British Prime Minister (1990-1997)
We are concerned here with the John Major who was the hero of the Secret Diary of John Major, age 47¾1, current President of Surrey County Cricket Club and former British Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party, rather than John Major, the sixteenth century Scottish historian who was the author of the Historia Majoris Britanniae or indeed the John Major who is a Conservative party councillor in Monmouthshire.
Our John Major was born on the 29th March 1943 at the St Helier Hospital in Carshalton, the son of Tom Major-Ball, a former travelling showman who later set up in business as a producer of garden ornaments. The youngest of four children, he was christened John Roy Major, although his middle name was omitted from his birth certificate, and he himself abandoned its use in the early 1980s. At the time of his birth his family were living in Worcester Park, a prosperous London suburb, but thanks to the failure of his father's business, the family were forced to downshift to a small flat on the Coldharbour Lane in Brixton in 1955.
The two roomed flat in Brixton was located in a house owned by 'Uncle Tom' who, unbeknownst to Major at the time, was his older half-brother, a product of one of his wayward father's many adulterous liasions. His
fellow tenants included a professional cat burglar
and a Jamaican who was later jailed for stabbing a policeman. Major was to later write with enthusuasm regarding his acquaintance with the cat burglar's girlfriend who "used to walk around in her underwear
". All of which proved something of an education for the young Major.
As far as Major's formal education was concerned he attended the Rutlish Grammar School in Wimbledon, but displayed little in the way of academic aptitude and left school at sixteen in 1959 with only three O-levels to his name2. His subsequent career was a little patchy, with frequent periods of unemployment. His application to become a bus conductor was rejected because he was too short3, he worked as an insurance brokerage clerk, occasionally helped his brother with making garden ornaments, before eventually finding permanent employment with the London Electricity Board in 1963. Soon afterwards he began studying for the examinations of the Institute of Bankers and in 1965 joined Standard Chartered Bank. He was posted to Nigeria in 1967, where he was almost killed in a car accident but escaped with the loss of a kneecap, but nevertheless enjoyed a successful career at the bank, rising to the position of personal assistant to the chairman Anthony Barber. As it happens Barber was the former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer and did much to encourage the political aspirations of the young Major.
Major joined the Brixton Young Conservatives in 1963 and is said to have spent his leisure hours standing atop his soap box in Brixton market disputing the issues of the day with whomsoever would listen. It was however not until after his return to Britain from Nigeria that he somewhat unexpectedly found himself elected to Lambeth Borough Council in 1968, where he became Vice-Chairman and then Chairman of the Housing Committee but lost his council seat in 1971. This experience appears to have given him a taste for politics and he began looking around for a parliamentary seat. In 1974 he unsuccessfully contested both General Elections as the Conservative candidate for the safe Labour seat of St. Pancras North in London, but appears to have done well enough to impress the selection panel for the safe Conservative seat of Huntingdon and was adopted as their PPC in May 1976, after which he was returned to the House of Commons in the General Election of May 1979 which saw Margaret Thatcher swept into power for the first time.
On the 13th June Major made his maiden speech in the Commons during the debate on the new government's first budget and within a year or two had made sufficient impression to be considered for office. Having served his apprenticeship as a parliamentary private secretary to the Minister of State at the Home Office from 1981 to 1983, in January 1983 he became an assistant government whip and in October 1984 a Treasury whip. In 1985 he became under-secretary of state for social security and then from September 1986 Minister of State for social security, before finally joining the cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury in 1987. This was the steady but unspectacular rise of one of the foot soldiers of the Thacherite revolution, who appeared to be competent without being brilliant. It was therefore came as a surprise to many when on the 24th July 1989 Thatcher appointed him Foreign Secretary as the replacement for Geoffrey Howe who was being moved out of harm's way to become Leader of the House of Commons and Deputy Prime Minister. It appears that Major did not much want the job of Foreign Secretary, but as things turned out he was to spend only three months at the Foreign office, as the resignation of Nigel Lawson forced Thatcher into another cabinet reshuffle, as a result of which he became Lawson's successor as Chancellor of the Exchequer on the 26th October 1989.
As Chancellor, Major was responsible for only the one budget, notable for the introduction of the Tax Exempt Special Savings Account or TESSA, although his most significant decision was his announcement on the 8th September 1990 that Sterling would enter the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) with effect from the 5th October.
