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.

Major runs to over eight hundred pages, organised in 39 chapters, each tightly defined in scope and marshalling its references in one or two hundred footnotes. The sources are listed with exemplary clarity, including generous allusion to the use that has been made of weekend newspaper articles, which Seldon salutes as ‘well-informed instant political history’. A clippings job from the posh Sundays? Yes and no. Paradoxically, historians are not so snobbish about such sources as journalists themselves, and even if Seldon had done little more than provide a retrospective digest of contemporary reporting, he would have performed a useful service. In fact, he has gone a good deal further, notably by conducting more than five hundred interviews. Some of these were conducted on a transparently accountable basis with people who are specifically cited in the footnotes. Others were evidently done under ‘Chatham House rules’, with individuals whose names doubtless appear somewhere in the massive list of general acknowledgments but whose identity as the source of particular information may sometimes lurk behind the reference, ‘private interview’. Finally, some interviews, presumably conducted under ‘deep-throat rules’ in basement garages, were with even more shadowy figures, of whom the author’s only printed acknowledgment is: ‘You know who you are, and I am extremely grateful.’ The author pledges his good faith as a professional historian by promising to make available a fully annotated version in 2027 – pending which, this review must therefore be regarded as having a provisional status.

Seldon calls this ‘a political’ – and it is difficult to know what else it could have been. To a striking extent, the only interesting thing about Major is his political career, to which he devoted himself from an early age. In this he is emblematic of the change in the recruitment of the British political élite, represented by the increasing dominance of professional politicians. What is commonly said against them is that they have never held down a ‘proper job’ but the most damning charge may be that they (and their families) have never been able to lead a proper life, untrammelled by the importunate demands of proliferating political commitments and by a Mephistophelean surrender of privacy to relentless media exposure. The bright side of this change is the displacement of a closed and privileged governing class by meritocratic competition, in which sheer talent is recognised, from whatever social background.

Nowhere has this transformation been more striking than in the top ranks of the Conservative Party. It is little more than thirty years since the leadership was vacated by a man whom everyone knew was really a 14th earl. His immediate predecessors had been a gentleman-publisher, with old money and plenty of it, who had married into a ducal family; the younger son of a baronet from an established if impoverished landed family; and a man who had the double distinction of having been the heir to a dukedom in his youth and having been offered one himself in his old age. Suddenly, the party of privilege underwent a remarkable conversion, turning for inspiration, like the early Christians, to the son of a self-employed carpenter. When this expedient failed, the Tories discovered a more plausibly messianic figure in the person of a grocer’s daughter, who erratically fulfilled some of the relevant prophecies by driving virtually everyone except the moneychangers out of the temple. Forced at short notice to follow that act, the Party opted for the son of a retired circus acrobat who had latterly become a maker of garden gnomes.

Our hero – for it was he – was in this sense working with the grain in seeking a career in Conservative politics. But it would have verged on the uncanny to have foreseen such a succession when young John Major first stood as a Conservative candidate for the Larkhill ward of Lambeth in 1964. The experience of living in rented rooms in Cold-harbour Lane, Brixton, after his father’s business had failed was still fresh. The fact of having left school early, with embarrassingly few qualifications, meant that Major was struggling to get his foot on the ladder – any ladder – at an age when Heath and Thatcher had already made good their escape by scrambling onto the upward escalator at Oxford University. Not until Major landed a job with the Standard Bank in 1966, aged 23, did his prospects start to improve. ‘I reckoned I could then save a hundred pounds a month, which was a huge sum to me at that stage,’ he recalled. ‘I knew that if I was going into politics I would need some money.’

Here was a political life foretold. The bank, which was to keep him on its payroll until he became a junior minister in 1983, was a means to an end. The work he did for the Standard Chartered Bank, as it became in 1975, gave him a solid if unspectacular income, established his professional status, and brought him a useful contact with the chairman, Heath’s ex-Chancellor, Lord Barber of Boom. After Major’s decisive political advancement to the post of Chief Secretary to the Treasury in 1987, Mrs Thatcher used to lament: ‘No one told me he’d only been in marketing at Standard Bank.’ If it was characteristic of her to distribute the blame for any lapses to others, it was characteristic of Major to baulk at comments which he thought slighting of his painfully earned professional credentials.

