This is the next piece in our Most Liberal Prime Minister series, celebrating those PM’s with a particularly liberal streak.
John Major is one of the most extraordinary men ever to have risen to the top of British politics. He has been unfairly and lazily dismissed and castigated by many, including those in his own party. Major took forward the liberalising reforms of the Thatcher years but injected into his agenda a sense of social conscience and an understanding of what public services meant to ordinary people. He believed passionately in equality of opportunity and spoke of his vision of a ‘classless society’.
All of this was informed by his own life experience, coming from probably the most disadvantaged
background of any person to have ever become prime minister (except perhaps Ramsay MacDonald). Outwardly, he combined a reassuring bank manager style with an ability to really
connect with people on a personal level. To me he was a better communicator than someone like
Tony Blair – Blair was slick but Major was authentic. He is remembered as the forgettable epilogue
to the Thatcher years, but he won his own mandate in 1992 against all the odds, and in fact won
more votes in that election than any prime minister has won before or since.
When New Labour took office in 1997, they undoubtedly inherited the strongest and most positive
economic legacy any outgoing administration has ever left behind in modern British history. On
pretty much every key indicator the economy was in rude health thanks to the careful stewardship
of Major and his chancellors, Norman Lamont and Ken Clarke, after taking over in 1990 during a
period of both recession and near-double digit inflation.
When Major left office, inflation was low, growth was at 4%, the public finances were in balance and Labour were able to run surpluses in their early years by sticking to Ken Clarke’s spending plans. The prosperity of the Blair years was built on the fact that the 1990s had seen Britain gradually become the most dynamic and flexible economy in Europe.
People seem to have just accepted that the Major Government was incompetent and ineffective
largely because it fits neatly into the accepted historical narrative of cabinet infighting and
ignominious electoral defeat. John Major did not create the discord within the Conservative Party
over Europe which blighted his premiership. The seeds of that civil war had been sown long before
he arrived on the scene and whoever had taken over in 1990 would have had an impossible job on
their hands when it came to party management. The difference is that any other leader would not
have had to deal with it for long, because they would not have managed to win a fourth
Conservative victory in 1992 and we would have had a socialist government.
When asked in 2011 about what his greatest regrets were from his time as prime minister, John
Major said: “I think the biggest mistake I made was this wretched ability to see both sides of an
argument”. For me, that was why he was such a great leader. John Major personifies the pragmatic
and collegiate approach which is in the best traditions of his party and of good government in
general. Many have criticised him for being indecisive or weak-willed, but the truth is he genuinely
wanted to consider the arguments and understand the issues, not to pursue policies based on
dogma or tribe.
Too many of our politicians are prone to peddling the fiction that they have all the answers, and that our problems have easy solutions which the other side oppose because they are
just bad people. Things are rarely that black and white – John Major knew that. A fine example of
this is his success in forging lasting peace in Northern Ireland, where Blair has taken most of the
credit for achievements which were largely down to the work of his predecessor.
I once asked John Major whether he saw himself as part of a particular strand within the
Conservative Party and how he would define it. He cited Iain Macleod, who tragically died a month
after becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1970, as a huge influence on him and many other
young Conservatives of his generation. Macleod was a reforming minister and powerful orator with
a liberal conservative outlook, a champion of individual liberty with a social conscience. As Colonial Secretary he pushed forward independence for Britain’s African colonies, and he is also the man credited with coining the term ‘nanny state’.
John Major may not have an ‘ism’ named after him but that does not mean he has no legacy within
Conservative thought. His overarching beliefs in the power of free markets while embracing the
enabling role of public services, in passionately defending the Union, and in building a society of
opportunity and fairness have really become the mainstream Conservative approach today.
In better circumstances he might have achieved even more and be remembered more
favourably. His was a compassionate, liberal, pragmatic brand of conservatism, deeply principled but deliberately anti-ideological, quietly patriotic and broadly in step with the sentiments of the British public. I hope one day history will give him at least some of the credit he deserves.