Skimming along

Ross McKibbin

John Major has now been prime minister for four years. For us, as presumably for him, it often seems a lifetime, so crowded has his premiership been with crises of one sort or another. Dennis Kavanagh and Anthony Seldon not unreasonably, therefore, think this the moment to assess his prime ministerial career; the result is The Major Effect, a collection of 26 essays by a distinguished group of commentators – including the editors. Five years ago they edited another collection, since widely-read: The Thatcher Effect, published to coincide with the tenth anniversary of Mrs Thatcher’s premiership. Studying Mr Major’s ‘effect’ is, however, self-evidently more difficult. Whatever one thinks of Mrs Thatcher she was undoubtedly a larger-than-life figure who, one way or another, dominated her cabinet and party. Furthermore, in 1989, though it was clear the whole enterprise was going wildly off the rails, she was still in high mood, still celebrating her achievements, as were her admirers. Mr Major’s career, however, has hitherto been an almost uninterrupted failure; its one success, the General Election of 1992, usually being deemed a puzzle which needs explanation. Ten years also gives commentators a wider sense of perspective. Four years is a narrow historical term – even if it seems a lifetime. And Mrs Thatcher had opinions on everything, even on policies which she little influenced – and that gave her premiership a certain unity. Mr Major is more modest and some of the authors of this collection confess that in their areas Mr Major has had little or no ‘effect’.

There are difficulties in editing collections of this kind, since it is not clear how heavy the editors’ hands should be. Should the collection have an overall argument or should the editors simply allow their authors a free run? How far should the essays concentrate on Mr Major himself, and how far should they range more generally? On the whole, Dennis Kavanagh and Anthony Seldon have opted for the free run. This has one obvious advantage in that it allows contributors to write what they think without fear of intervention. The result is a collection of always interesting and sometimes striking essays which will in themselves be very useful to undergraduates and such sixthformers as are still permitted to study the contemporary world. The disadvantage is that readers can be left up in the air and without guidance, particularly where contributors have different views of the same events. For example, Hugo Young in his essay on Mr Major writes that ‘by general consent it was he and not the Party that triumphed in April 1992’; but Ivor Crewe in his essay on the electorate argues that ‘in fact, Major’s boost to the Conservative vote was probably very small.’ What the editors give the reader is a summary of the arguments – very fairly – but what is probably required (as in this case) is some form of editorial adjudication. This is the more necessary given the book’s scope. Virtually every aspect of the Major Government is covered – which is why the essays are so useful – but that tends to make it a history of our times rather than a study of Mr Major. It might have been better had there been fewer but longer essays with authors allowed more space to develop their arguments. Hugo Young’s essay, for instance, could easily be twice its present length, and the editors, given how well they know the scene generally and the Conservative Party specifically, have been too reticent, both in their own essays and in the conclusion.

Nonetheless, these essays, apart from their intrinsic value, do, I think, contain at least the building-blocks of a wider general argument – though not all would support it. Admittedly, Mr Major’s rise is not easy to explain. Although it is said that he was a good Chief Secretary to the Treasury there is no evidence that he was in any way remarkable. As Foreign Secretary – a surprising appointment for which he had no obvious qualifications – he was embarrassingly unsuccessful (though that was as much Mrs Thatcher’s doing as his own) and as Chancellor he adhered rigidly to the policy which ended in Black Wednesday. He was elected leader of the Conservatives because he was a senior minister who owed his place to Mrs Thatcher at a moment when the Thatcherite majority in the Party was looking for someone in whom it could repose its confidence.

He was and is a Thatcherite, as is his government. But he is not a mere appendage to Thatcherism. Majorism is more coherent and thoroughgoing, while he is a more balanced political leader. His style is calmer and he is instinctively suspicious of the ‘bastards’ in his cabinet – even though it is the bastards who are making the running. But he is also more naive and perhaps less cautious. There was always an erratic element to Mrs Thatcher’s politics. That no doubt was partly her political nature; but it was also a result of her desire not to tie her own hands. Her aim was to create a political system and she took many risks in doing so. What emerged was an unstable coalition which was, paradoxically, likely to fly apart if anyone attempted to constrain it. This is why she was so reluctant to enter the ERM at all – let alone at the rate against the mark which was adopted – since the principal victims of such a rate were an essential part of her coalition: first-time house-buyers. And it is a measure of her real authority within the Conservative Party that she was forced to accept it. Majorism, for better or worse, has a more circumscribed but consistent ambition: to depoliticise all social relationships, by apparently concealing their power-political character and substituting for that qualities demanded of effective personal relations – civility, polite behaviour, niceness. And, more even than Thatcherism itself, Majorism has its roots in the modern Conservative Party; in the strategies it and its members have adopted as they try to cope with an often unwelcome social reality.

