|The Right Honourable
Sir John Major
|Major in 1996.|
|Prime Minister of the United Kingdom|
28 November 1990 – 2 May 1997
|Preceded by||Margaret Thatcher|
|Succeeded by||Tony Blair|
|Leader of the Opposition|
2 May – 19 June 1997
|Prime Minister||Tony Blair|
|Preceded by||Tony Blair|
|Succeeded by||William Hague|
|Shadow Foreign Secretary|
7 May – 11 June 1997
|Preceded by||Robin Cook|
|Succeeded by||Michael Howard|
|Leader of the Conservative Party|
28 November 1990 – 19 June 1997
|Preceded by||Margaret Thatcher|
|Succeeded by||William Hague|
|Chancellor of the Exchequer|
26 October 1989 – 28 November 1990
|Prime Minister||Margaret Thatcher|
|Preceded by||Nigel Lawson|
|Succeeded by||Norman Lamont|
|Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs|
24 July – 26 October 1989
|Prime Minister||Margaret Thatcher|
|Preceded by||Geoffrey Howe|
|Succeeded by||Douglas Hurd|
|Chief Secretary to the Treasury|
13 June 1987 – 24 July 1989
|Prime Minister||Margaret Thatcher|
|Preceded by||John MacGregor|
|Succeeded by||Norman Lamont|
|Minister of State for Social Security|
10 September 1986 – 13 June 1987
|Prime Minister||Margaret Thatcher|
|Preceded by||Tony Newton|
|Succeeded by||Nicholas Scott|
|Member of Parliament
3 May 1979 – 7 June 2001
|Preceded by||David Renton|
|Succeeded by||Jonathan Djanogly|
29 March 1943 |
Carshalton, Surrey, England
Sir John Major, KG, CH (born 29 March 1943) is a British Conservative Party politician who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Leader of the Conservative Party from 1990 to 1997. He previously held the posts of Chancellor of the Exchequer and Foreign Secretary in the Thatcher Government and was the Member of Parliament for Huntingdon from 1979 to 2001. Major was Margaret Thatcher's preferred choice as her successor. Within weeks of becoming Prime Minister, Major presided over British participation in the Gulf War in March 1991 and negotiated the Maastricht Treaty in December 1991. Despite the British economy being in recession, he went on to lead the Conservatives to a fourth consecutive election victory, winning the most votes in British electoral history with over 14 million in the 1992 general election albeit with a much reduced majority in the House of Commons.
Major's premiership saw the world go through a period of political and military transition after the end of the Cold War. This included the rise of the European Union, an issue which was already a source of friction within the Conservative Party, and which had contributed to the end of Margaret Thatcher's premiership during the 1990 leadership election. Shortly after re-election, the Major Government became responsible for the United Kingdom's exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) after Black Wednesday on 16 September 1992. This event led to a loss of confidence in his government's economic policies and from thereon in he was never quite able to achieve a lead in the opinion polls again.
Despite the eventual revival of economic growth amongst other successes such as the beginnings of the Northern Ireland peace process, by the mid-1990s the Conservatives were embroiled in ongoing "sleaze" scandals involving various MPs including cabinet ministers. Criticism of Major's leadership reached such a pitch that he chose to resign as Conservative Leader in June 1995 challenging his critics to either back him or challenge him; he was duly challenged by John Redwood but was easily re-elected. By this time, the Labour Party was seen as a reformed and credible alternative under the leadership of Tony Blair and a large number of by-election defeats had severely hampered the Government. Major went on to lose the 1997 general election in one of the largest electoral defeats since the Great Reform Act of 1832.
After the defeat, Major resigned as Conservative Leader and was succeeded by William Hague. He went on to retire from active politics, leaving the House of Commons at the 2001 general election. As of May 2015, after Margaret Thatcher's death in April 2013, Major is now the oldest living former British prime minister.
- 1 Early life and education
- 2 Early political career
- 3 In Cabinet
- 4 Prime Minister
- 5 Final years in Parliament
- 6 Summary
- 7 Later life
- 8 Representation in the media
- 9 Titles and honours
- 10 Personal life
- 11 Arms
- 12 References
- 13 Further reading
- 14 External links
Early life and education
Major was born at St. Helier Hospital in Sutton, Surrey, the son of Gwen Major, née Coates, and former music hall performer Tom Major-Ball who was 64 years old when John was born. He was christened John Roy Major but only "John" was recorded on his birth certificate. He used his middle name until the early 1980s. He attended primary school at Cheam Common and from 1954 he attended Rutlish School in Merton. In 1955, with his father's garden ornaments business in decline, the family moved to Brixton. The following year, Major watched his first debate in the House of Commons, where Harold Macmillan presented his only Budget as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and has attributed his political ambitions to that event. He also credited a chance meeting with former Prime Minister Clement Attlee on the King's Road shortly afterwards.
