BOOK REVIEW / Warm beer, quangos and the blur effect: 'The Major Effect' - ed Dennis Kavanagh & Anthony Seldon: Macmillan, 20 pounds

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The Independent Online
MAJORISM does not have the same ring as Thatcherism, and why should it?

After all, 'isms' are not the norm in British politics. There is no such thing as 'Churchillism', 'Lloyd Georgeism' or 'Attleeism' and they were all hugely influential prime ministers.

As Kavanagh and Seldon point out in their introduction, Major has already proved himself one of the great survivors. He has, they note, outlasted eight of this century's prime ministers, including Callaghan, Heath, Chamberlain and Balfour.

Yet, as these 26 academics and political journalists demonstrate, he has done more than cling to the mast as the ship flounders. There has been an identifiable Major effect on policies; his preoccupations have significantly influenced the political agenda and will continue to do so long after he is gone.

Hugo Young rightly emphasises the personal nature of Major's mandate. He demonstrated exceptional personal popular appeal and skill during the 1992 general election which his party was widely expected to lose. But Major was not chosen to revive his party in 1990 because of his vision or his experience. 'No governing party had ever selected such an inexperienced leader as John Major . . . In Parliament for barely a decade, he drew his strength . . . from his appearance as the man with the fewest enemies,' Hugo Young concludes.

To this conclusion I would add the blur effect. Major's blurred image was, at that crucial moment, his strength. Thatcherites supported his candidature, convinced he was a closet Thatcherite. To other Tory MPs, Major's appeal during the leadership struggle was that he appeared to be a secret moderate.

Professor Kavanagh draws attention to the Prime Minister's cultural ambivalence. On the one hand is his yearning for 'the traditional and the familiar'. He hankers after a world of warm beer and cricket on the green, of school uniforms and the four great railway companies. On the other hand, he is pressing ahead with privatisation and market testing with even greater enthusiasm than his predecessor had done.

Then there is the prime minister's attitude to the Civil Service. It is not often that, within a couple of years, three men of the seniority of Sir Geoffrey Holland (Education), Sir Clive Whitmore (Home Office) and Sir Peter Kemp (Office of Public Service and Science) feel obliged to walk out. As for the Citizen's Charter and the (partial) opening up of the secret services, these were very much Major's pet projects. He pushed them through against the scepticism, cynicism and obstruction of his colleagues. And it is because of his radical agenda in the Civil Service that accusations of politici- sation are rife, and that inadequately accountable quangos have multiplied to perform functions once carried out by the departments of state.

Mr Major seems determined to reduce the Civil Service to a core of decision-makers who set standards and monitor performance. 'Government by contract' will constitute the most radical reorganisation of the Civil Service since the Northcote- Trevelyan reforms of 1853.

Finally, there is Northern Ireland. The drama of recent months has come too late for examination here. But Andrew Gamble of the University of Sheffield is surely right to conclude that while Thatcher was a staunch Unionist, 'the Conservative Party (under Major) still proclaims itself a Unionist party, (but) in practice little is left of the old Unionist faith'.

Major may not have an 'ism' or even a vision, but these fascinating essays demonstrate that you do not need either to have an effect on the body politic.