Prime Minister 1990 - 1997
Hugo Young says in his biography of Margaret Thatcher: "The politician needs to believe, or perhaps assumes the voters need to believe, that the events in which he is taking part belong to a sequence which is nearing its heroic and predestined conclusion." (One Of Us P518)
Margaret Thatcher was working towards a heroic conclusion, and did not see herself as just another prime minister muddling through her watch. Margaret Thatcher was a crusader, a politician in the mould of John Winthrop, leader of puritan settlers of Massachusetts, who wanted to create a "shining city on a hill". But the Thatcher crusade came to an end in 1990, and she was replaced by John Major, a politician who typified a different philosophy. He was a consensus politician rather than a crusader. Hugo Young said that people are drawn towards the sense that events are nearing their heroic and predestined conclusion. But the 1990s were not the Second World War. John Major had to fight a different sort of battle.
John Major was born 29th March 1943, son of Tom and Gwen Ball. Tom Ball was a variety artist, and briefly a trapeze artist. He used the stage name Major, which eventually became the family name. Tom's first wife Kitty had died of injuries suffered in a stage accident. Gwen was his second wife, the couple marrying in 1928, the year following Kitty's death. By the time of his marriage to Gwen, Tom had decided to leave show business and lead a more settled life at 260 Longfellow Road in Worcester Park, west London. Stage work was replaced by a business selling garden ornaments. It was in Worcester Park that Pat was born in 1930, then Terry in 1932, and finally John in 1943. Into the 1950s, Tom and Gwen - both heavy smokers - were in poor health, and their struggling garden ornament business was being run mainly by Terry. Meanwhile, between 1954 and 1959 John was at Rutlish Grammar School, where apart from shining at cricket he led a completely unremarkable existence.
In 1955 the family in increasingly straitened circumstances was forced to sell the bungalow on Longfellow Road and move to a flat in Coldharbour Lane, Brixton. The Brixton flat had only two rooms and life was undeniably hard. Tom was blind and bedridden, Gwen had severe breathing problems. John recalls rain coming through the roof and "running down the light switch" (Major: A Political Life by Anthony Seldon P 15). Leaving Rutlish Grammar school in 1959 John drifted through short term jobs before settling into work at Standard Bank. Life by now was beginning to look up for young John. He did well at the bank, and his progress in the Young Conservatives was similarly promising. A divorcee thirteen years his senior, Jean Kierans, helped groom her companion in his developing career. 1966 brought a posting to Nigeria with the bank, and new responsibilities. These were embraced with enthusiasm. John also mounted honourable resistance to racist views among his colleagues. It is probable that a respectable career in banking would have followed, but in May 1967 Major, unusually, joined colleagues on a boozy night out, and suffered serious leg injuries when the driver lost control of the group's car. Surgery followed back in London to repair a shattered knee. And it was in London that an opportunity presented itself to resume a political career. In March 1968 John Major was elected to his first political office, as a local councillor in Lambeth. Here he spent three years fighting right wing Conservatives on the council, elected in the wake of Enoch Powell's infamous speech about immigration leading to "rivers of blood". When not fighting political battles, Major served on the Lambeth housing committee. He supported the orthodoxy of the time which saw high rise developments as the way forward. Moorlands Estate and Stockwell Park Estate are legacies of Major's time in housing on Lambeth Council. There was then a long wait for the next step to a seat in Parliament. It wasn't until 1979 that Huntingdon became available as a safe seat for the Conservatives. Major, following a decade of failed attempts finally became an MP at the 1979 general election, the election that made Margaret Thatcher prime minister.
