John Major
John Major; drawing by David Levine

On the day the war ended in the Persian Gulf so did Britain’s phony domestic peace. Prime Minister John Major went to the House of Commons to give the expected praise to the courage of soldiers and airmen and the prescience of their commanders. He added some words of gratitude to the opposition parties for their staunch bi-partisanship during the crisis, which, by his own restrained manner and tone of voice throughout, he had gone out of his way to encourage. He also praised Margaret Thatcher who that afternoon was making one of her rare appearances in the Commons. Her resolution, he said, had played a key part from the outset in rallying international support for the Kuwaiti cause: “She has been totally vindicated by events.”

A few moments later the Member for Finchley rose in her place on the government back benches, three rows behind where she was accustomed to sit as prime minister. These were the first words she had spoken since her bravura valedictory performance at the Dispatch Box on November 22, hours after tendering her resignation to the Queen at Buckingham Palace. There was thunderous rumbling of parliamentary approval from the men who three months earlier had so unceremoniously sent her packing. What she had to say on “this Victory Day” was of no great consequence but there was much poignancy in the spectacle of her saying it from where she stood.

It is not necessary to imagine her thoughts that afternoon, for they had been assiduously spread around West-minster from her court-in-exile. According to this gossip, she had come to the conclusion that she had been tricked out of the leadership of the Conservative party—falsely informed, wrongly advised, and betrayed by persons she had counted her friends. Shortly afterward some of this was to come spilling out in an interview with ABC’s Barbara Walters:

You expect your party to stay with you when the going gets tough. Some of them didn’t. Absurd! We’ve had unpopularity in between elections before. They got scared—so be it, so be it.

This referred to her belief, encouraged by loyal acolytes, that had she not allowed herself to be persuaded by cabinet colleagues that she faced humiliation and defeat, had she gone through to a second ballot in last November’s leadership contest, she could have beaten Michael Heseltine’s challenge to her leadership of the party. After all, John Major had been elected with 184 MPs’ votes in the three-cornered second ballot, while on the first she had commanded the support of 203, a majority of those voting. Under the peculiar rules of the Conservative party leadership elections this margin of victory was not large enough but, on any reasonable assessment, who was the legitimate leader of the party? That was the question her friends were asking as the Major honeymoon drew to its close.

Suppose, they went on, she had stood her ground and won, showing up Michael Heseltine as the self-promoting opportunist many conservatives privately or publicly believed him to be. In November, to be sure, the Labour opposition had a fifteen-point lead in opinion polls; the Conservatives were split on Europe, and Mrs. Thatcher was the most unpopular prime minister since Neville Chamberlain. But those were the depths of a mid-term blues. Where would she have stood today? She would have stood victorious at the Dispatch Box, the Iron Lady, once more, who in Aspen, Colorado, in August had urged on an uncertain American president (“no time to go wobbly, George”) to launch a thousand aircraft against Saddam Hussein. Not only that, for the Gulf crisis had seemed to vindicate the skeptical position that she had taken toward Europe and that had triggered her downfall. Saddam had exposed the European Community (France apart) for what she had always known it to be—mostly talk and little action; meanwhile, her insistence on the primacy of the “special relationship” with the United States had been vindicated by a dramatic demonstration of American will and power.

That she should think like this, dwell constantly and morbidly upon her downfall, and rehearse in her mind and over whisky with friends the circumstances of her downfall, was understandable enough in her continuing shell-shocked state.

Her version, however, bears little relation either to the true causes of her downfall or to present political fealties. As John Major rose in the Commons the afternoon of March 2, opinion polls were rating him the most popular British prime minister since Winston Churchill. Nor did that have much to do with his reputation as war leader, which consisted chiefly in giving loyal support to George Bush in what had been essentially an American war. Major’s astonishing popularity—astonishing because he was scarcely known to the British people—began from the moment of her downfall. He was popular, first and foremost, because he was not Margaret Thatcher.