By this time, continuing unrest in the country over the imposition of the Community Charge (otherwise known as the Poll Tax) had led many within the Party to question Thatcher's leadership. Anthony Meyer's attempt to flush out serious opposition to Margaret Thatcher in November 1989 proved unsuccessful, but in the autumn of 1990 Michael Heseltine finally broke cover and decided to stand against her. Although Thatcher defeated Heseltine, the margin of victory was regarded as unsufficient to allow her to continue as party leader and so she decided to withdraw from the contest (and therefore effectively resigned). Major, who had initially stood by Thatcher, now entered the contest together with Douglas Hurd. In the second ballot Major received 187 votes, against 131 for Heseltine and 56 for Hurd. This was two votes short of the majority needed for victory, but as both his rivals decided to concede defeat, on the 27th November 1990 Major became Leader of the Conservative Party and on the following day Thatcher formally tendered her resignation as Prime Minister.
Major as Prime Minister 1990-1992
Major became Prime Minister during a period of crisis in the Middle East since Iraq had invaded and annexed its neighbour Kuwait on the 2nd August 1990. His first priority was therefore to steer Britain through the Gulf War which ran from the 17th January 1991 to the 28th February 1991. In the midst of the conflict he narrowly escaped becoming a casualty when the Irish Republican Army succeeded in launching a number of mortar bombs at 10 Downing St on the 7th February 1991 whilst there was a Cabinet meeting was in progress.
He was afterwards heavily involved in the negotiations regarding the transformation of the European Community into the European Union. Major eventually signed Britain up to the Treaty on European Union (commonly known as the Maastricht Treaty) in December 1991, although he managed to secure 'opt outs' on both the Single Currency and the so-called 'Social chapter'; a necessary compromise given the divisions that were beginning to appear within the Conservative Party regarding Europe's new direction. Domestically the greatest challenge he faced was the task of unravelling the whole poll tax mess, which was replaced with a modified version of the old rating system known as Council Tax, and was forced to raise the rate of VAT to 17.5% to fund the changeover.
Major as Prime Minister 1992-1997
Compelled to hold an election in the spring of 1992, Major might well have argued that his period in government had not been without its successes. He had negotiated the Maastricht Treaty, defused the poll tax crisis and been victorious in the Gulf War. Unfortunately the global economy had moved into recession and taken Britain with it; in the years 1991 and 1992 the country experienced the longest and deepest recession since the 1930s. Unemployment was rising again, and the expectation was that the Labour Party would win the next election and that Neil Kinnock would become the next Prime Minister of Britain. During the General Election campaign of April 1992 the Labour Party ran a 'sophisticated' campaign that culminated in a flashy pre-election rally held at Sheffield, whereas Major was to be found dusting off the soap box that he had first used at Brixton market, speaking up and down the country trying to establish himself as a 'man of the people'. To everyone's surprise the Conservative Party won a 41.9% share of the vote and 336 seats, a majority of twenty-one, substantially down on the majorities achieved by Thatcher in 1983 and 1987, but nevertheless a working majority and a personal triumph for Major, whose own majority in Huntingdon of 36,230 was the largest majority recorded since the passing of the Reform Act 1832.
Unfortunately things soon began to go wrong for Major, specifically his decision as Chancellor to enter the ERM came back to haunt him, as Sterling came under increasing pressure in the currency markets. Having allowed public expenditure to rise in the period preceding the election, his government was now struggling to control the ballooning borrowing requirement. Sterling increasingly came to be seen as overvalued and the government was forced to commit ever larger sums in an ultimately futile attempt to maintain it within the prescribed limits. It all came to head on the 16th September 1992, a day thereafter known as Black Wednesday, when the United Kingdom was forced to abandon its membership of the ERM. Major was later to admit that he came close to resigning office that day, but nevertheless decided to soldier on. Some say that he dithered for months before deciding to replace Norman Lamont as Chancellor with Kenneth Clarke. (Although it was rather difficult for Major to blame Lamont for the very policy which he had been responsible for adopting back in 1990.)