While Margaret Thatcher went through her crusading years as prime minister, her eventual successor served as junior minister at Social Security 1985 - 86, and then chief secretary to the Treasury 1987 - 89. After a shaky start things went well at the Treasury. Into 1988 the economy was booming, and Major was judged to have done well. Arguments with Mrs Thatcher over matters such as the privatisation of the aircraft company Short Brothers, only served to increase her estimation of Major. From July to October 1989 Major was foreign secretary, and then on the resignation of Nigel Lawson, chancellor. With Margaret Thatcher fading, John became her natural successor. He had carefully avoided becoming associated with any one wing of the Conservative Party, and now was an ideal compromise candidate acceptable to all shades of opinion. Margaret Thatcher had detested compromise and consensus, and yet it was a man who had a natural feeling for these things who was now in a position to succeed her. Mrs Thatcher was forced out of 10 Downing Street in November 1990, and was replaced by John Major. Major was a peace time prime minister, the first prime minister since 1945 to have no experience of world war even as a civilian. He accepted the easy going nature of peace, and instinctively rejected the crusade of wartime. In his speech accepting the nomination as Conservative Party candidate for Huntingdon, Major said: "I will do what I believe is right and what I believe is best in the circumstances. Other than that there is no promise I can make" (quoted Seldon P49).
Horse Guards Parade - the IRA mounted an attack from Horse Guards on 10 Downing Street, February 1991
Even though John Major was a definitive peace time leader, the first crisis he had to face as prime minister was imminent war in Kuwait. A Christmas meeting at Camp David with President George Bush committed British forces to an offensive against Saddam Hussain's invasion of Kuwait. Operation Desert Storm began just after midnight on Wednesday 16th January 1991. On 7th February, while Major was chairing a meeting on the war, the IRA attacked Number 10 Downing Street. Firing mortars from Horse Guards Parade, one bomb flew over the perimeter wall of Number 10 and exploded in the back garden. Picking himself up off the floor, Major calmly announced that it might be best to conduct the meeting elsewhere. Major was actually to show much quiet bravery during his term. He was clearly an IRA target, but insisted on mixing with crowds, in contrast to Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock who was far less likely to be a target for the IRA. During the election campaign of 1992 a number of eggs hit Major with enough force to make him believe for a few seconds that he had been hit by a bullet. The fact that Major was a conciliator did not mean he lacked bravery.
It had been his ability to compromise and find the middle way which had brought John Major to office, but it was this quality that also brought the problems of his two terms. Difficulties began with his stance on Europe. Major himself came to believe that Britain would be better off economically with much closer links with Europe. This of course is a highly contentious subject, and Major was fully aware of the strength of feeling against European integration. The European dilemma was the battle ground of the 1990s, particularly so following the 1992 general election. Whether or not a closer relationship between Britain and Europe is a good thing, intial compromises designed to increase European economic harmony failed badly. The Maastricht Treaty was signed 7th February 1992 on the understanding that Britain would opt out of the Euro, retain full control over defence matters, and would not be bound by the Social Chapter controlling work place practices. Initially the compromises seemed to work, but the triumph was short lived. Margaret Thatcher and other right wingers soon moved against Maastricht. This political opposition was followed by economic problems related to the Exchange Rate Mechanism, or ERM. The Exchange Rate Mechanism had been set up as a compromise to try and bring economic harmony between European currencies, without going all the way to a single currency. Sterling was obliged to maintain its value within 6% of other member currencies. But in June 1992 Denmark rejected the Maastricht Treaty, and with it the idea of a single currency. Then news emerged that the French were also to hold a referendum. This caused a reaction in the markets, with investors now concerned that the goal of stable European exchange rates was not going to be realised. Vast quantities of money now started leaving the weaker currencies of the ERM, the lira and peseta initially, and started piling into the safer German Deutschmark. Germany also offered higher interest rates than other countries which gave a better return for investors. Germany did not help matters when on 17th July 1992 they put their interests rates up further. Currency speculators now started circling. With the pound likely to follow the lira and peseta downwards, and the government certain to buy sterling to try and maintain its ERM value, it was clear that there would be a ready customer for cheap sterling. The end came in the middle of September 1992. Against a background of heavy selling the value of sterling plummeted. Chancellor Norman Lamont was obliged to try and hold the value of sterling within its 6% margin, and billions went into buying sterling to try and preserve its value. Inspite of this, on Black Wednesday 16th September 1992, sterling fell below the value allowed by the Exchange Rate Mechanism and had to withdraw. This was a major economic disaster and lost Britain a sum of £3.4 billion. (Figure quoted in Cameron, The Rise Of The New Conservative by Francis Elliot and James Hanning.) The disaster of Black Wednesday was combined with a scandal involving heritage secretary David Mellor's affair with an actress, and unpopular closure of uneconomic coal mines. In many ways John Major never recovered from the setbacks of 1992.