Moreover, she had largely brought her downfall upon herself; that now is an old story but it is a tale of tragic hubris in which the vices of the virtues she had displayed in her eleven-year reign had alienated too many of her cabinet colleagues—driving first Nigel Lawson, her chancellor, and then Sir Geoffrey Howe, her deputy, to resignation—and undermined her party’s confidence in her ability to lead it to a fourth successive victory. It was true that she had been deposed ultimately by a classic cabinet coup but that was because friend and foe alike among its members had concluded that Heseltine’s challenge had destroyed her authority to govern.

And so it had; the overnight resurgence of support for the new government under Major, in the face of a deepening economic recession combined with punitively high interest rates and double-digit inflation, was the proof of it. Indeed, the November coup had seemingly achieved the remarkable feat of providing Britain with a new government in mid-parliamentary term. The country’s mood, as shown in the polls, had been that it was “time for a change” after so long a dose of Mrs. Thatcher. Normally, under the British two-party parliamentary system changes in government are registered by the electorate at election time. But here was a party, long in power, renewing itself without losing power—or so it seemed. Whatever the Thatcherite court-in-exile might say, her successor did not lack legitimacy in the eyes of the nation. Indeed, the transition from Thatcher to post-Thatcher had been accomplished with a remarkable rapidity and ease, and on that day when the war ended there can have been few in the House of Commons in doubt about who was the rightful prime minister.

At the same time, as the first hundred days of John Major were completed, few could claim with much confidence that they knew who he was, what he really stood for, or how he would turn out. He had at the age of forty-six risen to his dizzy preferment without leaving a trace, as the joke had it, and it was almost literally true. The television researchers had been able to find little of archive footage of Major on the way up and the newspaper profiles of him consist of the same few anecdotes strung together. The best-known fact about him is that his father was for a brief period a circus artist, a tightrope performer, although the humble circumstances of his youth, of which much is made, owe not to that but to his father’s later failure in the business of selling garden gnomes. This resulted in the family moving from the genteel Surrey suburbs to a small flat in the multiracial inner city borough of Brixton.

He was obliged to leave school at sixteen and having failed to obtain a job as a bus conductor spent eight months living on the dole, then £2.87 a week. This experience, together with the reduced circumstances of his family, is said to have left him with an abiding horror of the ravages of inflation on people of low fixed income. He is the first prime minister to have had no university education since the Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald, in 1924, but he reveals none of the insecurities of the self-educated except, perhaps, his ultramethodical habit of drawing a line down a yellow pad and listing the pros and cons of any question as he thinks or talks.

He made his way, first, in an insurance office and then during fourteen years in banking, where he rose from clerk to manager while also serving as a conservative member of the socialist-controlled Lambeth borough council. After two unsuccessful bids for a parliamentary seat he was elected to a safe county seat of Huntingdon in 1978. His assiduous talents were quickly recognized and he was soon employed as a junior in the Whips office, which is the classic springboard for party preferment. From there he was promoted to junior minister at the Department for Social Security where, the story goes, he engaged in an argument with Mrs. Thatcher in which he challenged her proposed cuts in welfare. He assumed this to be the end of his promising career, but occasionally she would take a fancy to young men who dared cross swords with her and Major was one of the lucky ones. He was promoted to the Treasury and, following the 1987 election, elevated to the Cabinet as chief secretary, the Treasury minister responsible for public expenditures. The job involves acting as chief prosecutor against the big spending departments but Major, although a sound money man, once more left no enemies behind him. Some attribute this to his luck in presiding over buoyant revenues at the time, others to the suppressed social conscience which has since emerged. One way or the other, additional funds were allocated to health, transport, scientific research, and other areas neglected during the Thatcher years.


Thereafter he was talked about as a Thatcher favorite and one-day likely successor. His status as heir apparent seemed confirmed when, to general astonishment, she made him foreign secretary on the dismissal of Sir Geoffrey Howe in July 1989 after Howe and Lawson had ganged up on her over the issue of Britain’s joining the exchange rate mechanism of the European Monetary System. When Lawson resigned a few months later during the same simmering row over exchange rate policy and Britain’s role within the European Community, Major returned to the Treasury as chancellor. A year later he became prime minister after only three-and-a-half years on the cabinet.