Major left school at the age of 16 in 1959 with three O-levels in History, English Language and English Literature. He later gained three more O-levels by correspondence course, in the British Constitution, Mathematics and Economics. His first job was as a clerk in the insurance brokerage firm Pratt & Sons in 1959. Disliking this job, he quit. Major joined the Young Conservatives in Brixton at this time. Major was 19 years old when his father died at the age of 83 in 1962. His mother died eight years later in 1970 at the age of 65.
After Major became Prime Minister it was misreported that his failure to get a job as a bus conductor owed to his failing of a maths test. He had in fact passed all of the tests but had been passed over owing to his height.
After a period of unemployment, Major started working at the London Electricity Board in 1963 which is where incidentally his successor as Prime Minister, Tony Blair, also worked when he was young. He later decided to undertake a correspondence course in banking. Major took up a post as an executive at the Standard Chartered Bank in May 1965 and he rose quickly through the ranks. He was sent to work in Jos, Nigeria by the bank in 1967 and he nearly died in a car accident there.
Early political career
Major was interested in politics from an early age. Encouraged by fellow Conservative Derek Stone, he started giving speeches on a soap-box in Brixton Market. He stood as a candidate for Lambeth London Borough Council at the age of 21 in 1964, and was elected in the Conservative landslide in 1968. While on the Council he was Chairman of the Housing Committee, being responsible for overseeing the building of several large council housing estates. He lost his seat in 1971.
Major was an active Young Conservative, and according to his biographer Anthony Seldon brought "youthful exuberance" to the Tories in Brixton, but was often in trouble with the professional agent Marion Standing. Also according to Seldon, the formative political influence on Major was Jean Kierans, a divorcée 13 years his elder, who became his political mentor and his lover, too. Seldon writes "She... made Major smarten his appearance, groomed him politically, and made him more ambitious and worldly." Their relationship lasted from 1963 to sometime after 1968.
Major stood for election to Parliament in St Pancras North in both United Kingdom general elections in 1974, but was unsuccessful each time. In November 1976, Major was selected to be the candidate for the safe Conservative seat of Huntingdonshire. He won the seat in the 1979 general election. Following boundary changes, Major became the MP for the newly formed seat of Huntingdon in 1983, and retained the seat in 1987, 1992 and 1997. He retired from Parliament in 2001.
He was appointed as a Parliamentary Private Secretary in 1981, becoming an assistant whip in 1983. He was later made Under-Secretary of State for Social Security in 1985, before being promoted to become Minister of State in the same department in 1986, first attracting national media attention over cold weather payments to the elderly in January 1987, when Britain was in the depths of a severe winter.
Major was first promoted to the Cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury in 1987 following the general election, and in a surprise July 1989 reshuffle succeeded Geoffrey Howe as Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. He was only in that post for three months, before being appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer after Nigel Lawson's surprise resignation in October 1989. In spite of his relative inexperience, Major had gone from a relatively junior Cabinet position to holding two of the Great Offices of State in just a few months. Major presented only one Budget, the first one to be televised live, in early 1990. He publicised it as a budget for savings and announced the Tax-Exempt Special Savings Account (TESSA), arguing that measures were required to address the marked fall in the household savings ratio that had been apparent during the previous financial year.
In June 1990, Major suggested that the proposed Single European Currency should be a "hard ECU", competing for use against existing national currencies; this idea was not in the end adopted. In October 1990, Major and Douglas Hurd, Major's successor as Foreign Secretary, finally persuaded Thatcher to allow Britain to join the Exchange Rate Mechanism, a move which she had resisted for some years, and which had been a cause of her quarrels with Howe and Lawson.
When Michael Heseltine challenged Margaret Thatcher for the leadership of the Conservative Party in November 1990, Major and Douglas Hurd were the proposer and seconder on her nomination papers. Major announced on 22 November that he would stand in the second ballot, along with Heseltine and Hurd, after Thatcher abandoned her plans to contest, thus ending her 11 years as Prime Minister and 15 years as Conservative Leader. Major was at home in Huntingdon recovering from a wisdom tooth operation at this time. Thatcher's nomination papers for the second ballot were sent to him by car for him to sign – it later emerged that he had signed both Thatcher's papers and a set of papers for his own candidacy in case she withdrew.