Through the rest of Major's term until 1997 he was continually being judged as weak, with a government lacking direction. But direction in the manner of Margaret Thatcher is always something of an illusion in politics, and this was particularly true in the 1990s. The war in Bosnia which dominated Major's foreign policy in the early and mid 1990s illustrates this point. The Bosnian war was not a war with clear objectives, or with an overwhelming enemy to fight. At a seminar held on 22nd January 1993 on Bosnia, a participant is quoted by Anthony Seldon as saying: "Everyone wanted to grab the bull by the horns, but no one knew where the bull was, or whether it had horns" (Seldon P373). Foreign secretary Douglas Hurd looked at the chaotic situation in the Balkans and commented despairingly of only being able to create a "level killing field" (Seldon P373). There were no easily identifiable good guys and bad guys in the Balkan wars. This was not an age of crusaders, a fact which the Conservative Party found difficult to accept.
In an age where crusaders did not know which way to charge, it is fitting that progress should have been made in the intractable problem of violence in Northern Ireland. John Major was conscious that most people want things like a nice house and a garden and a reliable car. While right wingers in the Conservative Party were putting vague ideas of British national identity before economic priorities, the Irish situation was calmer because people simply had more money. "...economic changes in the North were transforming the prospects for catholics in Londonderry and even Belfast. Prosperity meant both were becoming far less propitious hotbeds for hard-line terrorists" (Seldon P418). The Irish situation showed that prosperity was more important than nationality. This was not a time for a national crusader in the mould of Winston Churchill. This was a time when a consensus politician like Major could see a bigger picture beyond nostalgia for the past, and small minded nationalism or religious bigotry. It's a pity more people weren't as brave as Major in trying to move on from old battles.
The Oval - this image is copyright free
Major struggled on, helped in part by the death of Labour Party leader John Smith on Thursday 12th May 1994. There was a brief strengthening of Major's position in 1995 when he won his "put up or shut up" party leadership election. But within months the Nolan Report on the declaration of MP earnings lost the government credibility. Some die hards in the IRA still hung on to old battles. On 9th February a bomb exploded at Canary Wharf, with another on June 15th 1996 in a Manchester shopping centre. In July 1996 MP David Heathcote-Amory, hanging onto an old vision of British sovereignty resigned because of government "compromise" on the single European currency. It was in this atmosphere of division that the election of 1997 was fought and lost to Tony Blair and his New Labour Party. Following the election announcement John Major went off and watched a game of cricket at the Oval. This cricket match, rather than any shining city on a hill, marked the end of his term. John Major retired from politics in 2001, and makes a good living on the after dinner speech circuit. Retirement was briefly disrupted in 2002 by revelations that Major had conducted an affair with Edwina Currie. But his marriage to Norma survived. In 2006 Major led calls for an enquiry into Tony Blair's decision to invade Iraq, a crusading disaster which someone like John Major would have been more likely to avoid. And as we leave John entertaining people after dinner and enjoying his cricket, it is easier to appreciate that politics is not a crusade but a way of life. Things are not building to their predestined conclusion. Some leaders prefer a sense of a destined end, and so do the people who vote for them. But living through this period I prefer things to end with nothing more significant than a nice relaxing cricket match.