As a consequences of the decision to abandon the ERM, interest rates were cut and sterling was allowed to find its own value on the currency markets. Strangely enough these were exactly the economic measures which led to a recovery in the economy, and has thus led the 16th September 1992 to be known as White Wednesday in some quarters. This was not however the end of Major's troubles as his government became increasingly to be dominated by the question of Europe.
The Maastricht Treaty was intended to be the first step on the road to the single European State, a concept which a number of Conservatives found great difficulty in accepting. So rather than becoming a celebration of his historic election victory, the October 1992 Conservative Party Conference turned out to be one of the most tempestuous and divisive conferences in the party's history when both Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit made plain their strong opposition to the Treaty. This of course simply encouraged others to voice their opposition, which included not only bankbench MPs but also a core of Eurosceptic ministers within Major's own cabinet.
Major thus faced a struggle to win sufficient support to ensure
parliamentary ratification of the Maastricht Treaty. The extent of his difficulties soon became public as a result of the celebrated 'bastards affair'. After only narrowly winning a vote in the Commons on the issue on the 23rd July 1993 and only then because he had announced it would be treated as a vote of confidence in his government, Major agreed to be interviewed by the major TV news services at Downing Street. He had just finished an interview with the political editor of ITN Michael Brunson. Whilst they were waiting for the BBC to finish setting up for their own interview, both he and Brunson had what both regarded as an 'off-the-record' conversation. Both parties appear to have been unaware that technical staff from the BBC were monitoring their conversation and later distributed a bootlegged transcription of what was said. During the course of their conversation Brunson brought up the subject of the number of cabinet ministers whom it had rumoured had threatened resignation unless Major modified his line on the Maastricht Treaty. Asked why he simply hadn't sacked them, Major uttered the now immortal words "We don't want another three more of the bastards out there. What's Lyndon Johnson's maxim?"
'Johnson's maxim' was of course a reference to the former US President's views regarding the future employment of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover i.e. "it's probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in", whilst there was much press interest in exactly which three politicians were the "bastards" referred to. The consensus view was that Michael Howard, Peter Lilley and Michael Portillo were the most likely candidates, although the name of John Redwood also featured from time to time. Its doubtful whether anyone thought any the less of Major as a result of this little outburst, it did however highlight the deep divisions emerging in the Conservative Party between its Eurosceptic and Europhile factions and portrayed a cabinet divided within itself.
Back to Basics
Back to Basics, launched at the 1993 Conservative Party Conference was Major's big idea and his attempt to relaunch the party and renew its electoral appeal and most divert the public's attention away from Black Wednesday and his problems over Europe. At the conference he announced (to rapturous applause from the assembled delegates) that;
"We must go back to basics. We want our children to be taught the best; our public services to give the best; our British industry to be the best. And the Conservative Party will lead the country back to these basics right across the board: sound money; free trade; traditional teaching; respect for the family and the law."
Major was simply explaining the philosophical underpinning for his approach to government, as well as making emotional appeal to traditional 'Britishness'; had he thought of it at the time, he might well have also mentioned "long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers." However the press decided that back to basics meant that Major was advocating some kind of return to 'traditional' moral values and so went out in search of Conservative politicians who were failing to live up to these perceived standards. Thus was born the British media's thirst for what became known as 'sleaze', which led to a long series of gleefully recounted revelations regarding the sexual indiscretions of Tim Yeo, Stephen Norris et al, the unfortunate and bizarre death of Stephen Milligan, Cash for Questions, as well the affair of Tim Smith, Neil Hamilton and the phony pharoh of Knightsbridge. In the end Back to Basics, which must have seemed such a promising catch phrase, only served to make matters worse.
Europe also continued to be problem for Major, despite his success in ratifying of the Maastricht Treaty. Under pressure from the Europhile wing of the party to name the day on which Britain would commit itself to the Single Currency, Major adopted a "Wait and See" policy, hoping that events would soon make it clear which way he should jump. Naturally this wasn't enough to satisfy the Euroscpetics who clamored for a clear rejection of the whole idea. In November 1994 eight Conservative MPs made plain their opposition to the idea when they voted against increasing Britain’s budgetary contribution to the European Union, and were promptly deprived of the Conservative Whip, whilst a ninth Richard Body, voluntarily withdrew the Whip in sympathy. However this did nothing to quell the level of dissent in the party and if anything exacerbated it as the dismissed MPs were feted as martyrs to the cause of free speech and national freedom.
