’s happening in Syria.  This is a dictator who is, you know, murdering, maiming, killing his own people in huge numbers.  Now in the European Union we have done those things, travel bans, asset freezes.  We’ve also introduced very tough oil sanctions for the whole of the European Union.  And we’ll continue to press at the UN for more to be done. As I said I don’t think there’s a direct read across from Libya to Syria because the case of Libya there was UN support, there was Arab backing, there was Arab League backing, but in Syria I would like us to do more and to take a more forward position.

Interviewer

And in terms of what else can be done, do you think it’s conceivable that we could have a situation where there are actually negotiations with an organisation like Al Qaeda or is that, or are they so bad that that’s unthinkable?  Or do we have to reconcile that however much we dislike terrorists they become guerrillas and then they become freedom fighters, then we always have to talk them?

Prime Minister

I don’t think we’re remotely -

Interviewer

Near the point?

Prime Minister

No.  And I think the point about Al Qaeda is that as one of them famously said, you know, we don’t want to talk to you, we want to kill you.  And this is an organisation that at its heart is committed to mass murder.  So going back to your questions about 9/11 and what the atmosphere was like immediately post 9/11, you know, politicians I think rightly at the time said remember, they killed all those thousands of people in the World Trade Centre.  If they could have killed more by using bigger planes, bigger bombs, more chemicals, they would have done so.  There was no restraint and there was no objective.  It was to kill and maim and terrorise.  And I think that one of the lessons from 9/11 is that yes of course we have to deal with grievances in the Muslim world.  We must solve the Arab-Israeli conflict.  It’s great to see the growth of democracy in the Middle East as something that young people can aspire to instead of a poisonous narrative of separatism.  But there is an element of our response that has to be incredibly tough.  These people are trying to kill us and we have to defeat them.  And I think what you’ve seen in terms of the senior leadership of Al Qaeda, and the end of Bin Laden, I think that is hugely encouraging in that this poisonous organisation that has killed so many people in so many different countries, and remember, they probably killed more Muslims than any other religious group, has come under tremendous pressure and I think that’s a very good thing.

Interviewer

On a slightly lighter note, it was reported that in fact Tony Blair had accepted an invitation to be a godfather to one of Rupert Murdoch’s children and so on.  If he’d asked you would you have said yes?

Prime Minister

No I’ve got many godchildren, goddaughters and godsons.  I’m godfather to the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s daughter, so I’ve got my hands full looking after my friends rather than anybody else’s.

Interviewer

And in terms of a phrase I used earlier on about if you’d known then what you know now would you, if you’d known now what you didn’t know then, would you have in fact appointed Andy Coulson to an important place?

Prime Minister

I’ve said very clearly… [INTERVIEWER OVERSPEAKING]

Interviewer

…In the Government, if you knew everything?

Prime Minister

I mean I made clear on the 20th of July that look, with hindsight, with all the benefits of hindsight, I wouldn’t have offered him that job and I don’t suppose he would have taken it.  But the point I always make about this whole question about if you knew now what you knew then or whatever, we both got it the wrong way round I think, is you don’t make decision with hindsight, you make decisions in the present.  And I think in politics you make your decisions, you then have to defend your decisions and people judge you by your decisions.  And I think that’s what people will do with me.  I know that’s what they’ll do.  I’ve tried to explain why I did what I did.  I’ve made clear what I would have done with hindsight.  But I don’t run away from the decisions that I take.

Interviewer

So what do you think would be the result, the beneficial result of all of this fuss about the whole scandal?  And when all the hearings have been heard and everything?  What would be the ideal outcome?

Prime Minister

I think there are two good things that can come out of what has been a crisis for British media and British politics.  And there are two good things that can come out of it.  The first is a re-setting of the relationship between politicians and the press.  As I’ve said, there was too much time spent trying to win over press editors and press barons and not enough time focusing on the correct regulation of the press.  So a better relationship, a more professional relationship, that is one thing that could come out.  And vitally I think a better relationship between the police and the media, where I think we’ve also seen evidence of things not being entirely right and they need to be put right.  So I think if we get those two things sorted, it’s not a challenge I thought this government was going to have to face, but nevertheless it’s a challenge we can now I hope rise to and I hope that cross party, throughout the Parliament, we can actually try and get these two relationships right.  And that will be a good thing for the health of our democracy.

Interviewer

And if you were looking at the world today and so on, what, what are the, are the danger points that you have to keep a particular gaze on all the while?  Which countries are in danger of explosion or being?

Prime Minister

Well obviously my concern is the safety of people in Britain and the threat we face from terror.  And obviously we have a Northern Irish terrorist threat that we face.  But if I look at the threat from Islamic extremism, the threat from the remnants of Al Qaeda, you’d have to have a pretty close focus on Yemen and a pretty close focus on Somalia.  They are I think are two examples of what people would call badly fractured states where Al Qaeda and their operatives and allies are trying to take advantage of the fact that those states are broken.  And I think just as we see the beginnings of, of security and stability in Afghanistan just as we see the huge destruction of senior leadership in, of Al Qaeda in Pakistan, so tragically we now see the growth of Al Qaeda in Yemen and Somalia.  And these are problems that the world community have got to turn their eyes to and use all the lessons that we’ve learned over the last decade to make sure that our work with the Yemenis and the Somalis, that what we do in terms of hard power and soft power, intelligence and anti-terrorism, that we’re smart, that we learn the lessons and we use all that we’ve learnt in the last decade about what works and what doesn’t to help these countries to rid themselves of the cancer of terrorism.

Interviewer

And you feel more strongly than 16 months ago that the world, the human brain can cope with these problems?

Prime Minister

I’m an optimist.  I always believe that you can solve these problems if you apply yourself to them. You know, there have been terrorist problems of the past that have been dealt with.  You’re right that it’s not just through a force of arms that these problems are dealt with.  It is the use of soft power winning over people’s hearts and minds as well.  But you know if we’d sat here when she was in charge, you know we might have been talking about the Cold War, would that go on forever, would there always be a division between East and West?  Would there always be a division between democracy and communism?  You know, that ended.  And when it ended there were many people who were embarrassed because they had predicted it would go on for ever.  So you should never believe that these problems are insoluble or the world, the world challenges can’t be met.  But you have to be immensely patient and persistent in meeting them.

Interviewer

Thank you very much.