Unlike in the first ballot, a candidate only needed a majority of Conservative MPs to win, in this case 187 of the 375 MPs. The ballot was held on 27 November; although Major fell two votes short of the required winning margin in the second ballot, his margin was large enough to secure immediate concessions from his rivals. With no remaining challengers, Major was named Leader of the Conservative Party hours later, and was duly appointed Prime Minister the following day.
Major was Prime Minister during the first Gulf War of 1991, and played a key role in persuading US President George H. W. Bush to support no-fly zones. During the war, Major and his Cabinet survived an IRA assassination attempt by mortar attack.
The economy had entered recession during the final year of Thatcher's Premiership, and the recession continued to deepen throughout 1991 and into 1992. The Conservatives had been consistently behind Labour in the opinion polls since 1989, and the gap widened significantly during 1990.
Within two months of Major becoming Prime Minister, the Conservatives had managed to regain a lead in the opinion polls, briefly enjoying a comfortable lead after the Gulf War. Polls also showed that Major was at this time the most popular Prime Minister since Harold Macmillan some 30 years previously.
In spite of Labour Leader Neil Kinnock's repeated calls for an immediate general election after Major became Prime Minister, the election was eventually called for 9 April 1992. Major took his campaign onto the streets, delivering many addresses from an upturned soapbox as he did in his days on Lambeth Council. This approach stood in contrast to the Labour Party's seemingly slicker campaign and it chimed with the electorate, along with hard-hitting negative campaign advertising focusing on the issue of Labour's approach to taxation. During the campaign, both parties were either tied or within one point of each other in opinion polls, leading to uncertainty over who would win. On the night of the election, exit polls indicated a very slim Labour lead, which most observers predicted would translate into a hung parliament, or possibly a small Labour majority.
Despite these predictions, the election produced a Conservative victory, with Major winning in excess of 14 million votes, the highest popular vote ever recorded by a British political party in a general election to date. This translated into a small and much-reduced majority of 21 seats, which although enough to form a government, would cause problems for Major throughout his second term. The Conservatives' fourth consecutive election victory led to the resignation of Neil Kinnock as Labour Leader and the election of John Smith as his successor.
Major's second honeymoon as Prime Minister following his election win did not last long, as his majority proved too small for effective control over his backbenchers, many of whom were extremely hostile to the European Union. The United Kingdom's forced exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) on 16 September 1992, which would come to be known as "Black Wednesday", came just five months into the new Parliament, causing billions of pounds to be wasted in a futile attempt to defend the currency's value. It was later revealed that Major came very close to resigning as Prime Minister at this point, even going so far as to prepare an unsent letter of resignation addressed to the Queen. Major continued to defend Britain's membership of the ERM, stating that "the ERM was the medicine to cure the ailment, but it was not the ailment".
The disaster of Black Wednesday left the government's economic credibility badly damaged. Major kept his economic team unchanged for seven months after Black Wednesday before he eventually sacked Norman Lamont as Chancellor of the Exchequer, replacing him with Kenneth Clarke. This came after months of press criticism of Lamont, and a disastrous defeat at a by-election in Newbury, Berkshire. Such a delay, on top of the crisis, was exploited by Major's critics both inside and outside of his party as proof of the indecisiveness that was to undermine his authority through the rest of his Premiership. Britain's departure from the ERM led to the Conservatives falling far behind Labour in the opinion polls, and in spite of future improvements in the economy, Major was never able to regain a lead for the rest of his time as Prime Minister.
Within a year of his triumphant election win, public opinion of him had plummeted, with Black Wednesday, mine closures, the Maastricht dispute and mass unemployment being cited as four key areas of dissatisfaction with the Prime Minister. Newspapers which traditionally supported the Conservatives and had championed Major at the election were now being severely critical of him on an almost daily basis.
The UK's forced withdrawal from the ERM was succeeded by a partial economic recovery with a new policy of flexible exchange rates, allowing lower interest rates and devaluation, thereby increased demand for UK goods in export markets. The recession that had started shortly before Major became Prime Minister was declared over in April 1993, when the economy grew by 0.2%. Unemployment also started to fall; by the start of 1993 it had reached almost 3,000,000, but by early 1997 it stood at 1,700,000.
On becoming Prime Minister Major had promised to keep Britain "at the very heart of Europe", and claimed to have won "game, set and match for Britain" – by negotiating the social chapter and single currency opt-outs from the Maastricht Treaty, and by ensuring that there was no overt mention of a "Federal" Europe and that foreign and defence policy were kept as matters of inter-governmental co-operation, in separate "pillars" from the supranational European Union. By 2010 some of these concessions, but not Britain's non-membership of the Single Currency, had been overtaken by subsequent events.
