Fatalism, Extenuation and Despair

Peter Clarke

  • Major: A Political Life by Anthony Seldon
    Weidenfeld, 856 pp, £25.00, October 1997, ISBN 0 297 81607 1

It may seem surprising that, within nine months of a famous election triumph, a government can look in such bad shape – its sense of purpose challenged by events and its supporter’ loyalty tested by unpalatable policy commitments. A particularly bitter personal twist is added when a prime minister, so recently hailed as the architect of victory, encounters increasingly open disparagement within his own party – not least from MPs owing their Westminster seats to his popular appeal. Or so John Major came to feel by the end of 1992. Tony Blair must be thankful that things are now working out so differently for his government, and that, having been elected as New Labour, it is finding it so easy to govern as New Labour, free of the ideological tensions, ministerial bungling, personal rivalries, sex scandals, financial sleaze and general bad publicity that dogged and doomed the Major Government.

It was a government formed unexpectedly as the result of a palace revolution in November 1990, after her faithless courtiers had turned savagely against the old queen, who was to describe their actions – on reflection and on television – as ‘treachery with a smile on its face’. Not a happy beginning for a government, and not a happy ending either, since ultimately it was to suffer one of the most gruelling chastisements that the British electorate has ever meted out.

All of this is still fresh in our memories. Indeed, it was only six months after Major’s demise that Anthony Seldon published this substantial book, and looking at it now provokes mixed reactions. First to marvel that even the prodigiously industrious Dr Seldon – a busy headmaster whose name appeared on five dustjackets in the 1996 season – did it so quickly. Then to wonder if he did it too quickly, with too little time and distance between chronicler and chronicled. There are, perhaps inevitably, some rough edges in the copy-editing of a text so speedily produced; and it is obvious that much of this account must have been drafted while the fate of the Major Government still hung in the balance. It could be said that this was the surest way of avoiding the danger of writing in hindsight, and thereby imposing a false sense of inevitability on events; but the opposite danger is lack of perspective, since, whenever it was written, the text is here to be read in hindsight and judged accordingly.

It should be said at once that this is more than an ephemeral feat of instant publishing. Seldon has written the indispensable historical guide to the Major Government: its triumphs and its failures, its achievements and its shortcomings, its life and its death – especially the latter in each case. This emphasis may be partly unwitting on the part of an author who found himself faithfully recording the prolonged travails of a prime minister who never quite mastered events. Seldon certainly did not set out with any malice against his subject Indeed, Major himself extended a degree of cooperation that might be feared to have compromised his independence.

Seldon is not afraid to publish a photograph of Major literally looking over his biographer’s shoulder at a manuscript that lies open on the table before them. The photograph does not show the former prime minister seizing the author’s pen to insert flattering emendations or to strike out candid criticisms. But off camera? It would be naive to imagine that such access did not carry some danger for the author. While personally sympathetic, however, this is not a whitewash and, far from covering up inconvenient testimony, Seldon’s policy is to print everything, which may assign conscientious readers a formidable challenge but gives each of us enough evidence to form our own judgments.

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