From Interstate - Journal of International Affairs VOL. 1999/2000 NO. 1
John Major: The Man and The Myth
John Major slipped swiftly from public view after 2 May 1997 as the media and public turned their collective attention to Tony Blair and his New Labour government. Despite the crushing defeat of the Conservatives in 1997, and the continued press criticism of Major personally, he still managed to show more inner strength and humanity than the average person in such a seemingly dissolute position.
John Major was born in Merton, Surrey on March 29, 1943. He was the son of a trapeze artist/self-employed businessman making garden gnomes; he was educated at Cheam Primary and Rutlish Grammar School, leaving at 15. In fact, Major was one of the most upwardly mobile politicians in British history, rising from the dole to Downing Street. He worked as an insurance clerk, trainee accountant, general labourer, overseas banker, and eventually as a branch manager for the Standard Chartered Bank. He became Member of Parliament for Huntingdon in 1979 on the bow wave of the storm that was Margaret Thatcher; he soon rose to be a party whip, and then entered government, as Social Security Minister. He went on to become Treasury Chief Secretary, Foreign Secretary, and Chancellor of the Exchequer. He succeeded Margaret Thatcher as Tory Leader and Prime Minister in 1990, defeating Michael Heseltine and Douglas Hurd in the second round of the leadership contest.
Five critiques of Major’s premiership have rapidly crystallized since his leaving office, according to Anthony Seldon. Several of the key criticisms appear in more than one school of thought, but each school is nevertheless a different political perspective.
Paul Johnson is the leading critic belonging to the arch-conservative school, which alleges that Major betrayed Tory principles and the Thatcherite revolution by seeking to place Britain at the ‘heart of Europe’ and by failing to stand firm over Northern Ireland. His inability to hold down public spending, and thus produce much needed tax cuts, revealed how little he understood another Tory principle, that of minimum government. A weak and vacillating leader he was seen as pandering to the more offensive social minorities, while following his profoundly un-Conservative notion of a ‘classless society’. Failure to be a true Tory leader led to the catastrophic decline in popularity, and to ignominious electoral defeat after the three Thatcherite general election victories.
The left of the Tory party, never as vocal as the right, felt strongly that Major failed to save the Conservative Party from itself. His indulgent approach to faction and ideology turned him into the Tories’ Callaghan. Authoritative leadership could have saved the party from the frenzy of the right-wingers over Europe. Further, he abandoned the traditional ‘One-Nation’ approach of progressive law and order policies and gradualist reform of the constitution, did little for the decline in political pluralism, and notably left local government to drift.
The liberal critique sees Major failing to deliver on the ‘classless society’ pledge or on a positive agenda for all minorities. For the liberal conservative he was too much under the influence of the most vocal in his party, too absorbed by the establishment, to actually deliver change based on his beliefs. He defended the undefendable over ‘sleaze’ and the Scott inquiry. His Bosnian policy showed that, despite his tough stance, he was insufficiently prepared to do more than stand up for those suffering Serb aggression. Personal survival, this approach concludes, meant more to him than his undoubtedly liberal principles.
A fourth critique, from the left of centre, sees Major’s government as doing no more for the social fabric of Britain than Thatcher’s. He presided over more benefit cuts, widening inequality and division in society. He handed over functions of government to unaccountable quangos; his was a particularly cynical and incompetent government, which lied about taxes and shrugged off responsibility for its errors by failing to demand the resignation of no-longer-honourable ministers.
The final line of attack is an almost non-political line, focused upon his weaknesses as a leader and manager. He condemned Britain to years of drifting, because he was insufficiently clear about what he wanted to achieve on an ideological and administrative level. He was unable to separate tactics from long-term strategy, resulting in humiliating U-turns on matters such as European Council voting rights (March 1994), and retreats on ‘back to basics’ (February 1994) and BSE (June 1996). He was obsessed with personal image and press coverage to the extent that it damaged his ability to have a consistent direction. His leadership was littered with missed opportunities: to act decisively on sterling in the ERM before Black Wednesday, to delay the Maastricht bill in early 1992, to capitalize on the leadership election of 1995, and to provide an appropriate response to the Neil Hamiliton saga.
I think all these deserve a response of a sort. First, the right of the party voted for Major rather than Heseltine or Hurd in November 1990, and if they didn’t like what they got, they must share some of the blame. Thatcher was regarded by 1990, even by the right of the party, as out of touch, too aloof, relying on her favourites and her capability to brow-beat. The party as a whole wanted a more collegiate leadership, a more collective cabinet, an inclusive and unideological leadership; all these, Major proved to be. For those who believe that a more Thatcherite leadership would have worked, an interesting historical game might be to see how a Hurd, Heseltine or Redwood premiership might have worked out.