Even these moves towards greater European integration met with vehement opposition from the Eurosceptic wing of the party and the Cabinet as the Government attempted to ratify the Maastricht Treaty in the first half of 1993. Although the Labour opposition supported the treaty, they were prepared to tactically oppose certain provisions to weaken the government. This opposition included passing an amendment that required a vote on the social chapter aspects of the treaty before it could be ratified. Several Conservative MPs, known as the Maastricht Rebels, voted against the treaty, and the Government was defeated. Major called another vote on the following day, 23 July 1993, which he declared a vote of confidence. He won by 40 votes, but the damage had been done to his authority in parliament.
Later that day, Major gave an interview to ITN's Michael Brunson. During an unguarded moment when Major thought that the microphones had been switched off, Brunson asked why he did not sack the ministers who were conspiring against him. He replied: "Just think it through from my perspective. You are the prime minister, with a majority of 18... where do you think most of the poison is coming from? From the dispossessed and the never-possessed. Do we want three more of the bastards out there? What's Lyndon B. Johnson's maxim?" Major later said that he had picked the number three from the air and that he was referring to "former ministers who had left the government and begun to create havoc with their anti-European activities", but many journalists suggested that the three were Peter Lilley, Michael Portillo and Michael Howard, three of the more prominent "Eurosceptics" within his Cabinet. Throughout the rest of Major's premiership the exact identity of the three was blurred, with John Redwood's name frequently appearing in a list along with two of the others. The tape of this conversation was leaked to the Daily Mirror and widely reported, embarrassing Major.
Arguments continued over Europe. Early in 1994 Major vetoed the Belgian politician Jean-Luc Dehaene as President of the European Commission (in succession to Jacques Delors) for being excessively federalist, only to find that he had to accept a Luxembourg politician of similar views, Jacques Santer, instead. Around this time Major – who in an unfortunate phrase denounced the Labour Leader John Smith as "Monsieur Oui, the poodle of Brussels" – tried to demand an increase in the Qualified Majority needed for voting in the newly enlarged European Union (i.e. making it easier for Britain, in alliance with other countries, to block federalist measures). After Major had to back down on this issue Tony Marlow called openly in the House of Commons for his resignation. In 1996 European governments banned British beef over claims that it was infected with Mad Cow Disease – the British government withheld co-operation with the EU over the issue, but did not succeed in getting the ban lifted, only a timetable of lifting it. The conflict has been named the Beef war. By April 2013, vCJD-the human form of the disease had killed 176 UK people out of 280 wordwide.
For the rest of Major's premiership the main argument was over whether Britain would join the planned European Single Currency. Some leading Conservatives (e.g. Chancellor Ken Clarke) favoured joining and insisted that Britain retain a completely free choice, whilst increasing numbers of others expressed their reluctance to join. By this time billionaire Sir James Goldsmith had set up his own Referendum Party, siphoning off some Conservative support, and at the 1997 General Election many Conservative candidates were openly expressing reluctance to join.
Major's premiership saw the ongoing war in Bosnia. Government policy was to maintain the United Nations arms embargo which restricted the flow of weapons into the region and to oppose air strikes against Bosnian Serbs. The Government's reasoning was that an arms embargo would only create a "level killing field" and that air strikes would endanger UN peacekeepers and the humanitarian aid effort. This policy was criticised by Thatcher and others who saw the Bosnian Muslims as the main victims of Serb aggression and compared the situation to events in the Second World War. The Clinton administration, by contrast, was committed to a policy of "lift and strike" (lifting the arms embargo and inflicting air strikes on the Serbs) causing tensions in the "special relationship" (Douglas Hurd and others strongly opposed this policy).
Some commentators compared the Major Government's policy to "amoral equivalency" because it appeared to judge the Bosnian Government and the Bosnian Serbs equally culpable. To some extent, these critics of Major's policy were later vindicated when, in an article published in 2011, the then-Defence Secretary Malcolm Rifkind accepted that the arms embargo was a "serious mistake" by the UN.
Major opened talks with the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) upon taking office. When he declared to the House of Commons in November 1993 that "to sit down and talk with Mr. Adams and the Provisional IRA... would turn my stomach", Sinn Féin gave the media an outline of the secret talks indeed held regularly since that February. The Downing Street Declaration was issued on 15 December 1993 by Major and Albert Reynolds, the Irish Taoiseach, with whom he had a friendly relationship: an IRA ceasefire followed in 1994. In the House of Commons, Major refused to sign up to the first draft of the "Mitchell Principles", which resulted in the ending of the ceasefire. Major paved the way for the Good Friday Agreement, also known as the 'Belfast Agreement', which was signed after he left office.