Parliament’s gain was hardly banking’s loss. By securing the Conservative nomination for Huntingdon in 1979, Major was again riding the wave of the future. In a constituency which others saw as a traditional patch of Tory farmland, Major became the champion of the upwardly mobile incomers who were transforming its character and making it safe for Thatcherism. In his first Parliament, however, he was not identified as a Thatcher loyalist. On becoming a whip in 1983, he showed the same conscientious, attentive, emollient qualities that had served him well before. When he had a well-remembered argument with the Prime Minister, at a whips’ dinner in 1985, both of them – though hardly on familiar terms at the time – behaved true to form: Major in arguing that it was the presentation of government policy on tax-cutting that was amiss, and Thatcher in jumping to the conclusion that it was the policy itself that he objected to.

Soon, thankfully, Thatcher started misperceiving Major in another way, this time as more right-wing than he actually was. This did him no harm; he allowed the misconception to flourish while he got on with his job, by now as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Since the job of any Chief Secretary is essentially to hold down government spending, Major’s aptitude in squeezing, squashing or squaring other ministers served one of the great Thatcherite objectives. His streetwise, nice-guy, technocratic ability to deliver the cuts was construed as ideological soundness. Compared with the arrogantly secretive Lawson at the Treasury, or the stubbornly ambitious Howe at the Foreign Office, the obscurely efficient Chief Secretary seemed increasingly the sort of man the Prime Minister could do business with.

In the summer of 1989 Major was still only Chief Secretary; 16 months later he was to become prime minister. Was he the right man, or was he just standing in the right place at the right time? There is no doubt that in July 1989, Thatcher thought him the right man for a surprise appointment to the Foreign Office so as to humiliate and punish Howe; she thought him, too, the right man for Chancellor on Lawson’s sudden resignation, three months later. By the time Thatcher had to withdraw from the leadership contest in November 1990, Major was again in the right place, as the only plausible Thatcherite contender who could beat Michael Heseltine. Whether Thatcher really thought him the right man to succeed her was now beside the point, though it became a matter of continuing recrimination.

The ambiguity in Major’s position at first helped him. ‘I am not running as son of Margaret Thatcher,’ he declared during the leadership election; but the Thatcher loyalists had to vote for him just the same. His appeal as the new prime minister was essentially as not-Thatcher, yet his ability to stake out his own ground was continually thwarted. He talked at intervals about a ‘classless society’, a concept which had an understandable emotional resonance for the man from Coldharbour Lane but which he was unable to clothe in cogent policies. By spring 1991, somewhat embarrassed by the emptiness of ‘Majorism’, he ordered such talk to cease, anticipating by 12 months his predecessor’s dismissal of the idea that he was now ‘his own’ and her claim that it was Thatcherism, not Majorism, that would live. In Europe, the new prime minister had signalled an apparent break with Thatcher’s negative stance by going to Bonn and claiming that he wanted Britain to be ‘at the very heart of Europe’. Again, it was only a phrase, but a pregnant one, and Seldon comments: ‘The speech unleashed forces which would all but swamp his premiership.’

Yet this ominously signalled Bonn speech came a mere six months into that premiership. What is remarkable, in reading this full and fairly sympathetic biography of Major, is how soon the note changes from one of optimism, celebration of the rise to power, and hope of constructive achievements, to one of fatalism, extenuation and despair.

Even Major’s surprise victory in the 1992 General Election – against all odds and in the face of virtually all predictions – did him little good. Though it was essential to electoral success that he should be seen as not-Thatcher (as well as not-Kinnock, of course), a section of his own party remained atavistically Thatcherite all along, both before and after the General Election. Major’s success in December 1991, in securing a British opt-out from both the social chapter and the single currency, should have made his position impregnable. It was arguably the fruit of his tender heart-of-Europe commitment, finessed by his tough-minded negotiating skills. Yet the Eurosceptic wing of his party, under the increasingly open goading of Thatcher herself, progressively undercut his position. They were confirmed in their hostility to Major and all things European by the Government’s handling of the Exchange Rate Mechanism.

Whether sterling should join the ERM was the reef, initially submerged, on which Thatcher’s premiership had foundered. So long as she was in charge, she had been determined to keep Britain out; and the fact that Major, as her new Chancellor, had reluctantly been allowed to put sterling into the system in October 1990 was a clear sign that the old lady was losing her political grip. It was an issue, therefore, on which Major had staked not only his economic judgment, but much emotional and political capital. Perhaps this explains why, though far from alone in endorsing ERM membership, he identified himself so closely and personally with it – the more so once sterling came under pressure in September 1992. ‘I was under no illusion when I took Britain into the ERM,’ he declared defiantly. ‘I said at the time that membership was no soft option. The soft option, the devaluers’ option, the inflationary option, would be a betrayal of our future.’

