The modest hero with real class

This brave man defeated 'the sneering classes' ­ most of them Tories. And they never forgave him.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The Autobiography, by John Major (HarperCollins, £25, 774pp)

The Autobiography, by John Major (HarperCollins, £25, 774pp)

Since long before he left office, John Major has been the victim ­ often at the hands of his own party ­ of a unique campaign of mythology and vilification. When not being stripped of credit for any success or loaded with blame for every failure, he is being air-brushed out of existence like some discarded Chinese leader. So no one has better justification for presenting this crisply written, refreshingly self-critical, case for the defence.

The pace and scale of his success in rising from a dispiriting (though intensely affectionate) Brixton background is indeed remarkable. He left school at 16, deeply dismayed by his own lack of achievement, and was unemployed for six months. Yet within a decade, he was a qualified banker and Lambeth councillor, and 10 years later occupied one of the safest Tory seats at Westminster.

What had carried him up at this pace? Fame was the spur, he says ­ and sheer hard work the means. "I worked twice as hard as anyone else. I attended meetings and functions, canvassed and supported people... determined never to fail again through lack of effort... I was just there".

There is an echo of Clement Attlee about this ­ who was "just there", the senior survivor when Labour's roof fell in in 1931. No one would have been surprised to see Major's tenacity rewarded by the achievement of his own highest original ambition, the Chancellorship of the Exchequer. But what of his leap to the very top of the greasy pole? How did it happen? And was it "a good thing"?

Successive interventions by Margaret Thatcher were the principal reasons for John Major's arrival at No 10 in 1990. Her first move was his startling promotion into my old job at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office ­ despite Major's protestation to her that it was "the job for which I was least prepared".

Three months later, he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. So when Margaret Thatcher resigned, he "could not credibly stand aside" from a contest which could win him the top job ­ even though it was happening well before he felt sufficiently experienced to take the job on.

But take it on he did ­ thanks, once again, to Margaret Thatcher's active support in the leadership ballot. She wanted ­ "perhaps needed", as she has said ­ "to believe that he was the man to safeguard my legacy".

John Major allows himself two inconsistent speculations about this. At one moment, he considers what might have happened had he become and remained, as Margaret Thatcher originally intended in 1987, Chief Whip rather than Chief Secretary. Would he, he wonders, have enabled her three years later to beat off Michael Heseltine's challenge? And to survive long enough to be thrown out instead by the people in 1992, "a more fitting end than removal by her own colleagues"? This could also, suggests Major, have avoided the subsequent bitterness in the Conservative party.

But later he has no hesitation in dismissing the alternative piece of "historical double-think", that 1992 "was the election we should have lost". On the contrary, it was his victory then that "killed Socialism in Britain" and "made the world safe for Tony Blair".

I never forget, concludes Major, "that it was the Party's will to win and the belief that Margaret Thatcher would lose that had made me Prime Minister".

The 1992 victory was his greatest achievement ­ and the one which the Thatcher apologists now seek to erase from history, because they find it so hard to forgive. This is perhaps the real explanation for the subsequent "unique occurrence in our party's history: a former Prime Minister openly encouraging back-benchers in her own party to overturn the policy of her successor ­ a policy that had been a manifesto commitment in the election held less than six months before".

But if he is justifiably critical of others, John Major is unsparing too in his self-examination. "I shall regret always", he says in a phrase that too many of us may wish to echo, "that I rarely found my own authentic voice in politics... I was too safe too often. Too defensive. Too reactive."

He questions, and sometimes regrets, many of his own decisions. Should he have resigned on Black Wednesday in 1992? His answer: "I was never certain then that it was right to stay, nor am I now". The hesitation is typical of the man. I have myself no doubt that it was Norman Lamont who should have insisted on resigning at that time ­ for his own sake, as much as for everybody else's.

Major elsewhere questions the wisdom of postponing the Maastricht legislation as a consequence of the Danish referendum defeat. He acknowledges the folly of forgiving the so-called "Whipless Nine" Tory rebels. And he regrets in terms his "ill-judged" attack on John Smith, as "Monsieur Oui ­ the poodle of Brussels" ­ a "gratuitous and graceless accusation".

John Major is rightly determined that his own achievements as well ­ from the Citizen's Charter to the Downing Street Declaration ­ should not be overlooked. By an oversight, surely, he seems not to acknowledge the trail-blazing importance of the Anglo-Irish Agreement achieved by Margaret Thatcher and Garret Fitzgerald. But Tony Blair is rightly commended for his support and commitment to the peace process. Major is indeed generous in his praise of others and acknowledges "the brave commonsense of the Prime Minister who preceded me and the sometimes shrewd calculation" of his successor.

Just as vivid are the vignettes of other politicians, friend and foe alike. Bill Clinton had an "affinity for appeasing opinion at home which made it difficult for his allies to predict how his administration would behave", and this "kept him well ahead in the polls". Kenneth Baker was "ever sensitive to a changing wind"; while the anti-European rebel George Gardiner was "so convoluted he could have featured in a book of knots", among many others.

But most striking of all is the insight this book offers into the instinctive decency and integrity of the man himself. His attitude to class, so much a product of his background, can teach us all a good deal. For him the classless society is "not a society without differences but a society without barriers".

He hates "the subtle calibrations of scorn in which this country rejoices, the endless puttings down and belittlings... so awful that they stop us seeing men and women whole". He hates "the sneering classes" and has good reason to do so.

And he hates too what he calls "a Year Zero view of politics", which long obliged Labour, for example, to deny that Conservative governments had ever achieved anything. So too the matching folly of some on the right. "Conservatism was not discovered", says Major, "only in the 1980s, nor was it lost in the 1990s".

This is the central appeal of the book. Witty as well as wise, modest but persuasive, John Major argues attractively the case for a more restrained, more honest, less strident, less belligerent brand of politics. If democracy is, as Balfour once said, "government by explanation", then John Major's honest explanations can do much to advance the cause of democracy itself.


> Lord Howe of Aberavon was Chancellor of the Exchequer (1979-83), Foreign Secretary (1983-89) and Deputy Prime Minister (1989-90)