In March 1995, Major refused to answer the phone calls of United States President Bill Clinton for several days because of his anger at Clinton's decision to invite Gerry Adams to the White House for St Patrick's Day.
At the 1993 Conservative Party Conference, Major began the "Back to Basics" campaign, which he intended to also be about a wide variety of issues including the economy, education and policing, but which was interpreted by many (including Conservative cabinet ministers) purely in the context of returning to the moral and family values that they associated with the Conservative Party.
"Back to Basics" became synonymous with scandal, often exposed in lurid and embarrassing detail by tabloid newspapers such as The Sun. In 1992, David Mellor, a cabinet minister, had been exposed as having an extramarital affair and for accepting hospitality from the daughter of a leading member of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The wife of the Earl of Caithness committed suicide amongst rumours of the Earl committing adultery. Stephen Milligan was found dead having apparently auto-asphyxiated whilst performing a solitary sex act (his Eastleigh seat was lost in what was to be an ongoing stream of hefty by-election defeats). David Ashby was "outed" by his wife after sleeping with men. A string of other Conservative MPs, including Alan Amos, Tim Yeo, and Michael Brown, were involved in sexual scandals.
Other debilitating scandals included "Arms to Iraq" – the ongoing inquiry into how government ministers including Alan Clark (also involved in an unrelated scandal involving the revelation of his affair with the wife and both daughters of a South African judge) had encouraged businesses to supply arms to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, in breach of the official arms embargo, and how senior ministers had, on legal advice, attempted to withhold evidence of this official connivance when directors of Matrix Churchill were put on trial for breaking the embargo.
Another scandal was "Cash for Questions", in which first Graham Riddick, and David Tredinnick accepted money to ask questions in the House of Commons in a newspaper "sting", and later Tim Smith and Neil Hamilton were found to have received money from Mohamed Al Fayed, also to ask questions in the House. Later, David Willetts resigned as Paymaster General after he was accused of rigging evidence to do with Cash for Questions.
Defence Minister Jonathan Aitken was accused by the ITV investigative journalism series World in Action and The Guardian newspaper of secretly doing deals with leading Saudi princes. He denied all accusations and promised to wield the "sword of truth" in libel proceedings which he brought against The Guardian and the producers of World in Action Granada Television. At an early stage in the trial, it became apparent that he had lied under oath, and he was subsequently (after the Major government had fallen from power) convicted of perjury and sentenced to a term of imprisonment.
Major attempted to draw some of the sting from the financial scandals by setting up public inquiries – the Nolan Report into standards expected in public life, and the Scott Report into the Arms to Iraq Scandal.
Although Tim Smith stepped down from the House of Commons at the 1997 General Election, both Neil Hamilton and Jonathan Aitken sought re-election for their seats, and were both defeated, in Hamilton's case by the former BBC Reporter Martin Bell, who stood as an anti-sleaze candidate, both the Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates withdrawing in his favour, amidst further publicity unfavourable to the Conservatives.
Major later commented in his memoirs on the "routine" with which he would be telephoned over the weekend to be warned of the latest embarrassing story due to break. He wrote that he took a stern line against financial impropriety, but was angered at the way in which a host of scandals, many of them petty sexual misdemeanours by a small number of MPs, were exploited by the press and Opposition for political advantage. He also conceded that the issue "fed the public belief that the Conservative(s) ... had been in government too long, and had got into bad habits" and quoted Labour's claim in 1997: "Nothing better encapsulates what people think of this government. Sleaze will be one of the things which brings this government down."
1995 leadership election
On 22 June 1995, tired of continual threats of leadership challenges that never arose, Major resigned as Leader of the Conservative Party and announced he would contest the resulting leadership election – he continued to serve as Prime Minister while the leadership was vacant, but would have resigned had he not been re-elected by a large enough majority. John Redwood resigned as Secretary of State for Wales to stand against him. Major won by 218 votes to Redwood's 89, with 12 spoiled ballots, eight 'active' abstentions and two MPs abstaining, enough to easily win in the first round. The amount was three more than the target he had privately set himself, having earlier resolved to resign if he could not carry the support at least 215 of his MPs.
The Sun newspaper, still at this stage supporting the Conservative Party, had lost faith in Major and declared its support for Redwood in the leadership election, running the front page headline "Redwood versus Deadwood".