This, ‘the most fateful speech of his premiership’, as Seldon calls it, was followed within a week by sterling’s ignominious withdrawal from the ERM. It seems that Major considered resignation after ‘Black Wednesday’, going so far as to draft, in his own hand, the script for a television broadcast: the sort of scenario, replete with tactical surprise in a strategically desperate situation, that he was to contemplate more than once. In the end, he decided to carry on, again characteristic in his stubborn refusal to admit that he had been wrong. Eurosceptics subsequently professed that a public apology might have put things right. That was the last thing Major was prepared to give them.

It was not only the Eurosceptics who never forgave Major for Black Wednesday. This devaluers’ option turned out not to be the inflationary option that Major had so stridently threatened, but instead a low-interest option and thus a recovery option. Though Black Wednesday ushered in the long-awaited economic climb out of the post-Thatcher recession, the electorate remained unimpressed so long as the man most responsible for misjudging the situation remained prime Minister. Major’s rationale for staying in politics, as the only leader who could save the Conservative Party, had disappeared. Instead, within his own party, he was a busted flush, his authority undermined by constant insubordination; and in the country, the phenomenon of a ‘voteless recovery’ showed that his Government could now do nothing right.

One of the strengths of Seldon’s book is that it faithfully reflects the contemporary mood, month by month and sometimes day by day. Since the Government faced – and often made – such unremittingly bad news, the effect is to cast much of the narrative in essentially the same mould, chapter by chapter, in the 39 steps to oblivion.

A composite chapter will open by acknowledging the toll of recent setbacks. ‘By the beginning of May 1995’ – or virtually any other month in the years 1993-97 – ‘Major was beginning to run out of options.’ Beleaguered, Number Ten takes the initiative with the announcement of a fight-back strategy, often with an elastic title, like ‘back to basics’. Out of the blue, events take a turn – ‘incredibly bad luck of a quite extraordinary kind’, as one Cabinet minister puts it. Or else everything is spoilt by the eruption of a sex scandal, or allegations of financial sleaze in the Conservative Party, or the report of an inquiry into some previous example thereof, providing at least ‘a bleak moment for Major’ and at worst (the Nolan Report), ‘the biggest purely domestic crisis of his premiership’.

The protean European issue then pops up again, here if not there, there if not here. As the tempo quickens – ‘blows were coming daily’ – Thatcher intervenes, or threatens to do so. Backbench rebellion is by now brewing, and Major steps in. (‘No one could accuse Major of not cracking the whip often enough. The problem was that his homilies were casually disregarded.’) Attempts to patch up a party truce, at the price of the Prime Minister’s dignity, fail to elicit the good conduct for which the price was paid. (‘Not for the first time, he considered himself betrayed.’)

The new strategy may by now have been forgotten; as a Number Ten aide says on one occasion, ‘like many of our initiatives, it seems to have withered because of time pressure and general dyspepsia.’ Or, if not forgotten, it would have been better forgotten. (‘As so often happened, initiatives launched by Major to reassert his control did not just backfire, but did so spectacularly.’) A Cabinet split cannot be ruled out. The opinion polls meanwhile go from bad to worse; another scorching by-election loss reduces the Government’s already precarious Parliamentary majority; or local elections annihilate loyal Tory councillors and leave the Prime Minister bruised. ‘Major was left to nurse his wounds. He felt as if he was locked in a box, the key to which had been lost.’

It was the unremitting nature of this cycle which prompted the editor of the Times to claim that he ‘never saw a successful day of the Major Government’. Whether the Prime Minister or his party was more to blame became a hotly disputed issue. ‘John Major isn’t the Tory Party’s problem,’ Tony Blair said at one point. ‘The Tory Party is John Major’s problem.’ Major himself would not have disagreed, perhaps because the aphorism lets him off too lightly.

If the essential test of leadership is not only to set the agenda in politics but also to mobilise an effective constituency behind it, Major’s real problem was that he failed on both counts. Majorism in its successive guises remained an inarticulate and uninspiring political credo. It was never a great cause in pursuit of which, albeit pitted against adversity, it would still be glorious and honourable to fail; success alone could redeem this subfusc style of politics – canny in its compromises and dogged in its difference-splitting, inexorable in its pursuit of the lowest common denominator. But here, like Harold Wilson before him, Major staked everything on his unique ability to hold his increasingly fractious party together, at whatever cost, only to find that that the party to which he had devoted a lifetime of unquestioning commitment had become unleadable by such methods. Unlike Baldwin or Attlee, Major could not compensate for his lack of charisma through the humbler magic of successful party management. Seldon, in an assessment of headmasterly precision, places Major in a league table of prime ministers, ‘in the second quartile from the top’ – an interim judgment which may have to be revised by 2027.