In the last few years depoliticisation has taken three forms. The first is to depoliticise government itself by transferring its functions to non-elected and nominally autonomous non-governmental agencies or quangos. As John Willman argues in his essay, there is no reason in principle why public services should not devolve to autonomous agencies. Many services, indeed, might stand to gain, since the Civil Service has (or had) responsibilities that could best be discharged by others. But the configuration of such agencies has to be tightly drawn and the lines of accountability clearly understood; and in practice, as he notes, many of the quangos are not accountable to anyone. Others, however, are very conscious of accountability – but to the Government, not the public – and are particularly conscious of the overriding obligation to cut public spending. Their ‘autonomy’ is actually exercised within a remit written by the Government. They thus serve the worst sort of function: shielding the Government from the consequences of its own actions. The Government, however, feels no similar loyalty to the agencies. Whoever was going to accept responsibility for what happened at the Child Support Agency, it was not going to be the ministers who designed an institution fundamentally flawed at its inception. Whatever their functional defects, the agencies (and the quangos) nevertheless serve their purpose of depoliticising executive authority by seeming to remove it from the sphere of politics to the sphere of administration and individual relations.

This distancing has enormously strengthened ministers’ already powerful reluctance to accept responsibility even for political disasters. Black Wednesday, for example, was the result of an act of real folly committed in the face of all that we know about the British economy. It was probably the worst mistake in British public policy since the Second World War yet not one of those responsible – ministers or civil servants – ever accepted responsibility, let alone thought of resigning, an insouciance inconceivable a generation earlier. It is now even easier to duck political responsibility because ministers routinely blame the agencies or their legal advisers or their civil servants. As Simon Lee points out in his excellent essay on ‘Law and the Constitution’, one of the reasons ministers ‘seemed to flounder’ when asked by the Scott enquiry why they signed public immunity certificates was ‘that they themselves have become conditioned to the process of avoiding personal responsibility.’ It now requires enormous pressure to force ministers out – usually a sustained campaign by the Tory press and usually, not paradoxically, only on issues of little intrinsic significance. The traditional view that ministers take political decisions for which they must accept political responsibility has been obliterated.

The second strategy has been the devising of a ‘non-political’ vocabulary to describe intensely political institutions and behaviour. Here the language of the free market has been a godsend. It has always, of course, been a self-serving vocabulary; not always wrong as a way of describing things, as the merest glance at a command economy confirms, though always incomplete. The pretence that the market is socially neutral – and not (as we know it to be) a social institution strongly influenced by gross inequities of wealth and power – allows its adherents to sweep aside all its distributional (i.e. political) problems and to dismiss the notion that intervention might be necessary to balance these inequities. The market simply becomes a place where individuals exercise their choices and procure their desired outcomes. As a description of the ordinary market, let alone of spurious ‘markets’ like health and education, this is absurdly partial. No doubt the more cynical of Mr Major’s ministers know this, but there is no evidence that Mr Major or the think-tank thinkers or a large proportion of Conservative MPs do. In any case, whether they do or not is largely immaterial since the language of the free market has served the Conservatives very well.

To this Mr Major has himself added ‘classlessness’. On becoming prime minister he said that his ambition was to create a classless society. One’s first reaction was to wonder then why he was in the Conservative Party, but he was using the word ‘classless’ in a complicated way. To seek a classless society is, after all, very different from traditional Conservative rhetoric. The Conservatives historically have never denied the existence of classes – far from it. What they have denied is the legitimacy of politics based on conflicting class interests. Mr Major used the word ‘classlessness’ in two senses, of which only the second was within the Conservative tradition. The first was the way in which the inlet-war middle-middle classes used it: as a term which implied hostility to certain forms of upper-class behaviour and inherited privilege and to the perceived upper-middle-class monopoly of the best jobs. Such ‘classlessness’ was close to the inter-war definition of democracy; both terms had a positive quality. The second sense of ‘classlessness’, however, is much more negative. The Second World War and the Attlee Government much weakened the resentments that underpinned the Thirties notion of classlessness because they suggested to the broad middle class that the working class, and particularly the trade-unionised working class, was the greater threat. ‘Classlessness’ now meant ‘working-classlessness’. The classless society became one where members of the working class did not think of themselves as such. No working class – no trade unions – no Labour Party. Of these two usages, it is clear which at present is the more important to Mr Major. But this is not to deny the two meanings. When I watched him paying tribute to Billy Wright on an ITV programme, evoking (as, according to Richard Holt and Alan Tomlinson in their essay, he often does) the lost world of a handful of heroes – Wright himself, Nat Lofthouse, Tom Finney, Stanley Matthews – it was impossible, even allowing for a certain artifice on Mr Major’s part, not to reflect on the tension between the two usages: between the nostalgic recollection of a particular culture and the fact that the party he now leads has done its best to destroy it; a culture which, for all its imperfections, was decidedly superior to the one that has been put in its place. There is no evidence that Mr Major sees this tension.

