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.

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