Because so much of his brief career had been spent in the Treasury his reputation was as a technician, a managerial-type of minister willing to work hard to master details. According to treasury insiders, he revealed little of Nigel Lawson’s creative interest in economic policy-making. He was instead a highly political chancellor, always attuned to party sentiment and electoral implications of policy. He soon resolved, as Lawson had before him, that the pound should enter the exchange rate mechanism of the European Monetary System. Not only persuaded by the Treasury case for doing so on counterinflationary grounds, he saw that Mrs. Thatcher’s obstinacy was tearing the Conservative party apart. He proved more adept at handling her than either Lawson or Howe, and, taking shelter behind his reputation as a Thatcher protégé and unenthusiastic European, quietly encouraged expectations in financial markets, until, in the end, they could no longer be gainsaid. During his entire career, he made few enemies; indeed, the consistent testimony of those who worked with him was to his “niceness”—everybody uses the word. He was always courteous in his dealings, attentively considerate, remembering the names of colleagues and their wives, swift with little personal notes of congratulation or condolence; he was “well liked.”

This helps to explain why he coasted to the succession last November. He was the candidate with the fewest enemies. The Thatcherites were determined to avenge their heroine and, above all, stop Heseltine; they considered Major “one of us,” and indeed he was her candidate. Yet on the liberal wing of the cabinet he had colleagues who could say, “John is the most left-wing of the candidates.” The truth was that he was of no fixed ideological tendency. He could embody hopes of both continuity and change: for he had risen through the patronage of Mrs. Thatcher and agreed with her in favoring a tight monetary policy; yet in earlier days he had belonged to the blue chip dining club of young Tories who claimed to espouse a Disraelian “one nation” conservatism that would unify all classes. For his part, he himself disclaimed any ideological tag: “For me, Conservatism is not a creed, it is essentially the common-sense view of life from a tolerant perspective.”

It says something for John Major that the British public made a favorable judgment of him before the image makers had time to get to work, sharpening up his suits and modernizing his haircut, and giving him public relations advice. His stock rose overnight in the opinion polls, helped perhaps by a remark—not since repeated—that his ambition was to create a “classless society.” To many he must have seemed the epitome of such an aspiration, the working-class boy who made good, and since then he has quietly cultivated this image. On his way to a party meeting in the north he stopped his car at a roadside café and breakfasted on sausages, eggs, bacon, and beans. As foreign secretary he astonished his security men by eating, alone with his papers, at a McDonald’s. He has no taste for grand official residences and, also when foreign secretary, had chosen to stay in the bedsitting room normally used by the overnight clerk; as prime minister he prefers on weekends to go home to Huntingdon near Cambridge than to hold court at Chequers, his official country house retreat. He explained that his daughter plays the clarinet in various local bands and his son is on his school football team and he didn’t want to disrupt their lives, although he has since shown signs of innocent pleasure in his new life; for example, he discovered with apparent astonishment that a prime minister can invite whomever he wishes to Sunday lunch and they will come as if summoned. At Number 10 Downing Street he has taken to giving Harry-Truman-like news briefings on his doorstep.

Major’s opinion-poll profile makes for fascinating contrast with Mrs. Thatcher’s. As a leader she was always respected but never loved; people admired her determination, her strength of character, but thought her uncaring, remote from ordinary people, divisive in spirit. Major has the reverse image. “Firmly in charge?”—people are uncertain: 46 percent say “yes,” but 42 percent “no.” “Decisive?”—61 percent think so but 64 percent think him also “cautious.” But for “caring” he scores 71 percent, while (starkest contrast of all) 76 percent see him as someone who “listens to reason.” And, sure enough, 82 percent agree that Major is “likable.”

This was how he stood at the end of his hundred days of not being Mrs. Thatcher, the desert war won, his party three or four points ahead of Labour in the polls (it had been fifteen points below in November), and the talk of an election as early as June. Then the honeymoon ended. It had been prolonged by the war, with domestic concerns in abeyance for the duration and public attention diverted to the excitements in the Gulf. It was remarkable, nevertheless, that with the economy plunging into recession, the new government—which was essentially the old government, Major himself being responsible as chancellor for the management of the economy—should have been so successful in reversing its fortunes. The pollsters’ explanation was that people were ready to blame Mrs. Thatcher’s regime for recession and their other discontents and allow Major a chance to put them right.

