Back to Basics (campaign)
The campaign was intended as a nostalgic appeal to traditional values such as "neighbourliness, decency, courtesy". It was often interpreted as a campaign for socially conservative causes such as promoting the traditional family, though Major denied this. The campaign became the subject of ridicule when a succession of Conservative politicians were caught up in scandals.
The previous year of Major's premiership had been beset by infighting within the Conservative party on the issue of Europe, including rebellions in several Parliamentary votes on the Maastricht Treaty. He was also dealing with the fallout from the Black Wednesday economic debacle of September 1992.
John Major's speech
Major's speech, delivered on 8 October 1993, began by noting the disagreements over Europe:
Disunity leads to opposition. Not just opposition in Westminster, but in the European Parliament and in town halls and county halls up and down this country ... [a]nd if agreement is impossible, and sometimes on great issues it is difficult, if not impossible, then I believe I have the right, as leader of this party, to hear of that disagreement in private and not on television, in interviews, outside the House of Commons.
Major then changed the subject to "a world that sometimes seems to be changing too fast for comfort". He attacked many of the changes in Britain since the Second World War, singling out developments in housing, education, and criminal justice. He then continued:
The old values – neighbourliness, decency, courtesy – they're still alive, they're still the best of Britain. They haven't changed, and yet somehow people feel embarrassed by them. Madam President, we shouldn't be. It is time to return to those old core values, time to get back to basics, to self-discipline and respect for the law, to consideration for others, to accepting a responsibility for yourself and your family and not shuffling off on other people and the state.
He mentioned the phrase once again near the conclusion of his speech:
The message from this conference is clear and simple, we must go back to basics. We want our children to be taught the best, our public services to give the best, our British industry to be the best and the Conservative Party will lead the country back to those basic rights across the board. Sound money, free trade, traditional teaching, respect for the family and respect for the law. And above all, we will lead a new campaign to defeat the cancer that is crime.
During 1993, Britain was going through what has been characterised as a moral panic on the issue of single mothers. Government ministers regularly made speeches on the issue, such as John Redwood's condemnation of "young women [who] have babies with no apparent intention of even trying marriage or a stable relationship with the father of the child" from July 1993, and Peter Lilley's characterisation of single mothers as "benefit-driven" and "undeserving" from the same year. The murder of James Bulger earlier in 1993, by two young boys from single-parent families, served to intensify the media frenzy.
Apart from some generic platitudes about families and self-reliance, Major's speech said nothing specific about sexual behaviour or single motherhood. On 6 January 1994, Major explicitly stated that the campaign was not "a crusade about personal morality". Despite this, the "Back to Basics" campaign was widely interpreted by the media as including a "family values" component.
According to Debbie Epstein and Richard Johnson:
It is true that there was little in his original speech about sexuality ... What proved critical, however, was the adoption of a moral traditionalist tone, including the usual references to 'the family' and 'responsibility', and the labelling of the Conservative Party as the party of morality. The party was now vulnerable to every personal moral disclosure, around financial and political corruption, but also, given the press's own agenda, around sexuality. For editors and journalists, the high-profile espousal of morality offered additional justification for the papers' risky stories, and a further defence against threats to introduce privacy legislation against press intrusion. It was indubitably 'in the public interest' not to hush up misdemeanours within the Back To Basics party, however private.
Writing in his diary shortly after and in reference to the Michael Brown story (Brown being a government whip who resigned in 1994 in the wake of a homosexual trip to Barbados), Piers Morgan, who exposed many of the sexual scandals as editor of the News of the World, opined:
Major brought all these exposés on himself, with that ludicrous 'Back to Basics' speech at the last Tory conference ... It strikes me that probably every Tory MP is up to some sexual shenanigans, but we can hardly get them all fired or there will be nobody left to run the country. Still, needs must. Brown's shenanigans will shift a few papers, get followed everywhere and ensure the NoW [News of the World] leads the news agenda again. We're on a roll and it feels fantastic.
The following scandals were linked to the "Back To Basics" campaign in the media:
- On 24 September 1992, David Mellor resigned as National Heritage Secretary. Mellor had been the subject of intense press attention regarding his extra-marital affair with actress Antonia de Sancha. Mellor remained in office for two months after the story broke, but was forced to resign when it was revealed that he had accepted a free holiday from the daughter of the PLO's finance director. Although Mellor's resignation antedated John Major's "Back to Basics" speech by more than a year, the media were quick to link the new campaign to the scandal.
- Between September and November 1993, newspapers revealed that junior transport minister Steven Norris had separated from his wife and was conducting simultaneous affairs with three different women (who were not all aware of each other's existence). A further two long-term mistresses from his past were also exposed in the media. Norris remained in office, with John Major reportedly believing that he "was entitled to act as he likes in his private life". The revelations continued during the conference at which Major made his "Back to Basics" speech.
- On 5 January 1994, Tim Yeo resigned as Minister for the Environment and Countryside following the revelation that he had fathered a child during an extramarital affair. Yeo had previously criticized the number of single mothers in Britain.
