Since then he has elaborated, commending 'basic economic values like low inflation, free markets and a climate that encourages enterprise', and 'basic social values like self-discipline, respect for the law, concern for others'.
Mr Major insists that 'back to basics' is not about nostalgia, yet any initiative with such a name must be backward-looking. So to what era should we look? Here we offer the Prime Minister a guide, through the medium of his own family history, to some moments that might be considered 'basic'. We start with the present.
John Major, 50, is Prime Minister, husband of Norma and father of a son and daughter.
Recovery from recession is 'fragile' and there is an unprecedented crime wave. His party and country are divided on unemployment, homelessness, health and Europe.
Popular heroes: Gazza, Paul Merton, Take That, Norman Tebbit, Joanna Lumley.
People worry about: Redundancy, crime, negative equity, Aids, moral decline.
Maxims of the age: It's time to get back to basics; Me.
Facts: Population 57,649,000.
Infant mortality: 8 per 1,000 births.
Life expectancy: 76 years (male and female).
Illegitimacy: 323 per 1,000 births.
Marriages (1990): 375,000.
Indictable offences: (UK, 1992) 95,391.
Minimum lending rate: 5.5%.
John Major, 20, living in a cold-water flat in Brixton Water Lane, South London, switches jobs from the Electricity Board to the District Bank, taking night classes in banking.
Macmillan resigns as Profumo scandal deepens. The Great Train Robbery nets pounds 2.5m and Kim Philby is named as the 'Third Man'. Harold Wilson becomes Labour leader.
Popular heroes: John, Paul, George and Ringo, Tony Hancock, Danny Blanchflower.
People worried about: Nuclear war, pregnancy outside marriage, crime.
Maxim of the age: You've never had it so good.
A historian says: 'The theme of the age,' says Ben Pimlott, 'was the permissive society and meritocracy, as Wilson outlined in his phrase, 'white heat of the technological revolution'. There was a more welfarist approach and an ambition to expand greatly higher education.'
Facts: Population: 53,274,000.
Unemployed: 573,200 (2.5%).
Infant mortality: 23.5 per 1,000 births.
Life expectancy 68 (male) 74 (female).
Illegitimacy 69.2 per 1,000 births.
Marriages (Eng and Wales): 351,329.
Divorces (E&W): 32,052.
Indictable crimes, (Eng, Scot and Wales) 1,1106,475.
John Major is born in Worcester Park, in London's southern suburbs, where his father Abraham Thomas Ball, 63, manufactures garden gnomes for sale to shops.
Allied round-the-clock bombing of Germany begins. The Holocaust has begun. In Britain, excitement surrounds the Beveridge Report, which has set out the concept of comprehensive protection for all 'from the cradle to the grave' against sickness, poverty, unemployment, squalor and ignorance.
Popular heroes: Grable, Gable, Churchill, Arthur Askey.
People worried about: The war, bombs, loss and death, rations.
Maxims of the age: Dig for Victory; Our gallant Soviet allies.
A historian says: Frederick Reid of Warwick University: 'There was a spirit of things about to get better, but the absence of more than a modicum of extra comforts for the great majority of people persisted to the end of the war.'
Facts: Population: 46,467,000.
Unemployed: 81,600 (0.6%).
Infant mortality: 67 per 1,000.
Illegitimacy: 63.9 per 1,000 births.
Indictable crimes 443,704.
Abraham Thomas Ball, aged 44, is running his own stage reviews and lives in a Shropshire bungalow with his second wife (the first died in a theatre accident). Mrs Ball farms geese.
In the latest of a series of reforms that have followed the war, the Matrimonial Causes Bill is passed, giving women the right to divorce their husbands for adultery. T S Eliot presents in his poems an image of a world of lost men: 'I think we are in rats' alley / Where the dead men lost their bones.'
Popular heroes: Chaplin, T E Lawrence, Houdini, Valentino, Gordon Richards, Jack Hobbs.
People worried about: Their jobs, Communism, having a good time.
Maxim of the age: A land fit for heroes.
A historian says: 'You're into very high rates of unemployment,' Dr Reid says. 'The real point about that date is that it sees the beginning of the decline of the smokestack industries.'
Facts: Population: 42,769,000.
Infant mortality: 76 per 1,000 births.
Life expectancy: 56 (m), 60 (f).
Illegitimacy: 41.6 per 1,000 births.
Indictable crimes 145,575.
Abraham Thomas Ball, aged 24, is living in Walsall and performing in nationwide variety shows, including high-wire acts, with his first wife Kitty.
Women form Social and Political Union to demand vote. The Workers' Educational Association is formed. Britain and France establish Entente Cordiale. The Prime Minister, Balfour, rarely rises from his bed before lunch.
Popular Heroes: Baden-Powell, Dan Leno, Kitchener, Marie Lloyd, Sherlock Holmes, Isadora Duncan, W G Grace.
What people worried about: Rising prices, slums, socialists, speed of motor cars, Germans.
Maxim of the age: Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay.
A historian writes: 'British national life was subject to many schisms and tensions,' wrote David Thomson. Even the future of constitutional government seemed in jeopardy, following a rash of big strikes, rising prices and stationary wages, suffragette violence and passions aroused by the Irish Question, war-scares and anxieties about the challenge of German naval armaments. 'The clash of surrounding nationalisms and rival imperialisms threw public opinion and its theorists back nakedly upon the old core of homogeneity . . . the core of simple national solidarity and national unity.'
Facts: Population: 37,829,000.