The third strategy has been the elevation of ‘civility’ and ‘niceness’ as political desiderata in their own right. To many of those who are now prominent in the Conservative Party civility, decorum and correct behaviour are immensely important. There is, of course, nothing reprehensible in this. They are civilising qualities and when a country loses them it is the poorer for it – Britain is now a much more uncivil society than it was in 1979 (to choose a date at random) and all of us know it. Furthermore, their significance in Conservative politics originally had a defensible purpose. It emerged (as with so much else in modern Conservatism) in the inter-war years when the Party was trying to incorporate fragments of the old Liberal Party and others who might have been offended by the robust style of the older Conservatism. Civility permitted an apolitical sociability and underpinned an associationalism which united hitherto disparate groups (particularly Nonconformist) into what was to become the modern Conservative Party. It also allowed people to live with black sheep who strayed into the Labour fold – potentially divisive subjects were simply avoided or laughed away. But such civility was not just a social gesture: it was the means to a wider political end. It has now become an end in itself, torn from social structures and habits that gave it meaning: a technique to conceal social reality, both from the rulers and the ruled, by transforming them into appearances. Reality becomes the appearance of the thing.

Mr Major is especially prone to this. It is dangerous to speculate on the relationship between social origin and social behaviour; nevertheless, Mr Major does come from that social borderland where niceness and correct behaviour have peculiar significance. As do other members of the Government. The preoccupation, not merely with grammar and vocabulary (which is reasonable), but also with accent, is an interesting example of this. The notion that a ‘correct’ accent should be taught has been floated a number of times in the last few years, even by Conservatives who are otherwise rather down-to-earth.

Nearly all the policies with which we particularly associate Mr Major involve appearances. Back to basics was one; the more recent attack on beggars is another. Most of us, regardless of political allegiance, have complicated attitudes to beggars: a mixture of hostility, guilt and sympathy. We would, if asked, be unlikely to describe them merely as eyesores likely to drive away the tourists. This was a revealing comment – even if made during the heat of an electoral campaign. Beggary becomes an aesthetic problem. The same is true of Mr Major’s recent attacks on yobbery. We all wish people would not be yobbish but yobbery will not go away while the conditions which produce it remain in place. Ill-disposed persons have discerned an affinity between the values of modern yobbery and the values of modern Conservatism, while a yobbish Conservative press has irremediably coarsened contemporary political discourse. Yet it is plain that many Conservatives – not least the Prime Minister – believe that if people can be induced to behave nicely the problem disappears.

‘Niceness’, an attribute often ascribed to Conservative ministers, is almost a political category mistake. Mr Major is obviously a nice and affable man. But these are personal qualities. In politics nice is as nice does – or should be. And the governments in which he has served have done some very un-nice things indeed. As Robert Taylor points out in his trenchant essay on industrial relations, ‘prime ministerial words of compassion were often belied by harshness of executive action.’ Indeed, the Government seems largely insensitive to the poverty its policies have created and unsympathetic to those who suffer by it. But from ministers who hate inflation, despise trade unions and wish us to behave nicely this is probably not surprising. In his entertaining essay on the arts Robert Hewison calls the new headquarters of the Department of Heritage ‘a restored façade and ersatz interior’. It is a description appropriate to the Government as a whole.

So far as the Prime Minister is concerned all this is summed up in the citizens’ charters. In a famous chapter in Capital Marx wrote of the commodity fetishism of the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie thought of commodities as things in themselves instead of what they wear: physical expressions of social relationships which they both ‘congealed’ and concealed. The same is true of charter-fetishism. The charters are also an expression of social relationships which they embody and conceal. They are an attempt to depoliticise what are essentially power-political questions. They promise individuals rights not as citizens but as consumers and commit those who issue them to objectives which purport to be a function merely of ‘efficient’ or ‘civil’ behaviour. But whether or not the NHS or the railways or the education system can meet the demands of their ‘customers’ is not an administrative or personal issue but a political and distributional one – who gets what in the state – and customers can only secure their rights as citizens not as consumers; that is to say, by acting politically. Obviously, many are sceptical of the charters and as Mr Major’s Big Idea it has had mixed success. But Mr Major is serious about it and his unpolitical, personalised view of the world is widely shared in England, if not in Scotland and Wales. Unless I am misreading between the lines, Ivor Crewe (in his essay on electoral behaviour) thinks that the Conservatives will probably win the next election or, if not, come very close. Mr Major can arm himself with the fact that though his own politics skim on the surface of life, so do those or many of his countrymen.