Major belonged to no school of conservatism, had no mentors among past Tory leaders or theorists, had no interest in redefining Toryism – though in articulating some of his homespun personal beliefs he did chime with some of its essential propositions. Though he had principal allies such as Chris Patten, Douglas Hurd, Ken Clarke, Michael Heseltine and Tony Newton, he never had a circle of regular close aides and resorted to an ad hoc inner cabinet only in the run-up to both general elections and during particularly difficult periods. It must be remembered that he faced the Opposition in a time period when they were in the ascendant; Kinnock in his prime, John Smith at his most prominent, and of course, Tony Blair, the most effective Labour leader since Ramsey MacDonald. Unlike Thatcher, Major never found any senior figure like Whitelaw to underpin his position: Hurd was preoccupied with foreign business; Lord Cranborne rose briefly to the occasion, notably during the 1995 leadership contest, but faded away; Heseltine proved ultra-loyal only after July 1995 but was past his prime in any case. Neither did Major have a core of sympathetic interpreters of his policies and position, whether advisors, media moguls or academics.
While he was on friendly terms with most cabinet members and had some outstanding talent at his disposal, such as Lamont and Clarke, the pool of political ability within the parliamentary party after 11 years in office was ebbing away, and particularly after many Tories lost their seats at the 1992 election. The seventy former ministers on the backbenches were often bitter and unbiddable. Those who knew they would never hold office, including the most diehard Euro sceptics, saw little reason for loyalty to Major, or understanding of his government’s plight. Major and his government received little credit from the public, or the parliamentary party, for their completion of the Thatcherite economic and social agenda, taking it into areas from which she herself had shrunk; it was seen as almost a footnote to her premiership, when in fact it was the conclusion. Setting up the Scott and Nolan inquiries to deal with ‘political sleaze’ infuriated the right, and then when parliamentary pressures prevented him from implementing their recommendations he was castigated by the centre-left; the Hamilton battle with both the right and Tatton’s constituency party proved to have virtually no immediate solution. The irony of an honest man crippled by sleaze was widely noted.
He did not have room in 1990-97 to pursue a real Majorite agenda, nor did he have the time to fully develop his political ideas. Heath, Thatcher and Blair had the time to plan their policies and personnel in opposition, where as Major had but a month
in government to prepare. The demand was still there – ‘What is Majorism?’ – but Blair’s adoption of much of the Thatcherite, and Majorite, agenda shows that in the 1990s, fresh ideas, certainly on the right, were not to be had. A conservative victory in 1997 for the Major administration could have resulted in even more pressure to drag the agenda to the right; Major’s legacy is relatively safe because it has been taken on board by New Labour, in such a way that the scale of defeat in 1997 should give pause for thought to those who suggest that rejecting the Majorite equilibrium is the path back to power.
Major was neither nonentity nor failure. His will be judged an important if unruly premiership at the end of the Conservative century, which searched for a version of the Butskellite consensus applicable to the twenty-first century.
Already hobbled by lack of grounding in Tory philosophy, he lacked the time to prepare a digest of ideas, as he needed to spend his time on governmental and parliamentary affairs. His disappearing majority in the house stopped him from pushing ahead with his most heart-felt beliefs, particularly the ‘classless society’ and help for the underprivileged of inner city Britain. His party rarely comprehended how the country loved the man, but came to loathe the conservatives themselves.
He was perhaps the first Conservative premier to address issues to do with ethnic minorities and gay rights. The first Conservative leader to actively and repeatedly take to the ‘soap-box’ and brave the general public in the streets. His negotiating skill was never really recognized due to the Euro sceptic press, which saturated the coverage of each summit and meeting with anti-federalist articles. He preferred collective cabinet responsibility and decision-making from the very first ‘cabinet of chums’ in 1990, and even after that when cabinet became an unhealthy place to air policy. He was not Margaret Thatcher’s political son.
He will be remembered as a man of guts and honourable intention, the possessor of a much sharper intellect than many of his detractors. He inherited a situation from which he could never recover the initiative, and he inherited a parliamentary party, which once it had developed the taste for stabbing its leader in the back, kept on doing so. In many ways he had been a compromise candidate for the leadership, so that when he joked that he was a ‘coalition government’ by himself, he was underlining the widening gulf in his party, even in 1990. A gulf that has increased in size since, being only too noticeable at the recent party conference and the meetings of the Britain in Europe (BiE) campaign group. The gulf was not of his making.
Despite the machinations of comics and political detractors, Britain quite liked John Major, and I think the British political scene would have been drearier, blander, and perhaps even greyer, without him.