Hold the epitaphs, John Major's story isn't over: Leading Article

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Blue-jacketed, with a forward-looking title, a happy picture of John Major and only a shade under pounds 7 to you, the latest collection of the Prime Minister's speeches is being sold as a guide to his convictions and principles. Our Nation's Future is a pre-election offering for the thinking Tory voter and it comes just ahead of a rare Prime Ministerial press conference next week, signalling the start of a winter- into-spring campaign. But despite its title and virtues, this collection of Major's rhetoric has, inevitably, a slightly elegiac air: too many opinion polls for too long have shown him far behind for most voters to think he still has a chance.

But does he? And should he? What, in the end, does this collection of the Prime Minister's thinking add up to?

The dominant tone of the speeches needs some oxymoronic phrase to capture it - passionate caution, or rhetorical pragmatism. This is not to sneer; they amount to a determined statement about the values, the significance and the achievements of the 19th British Prime Minister this century. Major himself spins us a valiant tale of his time in office. As he tells it, our Prime Minister has been a plucky, if not showy, defender of British interests. Replace the bass-gurgling British bulldog with a loyal, tenacious terrier and you get the picture. Gone is the grandiose appeal to a glorious battle-scarred past, deployed by Margaret Thatcher in her time. In its place is a quieter, calmer Conservatism - but no less nostalgic, and no less determined.

In this most positive and generous interpretation of the life and times of John Major, he has been far-sighted about the threats facing the nation. As he repeats time and again in speeches, John Major is "deeply committed to defending our nation, our heritage, our freedoms, and our constitution and institutions shaped and developed over the centuries - against threats from outside or from inside". Well, that depends, of course, on the threats.

Yet there is some truth in this flattering self-portrait. On monetary union in Europe, or Scottish devolution, or new rights for employees, the Prime Minister has indeed fought fiercely to resist radical change. But his resistance smacks too often of lack of imagination, and an inability to seize opportunities and lead the nation forwards, rather than the balanced defence of the nation's best interests. Consider Europe. When Chancellor, John Major was one of the first to be uneasy about European currency union. But the trouble is that he behaved far more like the perfect establishment civil servant than the political leader. He carefully listed the practical obstacles to change and, when his ``hard ecu'' idea for a parallel currency was brushed aside, he largely confined himself to disapproving throat- clearing on the sidelines. On this, his epitaph might read: ``Far-sighted but politically ineffectual''.

On the domestic front, Mr Major has been the true traditional Conservative that Margaret Thatcher never was. With great persistence he has repeated his refrain about a "classless society". The ordinary boy from Brixton made good says, "I want people to get on ... I do want children to get above themselves." But John Major won't be remembered as the Prime Minister who created radical new opportunities for the people at the bottom to rise up and thrive. He has not been a passionate builder of ladders. What he really means is that ordinary people should be able to do it for themselves, if they can. Conservatives have said the same throughout the century.

His view of the British Union is similarly conventional and conservative. Faced with the possibility of negotiating peace in Northern Ireland, he worked hard and honestly - but he also failed to make the positive leap of faith last year that could have pushed talks forward. The prospect of devolution in Scotland, or passing power downwards towards local government is, it seems, inconceivable to him. In these regards he is as centralist and statist as anyone.

Voters in search of leadership, and historians in search of significance, may well shake their heads and move on. But we shouldn't underestimate John Major's personality. Just because he hasn't been radical doesn't mean he has failed to achieve anything - in his own terms at least. It is incredibly difficult to stand still when all about you are losing their heads - and at times, their dignity, their discretion and their direction.

Holding the country steady may not be much to boast about, but holding the Conservative Party steady (or at least together) is an astonishing feat these days - and too much for a nice man. Whatever else history's verdict on John Major, on his speeches and on his politics, it should not be that he was a nice, wet, grey man. He is an agile, cold, and ruthless politician, who has so far succeeded at one of the most difficult tasks of all - staying in power. And that, after all, is what the next few months will all be about. He may not have made a huge impact on the country, but his influence on the political story of Britain isn't over yet. The epitaphs are premature.