MAJOR: the verdict of history

Was he Wilson without the brains, or a victim of his party; how will time judge him?
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For a party leader who has just suffered the biggest electoral reversal in modern British history John Major has been in remarkably good humour since the traumatic night of 1 May. It would be hard to find any prime minister who has forfeited so little personal esteem in the aftermath of defeat. Perhaps this mood of equanimity rests on a quiet confidence that the verdict of history will favour the Paddy Ashdown view that he was a decent leader let down by an unruly and corrupt party. But Major is an avid consumer of political biographies, and he must be aware that prime ministerial reputations, like stocks and shares, go down as well as up.

Prime ministerial records are, of course, subject to the vagaries of contemporary political discourse; to create the iconography of Thatcherism, the Thatcherites first had to destroy the credibility of her predecessors, hence the demolition of Macmillan and, most significantly, Heath. Just as it was important to substantiate the credibility of Blair by locating him in a tradition of pragmatic, coalition-building centrist Labour politics by resurrecting Harold Wilson.

So there is no doubt that John Major's record as premier will go through the same process, before he finds a more balanced place in the history books in 20 years' time. For now, though, a more instant verdict is being delivered by the contemporary historian Anthony Seldon whose biography of Major will be published in November. He has been a constant, and sometimes sole, defender of Major's premiership in the Tory press for some years now, in contrast to the venomous attacks on him by many Tory journalists such as Simon Heffer and William Rees-Mogg. This will be the first substantial, academic biography covering the whole of his political career, and Seldon and his team of researchers have had unhindered access to Major himself, his friends, colleagues and civil servants, as well as diary and other accounts.

Seldon gave a sneak preview of his book to an audience at the Institute of Historical Research on Wednesday. Few previously unknown facts about Major emerged, aside from the detail that he did get only three O-levels, but Seldon sees Major as a man constrained by circumstances, never able, and never given a chance to, set out his own vision of Conservatism because of the particularly unfavourable circumstances in which he took over as leader in 1990, when the party was already divided on issues (notably Europe) and racked with a seething discontent which lingered over the manner of Mrs Thatcher's removal.

Thus, for Seldon, "the context is everything". On Europe, it "was not easy to pilot his party and the country through this transformation from Europhilia to Euroscepticism" between 1990 and 1997, and the opportunities for Major to lift his head above the parapet and try to give a steer on issues of his own choice were "exceedingly limited".

There are some concrete achievements which will endure, such as the National Lottery, and there were several honest attempts to reform government and public life, such as the Citizens' Charters and the Back to Basics campaigns which were unfairly hijacked by his opponents and thus rendered ineffective. On this reading, a large amount of blame for what went wrong is laid at the door of the right-wing press which never forgave him for not being Mrs Thatcher and the "bastards" who never forgave him for being Mr Major. Seldon is a schoolmaster by profession, so it inevitably comes down to grades. Churchill, Lloyd George and Thatcher are awarded alphas, Major gets a B+?+. The main adjectives that recur in this account of Major's career at the top are "pragmatism" and "competence", but were these necessarily the qualities for successful leadership? For an alternative verdict on Major the politician, I asked several other eminent political biographers of various political hues for their instant assessments of Major's career. None of them is as optimistic as Seldon. Most of them locate him firmly in the gamma range.

Major's most drastic failure was as party leader. He had an arsenal of basically decent opinions, but never had a vision of where the party should go ideologically or philosophically.

For John Campbell (F E Smith, Bevan, Heath, currently working on Thatcher) Major was "disastrous" as party leader. He squandered the 1992 election victory, when he was in a strong personal position having won an election against the odds, by failing to articulate a coherent alternative to the Euroscepticism which was already sweeping through the party, and which gathered momentum after the ERM debacle in 1992. "With a clear vision, he could have staked out an alternative British vision and made allies for it. He had a perfectly good case to argue, but let it go by default", says Campbell, who believes that Major had an ex-whip's view of how to achieve party unity which was by negotiation and deals, rather than by momentum and drive, like Thatcher or even Blair.

Indeed, one of the jibes that most stung him was Tony Blair's "he follows his party, I lead mine". As a result, he never established any authority and no one ever feared him, another essential ingredient of Tory party leadership. This was compounded by his weakness in dealing with failed colleagues, from Lamont to Hamilton. Campbell adds: "Canute is the image - always drawing lines in the sand and showing his fallibility as the sea encroaches." As a result, Major "felt like a caretaker for seven years".

For John Barnes of the London School of Economics (Baldwin), Major was also "pretty disastrous" as party leader - the worst since Balfour, who condemned the Tories to their firstlandslide defeat of the century in 1906. For Barnes too, Major "never offered leadership; what is fatal in the Tory party is to let somebody else drive the party". John Ramsden of Queen Mary and Westfield College (historian of the Conservative Party) judges Major to have been a "catastrophically bad" party leader. He points to the virtual collapse of Conservatism as a national force during the last decade.

The political scientist Michael Pinto-Dushinsky highlights the fact that party membership has fallen from 1.2 million in 1982 to 400,000, its lowest since the war, and 20 per cent of that fall was achieved in the last couple of years. The number of full-time agents has dropped from 299 in 1992 to 264. In other words, Major leaves the party in a worse state than it has ever been in.

From a left-wing point of view, Ben Pimlott (Dalton, Wilson) is equally, but less surprisingly, scathing. Major's government was "one of the front-runners as the worst government of the century", and Major was a "Wilson without the intellect". It is not much consolation, but some of these historians are more generous to Major as a prime minister. For Pimlott, Major was "one of the least worst features of his own government".

Barnes, a Conservative supporter, rates Major as a competent administrator. There were several occasions on which his good negotiating skills proved their usefulness, such as during the Gulf war, Maastricht and over Northern Ireland. But again, none of these negotiations ever came to any tidy conclusion. All agree with Ramsden's assessment that Major "was dealt a losing hand, and had some extremely disloyal colleagues". This is the kernel of Seldon's defence. But the principal question over Major's career in Downing Street is whether he could ever have surmounted the manifest problems that he faced, given his limited ability and bland personality. What is certain is that he never rose to the occasion and almost seemed to take a perverse pleasure in his determination not to be a leader but a manager.

Even if Major did inherit a difficult legacy, the situation that he now passes on to his successor is still exponentially more unfavourable. Already, the main battle lines are drawn in any assessment of Major's leadership, and the preliminary conclusions must have an important effect on judging the qualities that the Conservative Party must now look for in their next leader.

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