1997 general election
Major's comfortable re-election as Conservative Leader failed to restore his authority. Despite efforts to improve the popularity of the Conservative Party, Labour remained far ahead in the opinion polls as the election loomed, despite the economic boom that had followed the exit from recession four years earlier, and the swift fall in unemployment. By December 1996, by-election losses and defections meant that the Conservatives had lost their majority in the House of Commons. Major managed to survive to the end of the Parliament, leading what had effectively become a minority government, and called an election on 17 March 1997 as the five-year limit for its timing approached. Major had deliberately delayed the election until close to the last possible moment in the hope that a still-improving economy would help the Conservatives hold a greater number of seats, but Labour's lead in the opinion polls did not change.
On 1 May 1997, the Conservative Party suffered the worst electoral defeat by a ruling party since the Great Reform Act of 1832. In the new Parliament, Labour held 418 seats, the Conservatives 165, and the Liberal Democrats 46, giving Labour a majority of 179; it was the lowest number of Conservative seats in Parliament for over a century. Major himself was re-elected in his own constituency of Huntingdon with an increased majority of 18,140, but 179 other Conservative MPs were defeated, including present and former Cabinet Ministers such as Norman Lamont, Malcolm Rifkind and Michael Portillo. The huge election defeat also left the Conservatives without any MPs in Scotland or Wales for the first time in history.
At noon on 2 May 1997, Major travelled to Buckingham Palace to resign as Prime Minister. Shortly before this he had announced his intention to also resign as Conservative Leader, giving his final statement outside 10 Downing Street in which he said; "When the curtain falls, it is time to get off the stage - and that it what I propose to do." Major then famously announced to the press that he intended to go with his family to The Oval to watch Surrey play cricket.
Final years in Parliament
Although many Conservative MPs wanted Major to resign as leader immediately, there was a movement among the grassroots of the party, encouraged by his political allies, to have him stay on as leader until the Autumn. Viscount Cranborne, his Chief of Staff during the election, and Chief Whip Alastair Goodlad both pleaded with him to stay on. They argued that his remaining as leader for a few months would give the party time to come to terms with the scale of the defeat and elect his successor. Major refused, saying: "It would be terrible, because I would be presiding with no authority over a number of candidates fighting for the crown. It would merely prolong the agony."
Major thus served as Leader of the Opposition for only seven weeks, whilst the leadership election to replace him was under way. He formed a Shadow Cabinet, but with 7 Cabinet ministers having lost their seats and so few senior MPs left to replace them, several had to combine two briefs. Major himself served as Leader of the Opposition and Shadow Foreign Secretary and the office of Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland was vacant until after the 2001 general election as the party had returned no MPs from Scotland.
Major's mild-mannered style and moderate political stance made him theoretically well-placed to act as a conciliatory leader of his party. In spite of this, conflict raged within the Parliamentary Conservative Party, particularly over the extent of Britain's integration with the European Union. Major never succeeded in reconciling the "Euro-rebels" among his MPs to his European policy, who although relatively few in number – in spite of the fact that their views were much more widely supported amongst Conservative activists and voters – wielded great influence because of his small majority, and episodes such as the Maastricht Rebellion inflicted serious political damage on him and his government. The additional bitterness on the right wing of the Conservative Party at the manner in which Margaret Thatcher had been removed from office did not make Major's task any easier. A series of scandals among leading Conservative MPs also did Major and his government no favours. His task became even more difficult after the well-received election of Tony Blair as Labour Leader in July 1994.
Major defended his government in his memoirs, focusing particularly on how under him the British economy had recovered from the recession of 1990–1992. He wrote that, "During my premiership interest rates fell from 14% to 6%; unemployment was at 1.75 million when I took office, and at 1.6 million and falling upon my departure; and the government's annual borrowing rose from £0.5 billion to nearly £46 billion at its peak before falling to £1 billion".
The former Labour MP Tony Banks said of Major in 1994 that, "He was a fairly competent Chairman of Housing on Lambeth Council. Every time he gets up now I keep thinking, 'What on earth is Councillor Major doing?' I can't believe he's here and sometimes I think he can't either." Paddy Ashdown, the Leader of the Liberal Democrats during Major's term of office, once described him in the House of Commons as a "decent and honourable man". Few observers doubted that he was an honest man, or that he made sincere and sometimes successful attempts to improve life in Britain and to unite his deeply divided party. He was also perceived as a weak and ineffectual figure, and his approval ratings for most of his time in office were low, particularly after "Black Wednesday" in September 1992. Conversely on occasions he attracted criticism for dogmatically pursuing schemes favoured by the right of his party, notably the privatisation of British Rail, and for closing down most of the coal industry in advance of privatisation.