Then, in early March, on exactly Major’s hundredth day, the electors of Ribble Valley sent the government a different message. Ribble Valley is a Lancashire constituency, mainly country and suburban; it was the conservatives’ fourteenth safest seat, with a huge parliamentary majority of nearly 20,000 votes. In a by-election caused by the elevation of the incumbent MP to the House of Lords, it was captured on March 7 by a Liberal Democrat on a swing of 24.7 percent against the government. This was a sensational result.

The Ribble Valley by-election was significant not so much because of the seismic protest registered as because it was the first since the hugely controversial appeasement by-elections of the Thirties to have been fought almost exclusively around a single issue—the poll tax. The poll tax, officially named the “community charge,” was introduced in England and Wales in April last year (in Scotland the previous year) in place of the local property tax known in Britain as the rates. Its introduction was accompanied by public riots and it has remained vastly unpopular ever since. The principle of the tax was that everybody should pay a standard fee for local services, the cost of which had previously fallen only upon householders. This meant a garbage collector paid the same as the prodigiously rich Duke of Westminster. It also meant that millions of families who had joined the property-owning democracy fostered by Mrs. Thatcher through the sale of municipal housing to its tenant found themselves paying per capita charges greatly in excess of any property tax they might have previously paid.

Not only was the community charge regarded as grotesquely unfair but it also proved a fiscal monstrosity, difficult to collect (millions having refused to pay) and requiring huge governmental subsidies to alleviate the burden on millions who simply could not afford to pay. The debacle of the poll tax had a large part in the downfall of Mrs. Thatcher since many MPs feared for their seats under her continuing leadership. And no one was in doubt that it was her tax—it was she who had pledged the abolition of the rates, she who had pushed the poll tax through the cabinet, and she who had proclaimed it the “flagship” of her third administration.

Major, on succeeding her, had set up a commission to review all the alternatives to the poll tax and at its head he appointed Michael Heseltine, the man who had challenged Mrs. Thatcher—not least on the poll tax issue—and brought her down. By March the commission had failed to reach a conclusion, amid reports of cabinet confusion and dissension. Then the electors of Ribble Valley sent a message which in one respect at least was unmistakable—the poll tax must go.

And go it did. Major’s delay in coming to a conclusion had led to mounting accusations that he was “dithering.” It turned out his mind had been made up for some time: the poll tax had proved a political disaster for the Tories—the “flagship” must head for the breakers’ yard. It would be succeeded by a return to a property tax, although in a new form; meanwhile, its incidence was to be substantially reduced by a sizeable subsidy from central to local government, and this required a 2.5 percent hike in the sales tax. It amounted to a spectacular U-turn for the man who had succeeded the lady who had proclaimed herself “not for turning.”

This will surely prove a defining event for John Major. Hitherto he has managed to appear simultaneously as the apostle of continuity and change. There had been some spasmodic sniping from troops loyal to Mrs. Thatcher to the effect that he was quietly betraying the true faith. She herself told Barbara Walters, “I see a tendency to try to undermine what I achieved and to go back to more powers for government.” Major began putting distance between himself and Mrs. Thatcher, first in minor ways, authorizing one or two small expenditure programs which she had vetoed. Next he sought to dispel the impression that Conservatives cared little about the quality of public services, including health, transport, and education, many of which they did not use themselves. Major told a conference of Young Conservatives, “I want to see an unending search for better quality in all our public services.” This shift in emphasis was reinforced with the endorsement by his party chairman and trusted adviser, Chris Patten, of the “social market” doctrine practices by the Christian Democrats in Germany. Mrs. Thatcher regarded Christian democracy as scarcely better than social democracy and had quarreled disastrously with Chancellor Helmut Kohl. He and Major were soon on “John” and “Helmut” terms, again to the annoyance of the Thatcherites.

