There is an often used theorem in politics when it comes to assessing the effectiveness of political statesmen that usually divides our leaders into two camps. The first camp is the “Great Man (or Woman) of History”, those whose success and vision for their nation’s future sealed their place in the annals of history. The other is the less desirable, and much more forgettable heads of government. Those whose time in office is often neglected by historians as a mere blip or a freak accident; a small handful of years leading up to no great achievements. John Major, for better or for worse, falls into this second category. That is not to say that our less-than-visionary politicians were poor or ineffective, sometimes it can be quite the opposite. In fact, Major would surprise not only the country but his entire party when winning the 1992 general election and would go on to achieve many successes during his time in office. But for the man considered to be Margaret Thatcher’s protégé, his premiership marked the beginning of a divided period for the British Conservative Party. A division it only marginally recovered from during the 2010 and 2015 general elections but would go on to do great damage during the EU referendum of 2016.
To start with, when Margaret Thatcher was deposed by her own electors, the conservative members of parliament, in 1990, she was quizzed as to why she had hand-picked John Major for the top job in government. Her response was a rather dry remark “He was the best out of a bad bunch!” Such words seemed hurtful, especially for a man as sensitive as Major was, and they were intended to be. Her answer to the reporter’s question signifies the difficulties and challenges that lay ahead for Major’s accidental premiership. His time in office would be beset with the internal divisions the Tories had made bare with the ousting of their beloved former leader. And despite his small, but unexpected victory in the ’92 election, John Major would lead his party to the worst performance it had received in any election since 1906, with the lowest share of the vote for the party since 1832. So when the BBC produced a three-part series simply titled “The Major Years” it was fair to say the filmmakers had plenty of Greco-tragic material to work with.
In episode one we are treated to a surprisingly intimate account of Major’s early years growing up in London. His origins in Brixton were surprisingly humble for a person who would eventually lead the Conservative party, particularly when both his parents had eccentric careers. His father’s garden ornaments business, along with his brief period performing in a circus, was sneered at by many during the snobbery of the 1950’s, causing Major great pain throughout his early development. His sensitivity would stay with him for the rest of his life, marking his time as prime minister all the more personally traumatic. Another interesting factor about Major’s rise was how poor his achievements were in school. One of the most touching moments I have ever witnessed in an interview with a politician is during Major’s confession of how disappointed his parents were when reading his school report card. This former prime minister, a leader of one of the world’s most developed countries is tearing up and choking when mentioning the personal sense of shame he felt at how his parents passed away before he achieved any real success. Such self-imposed guilt is striking to witness on camera and allows for a great deal of empathy for the viewer. It certainly did for me.
But despite these early educational setbacks Major would go on to embark on one of the most rapid career rises in British politics. After becoming an MP for the safe seat of Huntington in 1979, his fast rise within the Conservative Party was barely matched by his other political contemporaries. Thatcher’s affection for Major is discussed by fellow colleagues such as Edwina Currie (who had her own interesting experiences with him), describing him as being able to “absorb from people what mattered to them”. This natural ability to charm people, particularly women, would take Major far in his career and create a great deal of affection for him by Thatcher during her time in office. This affection, however, would later be replaced with disappointment and loathing during the party’s tumultuous period in the 1990’s. Interestingly, despite his quick rise to important ministerial offices very few were able to pin down Major’s political ideology. Ken Clarke describes him in the first episode as traditional “One Nation Tory” with a strong social conscience”. Indeed it seems rather bizarre why an ideological leader such as Thatcher would promote someone so typically bland politically in her cabinet so quickly. But for Major, his background growing up in modest circumstances would define his views on British society throughout his career. His attempts at being the moderating force of his party as leader are linked, in my view, to his understanding of what poverty and aspiration meant for millions of people across the country.
Although Thatcher would often champion her roots as the daughter of a grocer, it would be Major that had the true claim to being someone who had risen above his circumstances through sheer willpower. The Tories would make great use of his humble background in the ’92 election, using what is a rather exceptional career story to imply that opportunism works for all. Major never boasted about such roots and in fact loathed the “home video” he starred in, touring the streets of his youth. But such tactics would help him win the ’92 election, albeit with a small majority.
His two-year time in office prior to the election proved to be his most successful time as leader with Ken Clarke describing the period as “the only time John enjoyed being prime minister”. His counterparts from across the Atlantic were also grateful to be dealing with a new style of statesman. George H.W. Bush talks openly about how Major’s more relaxed approach to foreign relations was far more congenial than Thatcher’s. “Not that she could be difficult” he hastens to add. But it was clear that more leaders enjoyed each others company. Major’s joining with the Americans and other UN forces in the First Gulf War gave his personal popularity a big boost. It seemed as if the entire nation was more at ease with itself and, despite the domestic troubles, there was now what one journalist quoted as saying “Thatcherism with a human face”. Major’s appearance, although easily mocked on Spitting Image as “The Grey Man”, as well as his attitude gave an incredibly stark contrast between himself and Thatcher. His pledge to abolish the Poll Tax was seen as a popular move, as was rhetoric on working families struggling to get by.
But not all was rosy during the halcyon days of Majors first two years. Elements in the party, still bitter at the ousting of Thatcher, would come to haunt Major’s elected full-term as prime minister. The divisions and debates would “become about other things” according to John Whittingdale, but the original cause was the previous PM’s betrayal. Major, ever the compromiser, would fail to appease both sides, and lead a cabinet that leaked to the press, challenged him for the leadership of the party, and secretly conspired with Thatcher. The developments in the EU, particularly the Maastricht Treaty of ’92, would plague his premiership as Tory back-bench rebels would continuously vote against the government on any matter concerning Europe. Worse still, the Conservative’s myth that only they could be trusted with the economy would collapse within only a few months after winning their fourth election in a row. The ERM crash, or Black Wednesday as it would be known, horrendously damaged the Tories economic record in office. And despite the continued economic growth the country received after the fiasco, the public never trusted the Tories again on the economy until 2010.
Such calamities might have been prevented if a leader with a more focused set of principles had led the party after Thatcher’s removal. Despite her hand-picking of Major to continue her legacy, his untested leadership style would come across as weak and feeble when dealing not only with Labour but also his own party members. But there were victories to be had during his time in office. Major made more progress on the issue of Northern Ireland than his predecessor ever did, paving the way forward for the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. His clever negotiating of thMaastrichtct Treaty ensured that Britain could maintain vital opt-outs, giving the UK an edge over her European neighbours. His reforms to public services and the management of the economy (after the ERM mess) ensured that Britain enjoyed growth year upon year after ’92, so much so that when Gordon Brown became chancellor of the exchequer he did very little to change Ken Clarke’s policies for the first few years. The tragedy of Major, it would seem, was that he was the first of many leaders to be haunted by the shadow of Thatcher. Her influence of the party after leaving office affected the premierships of three Tory leaders, casting a long legacy within the party.
Her most loyal supporters could never forgive those who betrayed her, whilst the reformers of Thatcherism realised that such radical transformative policies could not continue forever and needed to change. Major was caught in the middle of this civil war, with every debate, argument and leak being printed in the press every day. With the Labour leader John Smith’s tragic passing in 1994, the rise of Tony Blair would make matters worse for a government on the ropes. Blair’s modernising agenda for Labour, along with his popular charisma, would make Labour popular in the press, effective in by-elections, and would eventually wipe out the Tories in the 1997 election. But there is still a lot of history to take in before that “new dawn” would be broken.
Continued in Part Two