Since leaving office Major has maintained a low profile, indulging his love of cricket as president of Surrey County Cricket Club until 2002 (and Honorary Life Vice-President since 2002) and commentating on political developments in the manner of a wise elder statesman. He has been a member of the Carlyle Group's European Advisory Board since 1998 and was appointed Chairman of Carlyle Europe in May 2001. He stood down in August 2004.
Like many postwar former prime ministers, Major turned down a peerage when he retired from the House of Commons in 2001. In recent history, Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Edward Heath, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have not been elevated to the House of Lords.
In March 2001, he gave the tribute to Colin Cowdrey (Lord Cowdrey of Tonbridge) at his memorial service in Westminster Abbey. In 2005 he was elected to the Committee of the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), historically the governing body of the sport, and still guardian of the laws of the game. Following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997, Major was appointed a special guardian to Princes William and Harry, with responsibility for legal and administrative matters.
John Major is the author of three best-selling books - John Major The Autobiography; More than a Game, a history of cricket; and My Old Man, a history of Music Hall.
Revelation of affair
Major's low profile following his exit from parliament was disrupted by Edwina Currie's revelation in September 2002 that, prior to his promotion to the Cabinet, he had had a four-year extramarital affair with her. Commentators were quick to refer to Major's previous "Back to Basics" platform to throw charges of hypocrisy, and an obituary of Tony Newton in The Daily Telegraph claimed that if Newton had not kept the affair a closely guarded secret "it is highly unlikely that Major would have become prime minister".
In 1993, Major had also sued two magazines, New Statesman and Society and Scallywag, as well as their distributors, for reporting rumours of an affair with a caterer, even though at least one of the magazines had said that the rumours were false. Both considered legal action to recover their costs when the affair with Currie was revealed.
In a press statement, Major said that he was "ashamed" by the affair and that his wife had forgiven him. In response, Currie said "he wasn't ashamed of it at the time and he wanted it to continue."
In February 2005, it was reported that Major and Norman Lamont delayed the release of papers on Black Wednesday under the Freedom of Information Act. Major denied doing so, saying that he had not heard of the request until the scheduled release date and had merely asked to look at the papers himself. He told BBC News that he and Lamont had been the victims of "whispering voices" to the press. He later publicly approved the release of the papers.
According to the Evening Standard, Major has become a prolific after-dinner speaker. He earns over £25,000 per engagement for his "insights and his own opinions on the expanding European Union, the future of the world in the 21st century, and also about Britain", according to his agency.
In December 2006, Major led calls for an independent inquiry into Tony Blair's decision to invade Iraq, following revelations made by Carne Ross, a former British senior diplomat, that contradict Blair's case for the invasion. He was touted as a possible Conservative candidate for the Mayor of London elections in 2008, but turned down an offer from Conservative leader David Cameron. A spokesperson for Major said "his political career is behind him".
In 2010, Major became a key loyalist to the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, and said that he hoped for a "liberal conservative" alliance beyond 2015, and has criticised Ed Miliband and the Labour Party, for "party games" rather than helping in the national interest.
In February 2012, Major became chairman of the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust. The trust was formed as part of the Diamond Jubilee of Elizabeth II, and is intended to support charitable organisations and projects across the Commonwealth of Nations, focusing on areas such as cures for diseases and the promotion of culture and education. Later on in 2012, John Major became President of influential centre-right think tank the Bow Group.
Representation in the media
During his leadership of the Conservative Party, Major was portrayed as honest ("Honest John") but unable to rein in the philandering and bickering within his party. Major's appearance was noted in its greyness, his prodigious philtrum, and large glasses, all of which were exaggerated in caricatures. For example, in Spitting Image, Major's puppet was changed from a circus performer to that of a grey man who ate dinner with his wife in silence, occasionally saying "nice peas, dear", whilst at the same time nursing an unrequited crush on his colleague Virginia Bottomley – an invention, but an ironic one in view of his affair with Edwina Currie, which was not then a matter of public knowledge. By the end of his premiership his puppet would often be shown observing the latest fiasco and ineffectually murmuring "oh dear".
The media (particularly The Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell) used the allegation by Alastair Campbell that he had observed Major tucking his shirt into his underpants to caricature him wearing his pants outside his trousers, as a pale grey echo of both Superman and Supermac, a parody of Harold Macmillan. Bell also used the humorous possibilities of the Cones Hotline, a means for the public to inform the authorities of potentially unnecessary traffic cones, which was part of the Citizen's Charter project established by John Major.