With a party fundamentally divided on policy, its reputation damaged by Black Wednesday and tarnished by an apparently continuous series of press revelations, there were perpetual murmurings that Major should go. Increasingly annoyed and frustrated by such talk Major decided that it was time for his opponents to "Put up or shut up". Thus he decided to resign as party leader and submit himself to re-election. John Redwood, the Secretary of State for Wales emerged as his sole challenger. Major won by 218 votes to Redwood's 89 (with 22 abstentions and spoiled votes) but the result did little to improve matters.
A series of fairly disastrous by-election losses eventually wore away his majority, but Major struggled on until the last possible moment hoping that either the rapidly improving economy would persuade the voters to give him another chance or that New Labour would trip over itself.
In the end the 1997 General Election was not fought on any difference of policy between the two parties, but rather on the question of competence. With the Conservative Party's reputation in tatters as the result of Black Wednesday and a long series of sleaze scandals, New Labour romped home to victory. On the 1st May 1997 the Conservative Party suffered one of its greatest ever electoral defeats, being reduced to a mere 165 seats and a 30.7% share of the vote, whilst Labour secured 418 seats and a majority of 179. In the aftermath of the defeat Major duly announced his resignation as party leader and was succeeded by William Hague in June 1997.
After presiding over such an electoral disaster the Party appeared to be anxious to forget that he had ever existed. Major was very obviously snubbed by Hague at the 1997 Party Conference, and with the Party becoming increasingly dominated by Euroscpetic views, it came as no surprise when he announced his intention on the 13th March 2000 to stand down at the next election, and thus left the House of Commons at the 2001 General Election.
Life after government
After leaving office, he declined the customary peerage4, but in the New Year's Honours List of 1999, he was made a Companion of Honour in recognition of his contribution to the Northern Ireland Peace Process, and on the 23rd April 2005, was made a Knight Companion of the Order of the Garter thereby becoming Sir John Major. Although he later expressed a preference for Kenneth Clarke to be chosen as Hague's replacement (Hague chose to resign after losing the 2001 General Election), Major has generally avoided involvement in current political debate.
In May 2001 he joined the Carlyle Group, "a private global investment firm" with a penchant for employing former politicians, as Chairman of Carlyle Europe. Major's salary for this post has not been disclosed, but he also has an alternative career as a 'keynote speaker' and according to a report in the Daily Telegraph has earned as much as £35,000 a time.
1992 and all that
It has been argued that many in the Conservative Party not only expected to lose the 1992 election, but wanted to lose it, thus leaving the Labour government left to deal with the problems of the rising public sector deficit and the ERM. According to this scenario, Major was supposed to lead the party to an honourable defeat and then resign, the party would then elect a 'proper' leader, wait for Kinnock's Labour government to crash and burn, and then after a period of reinvigoration in opposition, return to power presumably for another glorious thirteen years.
Indeed although there were some signs of Conservative revival during the campaign, even by the day of the election, the best apparently that Major could hope for was a hung parliament, and it was only when the result for Basildon was announced (held by David Amess for the Conservatives) that it became apparent that this was not going to be Labour's night. In fact under John Major's leadership the Conservatives won over 14 million votes, and it is worth reflecting on the fact that this is a record for any General Election, and that no British party leader before or since, has managed to persuade that many people to vote for his party5. The sense of shock experienced by the Labour Party at this defeat was profound and was instrumental in their decision to abandon any and all pretensions of being a socialist party and transform itself into what many now regard as a centrist party of no particular conviction. Thus John Major may well be regarded as the man who buried British Socialism.
Major the man and his achievements
In 1994 Tony Banks, who had earlier sat on Lamberth Borough Council at the same time as Major, was asked what he thought of the Prime Minister, and described him as a "fairly competent chairman of Housing" but added that he kept thinking "'What on earth is Councillor Major doing?' I can't believe he's here and sometimes I think he can't either." (Of course it is perfectly possible that Major was equally surprised by the subsequent career of Councillor Banks). There is something to be said for this view, as up until the spring of 1989 Major was a junior member of the cabinet, very much in the second rank of Conservative ministers, and then suddenly in the space of eighteen months he was in succession, Foreign Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer and then Prime Minister.
