Back to Basics (campaign)

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Back to Basics attempted to relaunch the government of John Major (pictured)

Back to Basics was a political campaign announced by British Prime Minister John Major at the Conservative Party conference of 1993 in Blackpool.

Intended as a nostalgic appeal to traditional values, it subsequently backfired when a succession of Conservative ministers 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.[1]

John Major's speech[edit]

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.[2]

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.[2]

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.

Conflation with attacks on single mothers[edit]

During 1993, Britain was going through what has been characterised as a moral panic on the issue of single mothers.[3] 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.[3]

Apart from some generic platitudes about families and self-reliance, Major's speech said nothing specific about sexual behaviour or single motherhood. Despite this, the "Back to Basics" campaign was widely interpreted by the media as including a "family values" component.[4][5]



  • Tim Yeo's extramarital affair resulting in him fathering a "love-child" in 1993[1][6]
  • Revelations about the private life of Steve Norris who during the "back to basics" era was revealed to have had five "mistresses over a 25-year period something that earned him the nickname "Shagger" in the tabloid media.[7]
  • Northern Ireland Minister Michael Mates resigned after being found to have lobbied Parliament on behalf of businessman Asil Nadir.[1]



  • Scottish Office minister Allan Stewart resigned after waving a pickaxe at an anti-motorway protester.[1]
  • Hartley Booth's amorous, unreciprocated pursuit of his secretary in 1995.[14]
  • Jonathan Aitken's alleged procurement of prostitutes for Arab businessmen, their payment of his Paris Ritz hotel bill, and his subsequent conviction and prison sentence for perjury after the resulting libel trial in which he unsuccessfully attempted to sue The Guardian over the story.[15]



  • Piers Merchant's affairs with a night club hostess, and his researcher in 1997[18]
  • The "outing" of Conservative MP Jerry Hayes who was revealed to be having an affair with a man who was below what was then the age of consent for homosexual relations.[19][20]

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.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "The Major Scandal Sheet". BBC News (BBC). 27 October 1998. Retrieved 28 December 2012. 
  2. ^ a b Mr Major's Speech to Conservative Party Conference – 8th October 1993
  3. ^ a b Chambers, Deborah (2001). Representing the Family. SAGE. p. 147. ISBN 1412931622. 
  4. ^ Page, Robert (2007). Revisiting The Welfare State. Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill International. p. 97. ISBN 0335213170. 
  5. ^ Stevenson, Richard W. (14 January 1994). "British Scandals Jeopardizing Party's 'Back to Basics' Effort". The New York Times. 
  6. ^ Cohen, Nick; Routledge, Paul (9 January 1994). "The revenge of the Moral Majority: The Yeo Affair: Traditional values saved John Major's career at last year's party conference. Now he is paying the price. – UK, News". London: The Independent. Retrieved 29 August 2009. 
  7. ^ "Steve Norris: Tory who ran as a liberal". BBC News. 5 May 2000. 
  8. ^ "BBC ON THIS DAY | 8 | 1994: Police probe MP's suspicious death". BBC News. 8 February 1952. Retrieved 29 August 2009. 
  9. ^ Wolmar, Christian (9 April 1997). "Election '97: Cash-for-questions row Tory adopted in secret – News". London: The Independent. Retrieved 29 August 2009. 
  10. ^ "UK POLITICS | Profile: Neil Hamilton". BBC News. 10 August 2001. Retrieved 29 August 2009. 
  11. ^ Cooper, Glenda (22 October 1994). "The Cash-for-Questions Affair: Tim Smith finds forgiveness – UK, News". London: The Independent. Retrieved 29 August 2009. 
  12. ^ Percival, Jenny (6 June 2008). "Conservative scandals: Chichester joins a long list | Politics |". London: Guardian. Retrieved 29 August 2009. 
  13. ^ MacIntyre, Donald (21 April 1995). "Cash-for-questions MPs suspended by Commons – UK Politics, UK". London: The Independent. Retrieved 29 August 2009. 
  14. ^ [1][dead link]
  15. ^ Pallister, David (5 March 1999). "Aitken, the fixer and the secret multi-million pound arms deals | Politics |". London: Guardian. Retrieved 29 August 2009. 
  16. ^ "Programmes | Question Time | This week's panel". BBC News. 16 November 2005. Retrieved 29 August 2009. 
  17. ^ "Dumping the poor: Nick Cohen unravels the homes-for-votes scandal engulfing Dame Shirley Porter and reveals that her successors on Westminster council are still . . . – UK – N...". The Independent (London). 
  18. ^ Barton, Laura (1 July 2002). "Interview: Piers Merchant | Media". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 29 August 2009. 
  19. ^ Popham, Peter (7 January 1997). "Back to basics of vaudeville". The Independent (London). 
  20. ^ "A history of Christmas scandal past". BBC News. 23 December 1999. 

Further reading[edit]