Private Eye parodied Sue Townsend's The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, age 13¾ to write The Secret Diary of John Major, age 47¾, in which Major was portrayed as a naive nincompoop (e.g. keeping lists of his enemies in a Rymans Notebook called his "Bastards Book") and featuring "my wife Norman" and "Mr Dr Mawhinney" as recurring characters. The magazine still runs one-off specials of this diary (with the age updated) on occasions when Major is in the news, such as on the breaking of the Edwina Currie story or the publication of his autobiography. The magazine also ran a series of cartoons called 101 Uses for a John Major (based on a comic book of some ten years earlier, called 101 Uses for a Dead Cat), in which Major was illustrated serving a number of bizarre purposes, such as a train-spotter's anorak.
Major's Brixton roots were used in a campaign poster during the Conservative Party's 1992 election campaign: "What does the Conservative Party offer a working class kid from Brixton? They made him Prime Minister."
Major was often mocked for his nostalgic evocation of what sounded like the lost Britain of the 1950s (see Merry England). For example: "Fifty years on from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers". Major complained in his memoirs that these words (which drew upon a passage in the sociopolitical commentator and author George Orwell's "The Lion and the Unicorn") had been misrepresented as being more naive and romantic than he had intended, and indeed his memoirs were dismissive of the common conservative viewpoint that there was once a time of moral rectitude; Major wrote that "life has never been as simple as that".
Writing in 2011, the BBC's Home editor Mark Easton judged that "Majorism" had made little lasting impact. Peter Oborne, writing in 2012, asserts that Major's government looks ever more successful as time goes by. Major was also one of the prime ministers portrayed in the 2013 stage play The Audience, played by Paul Ritter.
Titles and honours
Styles from birth
- John Major (1943–1979)
- John Major MP (1979–1987)
- The Rt Hon John Major MP (1987–1999)
- The Rt Hon John Major CH MP (1999–2001)
- The Rt Hon John Major CH (2001–2005)
- The Rt Hon Sir John Major KG CH (2005–present)
- Member of Her Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council (1987)
- Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour (1999)
- Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter (2005)
In the 1999 New Year Honours List, Major was made a Companion of Honour for his work on the Northern Ireland peace process. In a 2003 interview, he spoke about his hopes for peace in the region.
On 23 April 2005, Major was bestowed with a knighthood as a Companion of the Order of the Garter by Queen Elizabeth II. He was installed at St. George's Chapel, Windsor on 13 June. Membership of the Order of the Garter is limited in number to 24, and as a personal gift of the Queen is an honour traditionally bestowed on former Prime Ministers. Major had previously declined a life peerage on standing down from Parliament.
On 8 May 2012, Major was personally decorated at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo by the Emperor of Japan with the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun in recognition of his invaluable contributions to Japan-UK relations through his work in the political and economic arena, and also in promoting mutual understanding. While Prime Minister, Major had pursued energetic campaigns aimed at boosting bilateral trade – "Priority Japan" (1991–94) and "Action Japan" (1994–97). The 1991 Japan Festival also took place under his Premiership.
Major married Norma Johnson (now Dame Norma Major, DBE) on 3 October 1970 at St Matthew's Church, Brixton. She was a teacher and a member of the Young Conservatives. They met on polling day for the Greater London Council elections in London. They became engaged after only ten days. They had two children; a son, James, and a daughter, Elizabeth. They have a holiday home on the coast of north Norfolk, near Weybourne, which has round-the-clock police surveillance.
Major's elder brother, Terry, who died in 2007, became a minor media personality during Major's period in Downing Street, with a 1994 autobiography, Major Major. He also wrote newspaper columns, and appeared on TV shows such as Have I Got News For You. He faced criticism about his brother but always remained loyal.
His son James, a former nightclub promoter and flooring contractor, married gameshow hostess Emma Noble and together they had a son, Harrison. Following their divorce, James married Kate Postlethwaite (née Dorrell), the mother of his second son, on 31 March 2012.
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- Hansard 1803–2005: contributions in Parliament by John Major
- The Public Whip – John Major MP voting record
- Ubben Lecture at DePauw University
- More about John Major on the Downing Street website.
- 'Prime-Ministers in the Post-War World: John Major', lecture by Vernon Bogdanor at Gresham College on 21 June 2007 (with video and audio files available for download).
- Portraits of John Major at the National Portrait Gallery, London
- Archival material relating to John Major listed at the UK National Archives