Such a rapid rise up the political greasy pole was all the more surprising because Major often appeared to be such a quiet and undynamic figure, particularly compared to the over the top combativeness displayed his predecessor Margaret Thatcher. The satirical TV show Spitting Image, featured him as a grey man sitting down to eat his dinner in silence, whilst the press (particularly The Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell) were found of depicting him as a Superman-like character wearing his pants outside his trousers.6
People who have actually met John Major generally report that he is a charming and genuinely nice person. Unfortunately niceness isn't a quality that plays well in the world of politics. He may well have sought to avoid confrontation, and in his attempts to please everybody he generally ended up in pleasing no one. Indeed he appears to have had the talent for giving people the impression that he was in complete agreement with their views, whilst actually holding quite different opinions. This was certainly the case in 1990 when Margaret Thatcher and her supporters believed that Major was 'one of us'. As Thatcher rather wistfully recorded in her memoirs, "I wanted - perhaps I needed - to believe that he was the man to secure and safeguard my legacy and to take our policies forward." Most of the subsequent problems in the party arose largely because Major turned out to be far more sympathetic to the Europhile left of the party and thus the Thatcherites felt that they had been betrayed by Major.
However one should not forget that Major did have some major successes. Depending on your point of view, successfully steering the country through the process of signing and ratifying the Maastricht Treaty might be one of them, and delivering the fatal blow to any prospects of a socialist state might be another. Few however would dispute the crucial role he played in beginning the Peace Process in Northern Ireland. First by holding, although he denied it at the time, secret negotiations with Sinn Féin and secondly agreeing the Downing Street Declaration and Joint Frameworks Document with his Irish counterparts which later formed the basis for the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. If the economic revival of 1992 onwards was brought about more by accident that design at least he did nothing to impede recovery and bequeathed to his successors an economic success story that continues to this day.
Neither should it be forgotten that many of the policies adopted by the following Labour Government were largely identical with Major's and many of his specific initiatives such as the Citizen's Charter and the Private Finance Initiative have since become almost the bedrock of Blairite New Labour. There are times when one can look from Major to Blair, and from Blair to Major, and find it impossible to say which was which.
He married Norma Elizabeth Johnson on 3rd October 1970. They have a son, James, and a daughter, Elizabeth. Norma has since become a Dame of the British Empire in recognition of her charitable work.
It was with much amusement that the public learnt in 2002 that Major had conducted a four-year affair with his fellow Conservative MP Edwina Currie which ended when he became Chief secretary to the Treasury in 1987. Edwina, who appears to have felt slighted that she had not merited a single mention in Major's autobiography published in 1999, decided to tell all in her own life story. Whilst Major confirmed the existence of the affair, he declined to make a statement on the subject. Major's liaison with Currie is now believed to be the explanation of the evident joy expressed by Norma at the news of Edwina's loss of her parliamentary seat in 1997.
Apart from being very obviously the author of John Major: The Autobiography published in 1999, he is also the author of the forthcoming A History of Cricket due later this year.
1 The Secret Diary of John Major, age 47¾ appeared in Private Eye magazine.
2 In History, English Language, and English Literature, although he later doubled his total by taking correspondence courses in the British Constitution, Mathematics and Economics.
3 There is no truth to the rumour that he was rejected because of any lack of mathematical abilities.
4 By tradition all retiring Prime Ministers are offered an hereditary peerage title. To date only Major, together with Winston Churchill and Edward Heath have declined the privilege. Harold Macmillan initially declined, but he accepted an hereditary peerage in 1984 and became the 1st Earl of Stockton. Harold Wilson, James Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher all accepted life peerages.
5 Parties have of course won a larger share of the popular vote, and of course the combined votes of the National Government Conservatives, Liberals and Labour exceeded in 1935 exceeded 14 million but was spread across three parties.
6 Being of course a concious reference back to Harold Macmillan who often depicted appeared in the guise of Supermac.
- John Major: A life in politics 28 September, 2002
- Biographies of John Major
- John Major, John Major: The Autobiography (Harper Collins, 1999)
- John Major and the Conservative Party 1990 - 1997
- Paul Routledge and Simon Hoggart, Major hits out at Cabinet, The Observer July 25, 1993
- Carlyle at http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/industry/carlyle.htm
- Personal recollection