From the outset, the tone and style of Major’s European diplomacy were in contrast to Mrs. Thatcher’s. Her petulant behavior at the first of two Community summits in Rome last year, when she abruptly rejected the prospect of Great Britain accepting a common European currency, had helped bring about her downfall. At the second of the summits Major went about things in quiet and courteous fashion, stressing Britain’s place at the center of European affairs. He made this more explicit in a recent keynote speech delivered in Bonn in which he said: “I want us to be where we belong. At the very heart of Europe. Working with our partners in building the future.” This speech was intended to mark the break with Thatcherite European diplomacy, and it was interpreted as such in both Germany and Britain. The differences remain between Helmut Kohl’s vision of economic and political union and British opposition to placing monetary control and defense responsibilities in the hands of supranational bodies. But whereas Mrs. Thatcher promoted this into a great collision of principle, Mr. Major has adopted the method of agreeing to take the relatively uncontroversial next step while reserving his position on the final outcome. For example, he said in Bonn: “Whether or not it is sensible to use the same money, surely we can all agree on the need for sound money.” This may not be enough to prevent an eventual clash between Britain and its European partners but will be enough probably to postpone it until after a general election. Where Mrs. Thatcher relished confrontation, Major’s aim is to replace the Franco-German axis with a troika as the locomotive of the European Community.

Major’s main problem is not the ideological position of the government; the rear-guard actions of the Thathcherites may embarrass him from time to time but are unlikely to split his party seriously with an election so near. Major’s problem is winning an election at an unfavorable moment in the economic cycle. There is no reason to suppose that he has either the wish or the intention to reverse the “Thatcher Revolution.” He will certainly try to keep the labor unions from regaining any of the power they have lost and he will not consider renationalizing any of the privatized industries.

Mrs. Thatcher’s achievements were placed in jeopardy by Mrs. Thatcher in her last triumphalist phase when she pushed beyond the tolerances of the British people and tested beyond endurance the collegiate patience of her most senior colleagues. She had also, quite simply, been around too long. Major’s meritocratic rise from humble origins, his unassuming manners and habits, and his talk of the “classless society” (of which we have heard no more), may obscure the degree to which he is a very traditional Tory, not inclined to challenge most of Mrs. Thatcher’s programs directly but willing to reassert some of the social concerns of the Disraelian tradition of the party nonetheless.

Disraelian conservatism consists essentially in understanding that if property is to be preserved as the source of freedom, then the holders of property must have some visible regard for the condition of the people. In similar manner, Major understands that if the “Thatcher Revolution” is to be preserved and carried further, the ethos of individualism needs to be accompanied by improved social services such as education and health insurance. Major seems to have had such ideas in mind when he told his Christian Democratic audience in Bonn, “Some people tend to see individualism and social responsibility as mutually exclusive. We make no such mistake.”

Even were it not Major’s own instincts to move in these directions, and away from the dogmatism of the ancien régime, he would need to do so. Mrs. Thatcher was both agent and product of the breakdown in the broad consensus which had characterized British politics for most of the postwar period. One of her achievements was to split the Labour party and, through her populist appeal to its working-class supporters, oblige the party to rid itself of its more radical leaders and to reform itself. In the process socialism was, to all intents and purposes, abandoned. Her many-times-repeated threat or pledge to “kill socialism” was effectively carried out; but she had won her two reelections in 1983 and 1987 against opposition forces that were divided and confused. Labour had lurched to the left and was locked in internecine struggle. The Social Democrats had broken away to form a new party which was in uneasy electoral alliance with the Liberals. Mrs. Thatcher could divide and rule.

Major will not find it so easy. Today the Conservatives face a Labour party that is no longer plainly disqualified from forming a new government. The old adage of British two-party politics is that “oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them.” In 1983 and 1987, however, the Labour opposition had been determined to lose, driving many of its traditional blue-collar supporters into the Tory camp. Now, here was Neil Kinnock mouthing market economics, for-swearing high taxation and, instead of threatening to leave the European Community, presenting Labour as the more “European” party. In short, Labour had returned to the center ground of the political battlefield and, with a substantial body of moderate centrist opinion remaining on the sidelines, obliging Major to fight there too. By Mrs. Thatcher’s last tempestuous days it was no longer self-evident that in Britain the antisocialist coalition would prevail over the anti-Thatcher coalition. The Conservative party seems to have sensed this change and that is why, in its instinctive lust for office, it dumped Thatcher when it did and chose Major.

This Issue

April 25, 1991