In an age of 24 hour news coverage, where ministers and shadow ministers are always on the frenetic attack to seize the political opportunity of the day, it’s always necessary to dip back into the annals of parliamentary and political discourse that has shaped our politics and contributed to our ever-changing political life. One such piece of history is the John Major government of 1990 to 1997. Although due in part to his lack of charisma and sense of mission that had him uncomfortably squashed in between the premierships of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, John Major tends to be eschewed from history save when a work HAS to mention him for the sake of historical continuity – for example Simon Jenkins’ Thatcher and Sons and Michael Portillo’s Margaret Thatcher: The Lady’s Not for Spurning. However, John Major is arguably one of the nation’s most important Prime Ministers in the sense of achievement and culmination of social progress in the UK.
The thing that strikes one most about Major’s memoirs is his sense of honesty and earnest will to make better the lives of the fellow man in his country. The son of an elderly former trapeze artist who spent much of his early life in a council estate in Brixton, leaving school with only 3 O’ Levels, John Major’s story is one of triumph over adversity spurned by a genuine will to leave a better settlement for future generations to have better chances in life than that afforded to him.
His explanation for joining the Conservative Party is emblematic of why the Conservatives were so successful at courting the so-called lower and lower-middle income voter – they treated people as individuals with dreams and aspirations rather than people who owed others loyalty to their struggling fraternal ‘class’. It was this aspirational, compassionate Conservatism that he shared with Iain Macleod and Ted Heath that drove his ambition through working as a bank clerk through to local government in Lambeth council to being elected in the crucial 1979 election (one which symbolised swathes of former solid Labour voters voting Conservative for the first time), rising through the ranks of the Conservative Departments of Social Security and the Treasury, ultimately becoming Prime Minister in 1990. His becoming Prime Minister was the very sign of the everyman from a modest background with no baggage interest poking at him from behind, a self-reliant constituent who wants a better life for his offspring and access to bounds of opportunity, while maintaining a compassion for his fellow man.
His achievements during his premiership included the Maastricht Treaty that consolidated the European Community into a stronger Union (and crucially gained an opt out for Britain for economic and monetary union), the National Lottery (always a good source of revenue for the arts and good will competition amongst the nation’s participants), Grant Maintained Schools (a forerunner to Voluntary Aided schools, Academies and Free Schools) and taking decisive steps in secret negotiations with Sinn Fein, leaving a good foundation for Tony Blair to eventually complete peace talks in Northern Ireland. All these measures were forebears to the political developments which would characterise the Blair, Brown and now Cameron years, changing the debating ground over the politics of public service reform, Britain’s place in the world and maintaining the Union. However, in spite of all this, the reader feels the weariness with which Major was tainted by, amongst other things, assorted Eurosceptic ‘Bastards’ attempting to wreck his premiership, scandals over false morality and sleaze and a feeling of inevitable end after nearly two decades in office. It’s a shame that something as arbitrary and superficial as charisma and ego, which is often a driving part of the success of many politicians in the public eye was not blessed on Major, disallowing him a firm place in the annals of modern political history.
Major’s memoirs are very well written and shall be of great interest to anyone seeking to understand a crucial period of development in our modern political structure. In eschewing strong notions of the ‘ideal Conservative’, John Major the politician represents an embodiment of the everyman who the British politician strives to court into their political party or seeks the vote of at election time. He just happened to become a Conservative due to time and circumstance.