Infant mortality: 110 per 1,000.
Life expectancy: 49 years (m), 52 (f).
Illegitimacy: 39.3 per 1,000 births.
Divorces: (Eng and Wales) 1,126.
Indictable crimes: 122,000.
John Major's grandfather Abraham Ball, a 31-year-old bricklayer, recently returned from a spell in America, is living in Walsall with his Irish wife Sarah Ann (O'Mara) and his only son Abraham Thomas, four. Abraham's father, John, aged 63 and living in Willenhall, West Midlands, runs a pub, owns several small properties and raises four children (a fifth burns to death in his nightclothes).
Gordon sent to Sudan to effect British evacuation. Britain annexes part of New Guinea. Social Democratic Federation is founded, opposing existing Liberal-Labour alliance. Channel Tunnel Bill rejected.
Popular heroes: Gordon, Stanley, Sarah Bernhardt, Gilbert and Sullivan.
People worried about: Slums, disease, work, moral decline (bare piano legs).
Maxim of the age: Pax Britannica.
A historian says: Andrew Mearns's The Bitter Cry of Outcast London was published, signalling 'the loss of confidence in mid-Victorian progress: the bad housing, incest, drunkenness and so forth, which became the keynote of the Eighties'.
Facts: Population: 30,426,000.
Infant mortality: 139 per 1,000 births.
Life expectancy: 43.7 years (m), 47.2 (f)
Illegitimacy: 54 per 1,000 births.
Indictable crimes: 226,000.
John Ball, John Major's great-grandfather, 43, is a small-time locksmith in Willenhall, and is saving hard.
The Prince of Wales marries Alexandra of Denmark. Britain bombards Japan in reprisal for the murder of an Englishman.
Popular heroes: Tennyson, Florence Nightingale, Russell of the Times, Samuel Smiles.
People worried about: Crime and disease.
Maxim of the age: All up with farming, I doubt. (Thanks to cheap food imports.)
A historian writes: 'The so- called great mid-Victorian progress established a division between the respectable working class and the poor,' Dr Reid says. 'But soon crowds were rioting in London in a way that makes the poll tax riots look pretty minor.'
Another historian: At the same time, according to G M Trevelyan, 'the upper, the upper-middle and the professional classes were welded together in the Public Schools, and by the same process were further divided from the rest of the nation brought up under a different educational system . . . Much of the success and much of the failure of modern England can be attributed to the Public Schools.'
Facts: Population: 23,753,000.
Infant mortality: 151 per 1,000.
Life expectancy: 41 years (m), 45 (f).
Illegitimacy: 64.8 per 1000.
Indictable crimes: 190,000.
John Ball has learnt his trade as a locksmith and is touting for business in Willenhall.
General Napier conquers Sind. The Thames tunnel is opened.
Popular heroes: Brunel, Cobden, George Stephenson, Wellington.
People worried about: Food prices, rise of working class.
Maxim of the age: Free trade.
A historian says: Dr Reid comments: 'You're still in a period of depression a year after a wave of general strikes. The country was certainly less at ease with itself than today, partly because of the impact of the Industrial Revolution on some of the older crafts.'
Facts: Population: 19,016,000.
Infant mortality: 148 per 1,000.
Life expectancy: 40 years (m), 42 (f).
Illegitimacy: 67 per 1,000 births.
Marriages: 143,000 (approx).
Joseph Ball, John Major's great- great-grandfather, is aged 38, in demand as a 'trunk locksmith' in Willenhall and midway through fathering seven children.
It is four years after the Peterloo 'massacre' of peaceful reform demonstrators. Peel's Gaol Act asserts Home Office responsibility for prison conditions and discipline. 'Cabs' introduced from Paris on to London streets.
Popular heroes: Sir Walter Scott, William Wilberforce, Byron, Mary Shelley, Wellington.
People worried about: The mob, the price of food, Bow Street Runners.
Maxim of the age: All the workers of England against a few masters at Bradford.
A historian says: Dr Reid: 'After Peterloo the Tory government, having got a bit of a fright, begins to edge its way towards free trade and to liberalise very cautiously. But they were pretty severe times, with perhaps a bit less cohesion than we have today. The poverty problem was certainly bigger than today.'
Facts: Population: 14,681,000.
Life expectancy: 39 years (m and f).
Infant mortality: 600 per 1,000.
Marriages (England): 840,000.
John Major's great-great-great- grandfather Abram Ball, occupation unknown, has recently married in Staffordshire.
Food riots have broken out in that county. The Industrial Revolution is bringing crime, poverty, debt, disorder and waste. Britain recognises independence of rebel American colonies. Travel on the Continent becomes fashionable, as does tea-drinking. Women cast off their woollens for cotton.
Popular heroes: Wesley, Wilkes, Watt, Pitt the Younger, Tom Paine.
People worried about: The French, the rights of man, Ireland, the price of food.
Maxim of the age: The Constitution of Great Britain is sufficient to pervade the whole world.
A historian writes: 'England seemed to many to be on the threshold of a new age,' wrote J H Plumb. 'Although they were uneasy and discontented, they longed for a change of heart and a new sense of purpose . . . But to those who possessed power, the future was dark and sombre, they were threatened everywhere; for them, it was a time for tenacity of will, and a closing of ranks; their world was in danger.'
Facts: Population: 8,410,000.
Government: Whig, Coalition, then Tory.
Marriages (England): 23,000.
MLR (equivalent): 3.17%.
Additional research by Nick Ryan