- On 8 January 1994, Alan Duncan resigned as Parliamentary Private Secretary after it was revealed that he had acquired a council house at a reduced price by exploiting a government programme to increase home ownership by the underprivileged.
- On 9 January 1994, The Earl of Caithness resigned from his post as Minister for Aviation and Shipping one day after his wife committed suicide. According to his wife's father, the tragedy had been precipitated by the Earl's involvement in an extra-marital affair.
- On 10 January 1994, married Conservative MP David Ashby admitted that he had shared a hotel bed with a "close" male friend on a rugby tour, but denied claims by his wife that he had left her for a man, or that he was having a homosexual relationship.
- On 16 January 1994, Conservative MP Gary Waller confirmed newspaper reports that he had fathered a child with the secretary of another MP.
- On 7 February 1994, Conservative MP Stephen Milligan was found dead as a result of auto-erotic asphyxiation.
- On 13 February 1994, Hartley Booth resigned as a Parliamentary Private Secretary. The married father of three and Methodist lay preacher claimed that his 22-year-old female researcher had "seduced [him] into kissing and cuddling".
- On 8 May 1994, Michael Brown resigned as a junior government whip after the News of the World revealed that he had taken a holiday in the Caribbean in the company of a 20-year-old man. At that time, the age of consent for same-sex male relationships was still 21 (it was due to be reduced to 18 later in 1994). Brown subsequently acknowledged his sexuality, becoming the second openly gay MP. In his diaries, Conservative MP Gyles Brandreth wrote of this revelation:
- On 10 July, Parliamentary Private Secretaries David Tredinnick and Graham Riddick resigned after being caught by The Sunday Times taking cash in exchange for asking Parliamentary questions.
- On 20 October, Tim Smith resigned as Northern Ireland minister after being accused by The Guardian of accepting cash for asking Parliamentary questions on behalf of Egyptian businessman Mohamed Al-Fayed. Smith admitted the allegations.
- On 25 October, Neil Hamilton resigned as minister for regulation and corporate affairs over the cash-for-questions affair. Unlike Smith, Hamilton denied taking money and gifts from Al-Fayed and vowed to sue his accusers in court.
- On 6 March 1995, Robert Hughes resigned as Minister responsible for the Citizen's Charter over an affair with a constituency worker who had come to him for help from an abusive relationship. Hughes confessed the affair and resigned when he believed that the liaison was about to be exposed in a Sunday newspaper.
- On 9 April 1995, Richard Spring resigned as a Parliamentary Private Secretary after a News of the World sting caught him in a "three in a bed sex romp" with a male acquaintance and the acquaintance's girlfriend.
- On 10 April 1995, Jonathan Aitken resigned as chief secretary to the treasury in order to sue The Guardian over allegations that Saudi businessmen had paid for his stay at the Paris Ritz hotel, that he had enjoyed inappropriate commercial relations with two British-Lebanese arms dealers while minister for defence procurement, and that he had procured prostitutes for a Saudi prince and his entourage while they stayed at a British health farm. Aitken's lawsuit would later collapse, and he would subsequently be imprisoned for perjury.
- Scottish Office minister Allan Stewart resigned after waving a pickaxe at an anti-motorway protester.
- On 2 June 1996, Rod Richards resigned as a Welsh Office minister after his extra-marital affair was disclosed in the News of the World. Richards had been a staunch advocate of the "Back To Basics" campaign in his strongly religious Welsh constituency. Upon hearing of the revelations, John Major demanded that Richards resign immediately; this so-called "one bonk and you're out" policy was a notable contrast with his earlier leniency towards Norris, Yeo and David Mellor.
- David Willetts's disciplining by the parliamentary ombudsman over his intervention in a parliamentary enquiry in 1996.
- Porter v Magill revealed Shirley Porter's role in the Homes for votes scandal.
- On 5 January 1997, the News of the World revealed that Conservative MP Jerry Hayes had been engaged in an extra-marital relationship with a young man. The affair began in 1991, when the man was 18 (the age of consent for same-sex male relationships at that time was 21).
- Piers Merchant's affairs with a night club hostess, and his researcher in 1997.
John Major lost the 1997 general election and resigned as Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader. Several years later, it was revealed that he had conducted a four-year-long extra-marital affair with fellow Conservative MP Edwina Currie in the 1980s. The liaison occurred when both were backbenchers, and had ended well before Major became Prime Minister. Currie disclosed the romance in her diaries, published in 2002, adding that she considered the "Back to Basics" campaign to have been "absolute humbug".
In 2017, Major said the slogan was an example of how sound bites can mislead the public, saying "[I]t was taken up to pervert a thoroughly worthwhile social policy and persuaded people it was about something quite different."
In popular culture
The phrase has since become used by UK political commentators to describe any failed attempt by a political party leader to relaunch themselves following a scandal or controversy. The phrase was satirised in the Viz strip Baxter Basics.
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