Back to Basics (campaign)
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.
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.
Conflation with attacks on single mothers
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. Despite this, the "Back to Basics" campaign was widely interpreted by the media as including a "family values" component.
- Tim Yeo's extramarital affair resulting in him fathering a "love-child" in 1993
- 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.
- Northern Ireland Minister Michael Mates resigned after being found to have lobbied Parliament on behalf of businessman Asil Nadir.
- Alan Duncan, then a PPS, resigned in 1994 when he was shown to have made an illicit purchasing deal on a council house.
- Hartley Booth quits as a Parliamentary Private Secretary over a "friendship" with a Commons researcher.
- The Earl of Caithness resigned from his post as Foreign Office Minister after his wife committed suicide due to his extra-marital affair.
- Conservative Party Deputy chairman Patrick Nicholls resigned shortly after referring to Germans as "warmongers".
- Conservative MP Stephen Milligan's accidental death by auto-erotic asphyxiation on 7 February 1994
- MP Michael Brown's involvement with a then-underage man in 1994, and his subsequent implication in the Cash-for-questions affair.
- Neil Hamilton's alleged acceptance of 'cash for Parliamentary questions' from Egyptian businessman Mohamed Al-Fayed in 1994. Tim Smith also admitted taking cash for questions from Al-Fayed.
- David Ashby discovered to have shared a bed with a man on a trip paid by expenses. Ashby was married at the time.
- Graham Riddick's entrapment for, and acceptance of, cash for questions in 1994 by The Sunday Times.
- Scottish Office minister Allan Stewart resigned after waving an axe at an anti-motorway protester.
- Hartley Booth's amorous, unreciprocated pursuit of his secretary in 1995.
- 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.
- 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
- Piers Merchant's affairs with a night club hostess, and his researcher in 1997
- 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.
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.
- "The Major Scandal Sheet". BBC News (BBC). 27 October 1998. Retrieved 28 December 2012.
- Mr Major's Speech to Conservative Party Conference – 8th October 1993
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- Page, Robert (2007). Revisiting The Welfare State. Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill International. p. 97. ISBN 0335213170.
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- Popham, Peter (7 January 1997). "Back to basics of vaudeville". The Independent (London).
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- Wintour, Patrick (9 October 1993). "Major goes back to the old values". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 26 September 2007.
- Richard W. Stevenson (14 January 1994). "British Scandals Jeopardizing Party's 'Back to Basics' Effort". New York Times. Retrieved 3 January 2008.