It's goodbye to Mr In-Between

Despite his achievements, John Major will be remembered as the prime minister who came after Thatcher and before Blair, says Andrew Marr
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John Major took the shattering defeat he will be blamed for with the dignity and almost eerie self-control that we have come to expect. He did not try to evade what happened. He was generous to Tony Blair, and sensible in quickly announcing his own exit. This is the moment, then, to look back before we look forward and ask: What did John Major mean?

Here is one measure of how much he mattered: had he not become Prime Minister to succeed Margaret Thatcher, there is a good chance that Labour would have won in 1992. This week, the contest would have been between a Kinnock-led governing party that had been obliged sharply to raise taxes and endure the full storm of Euro-phobia, and a revitalised Tory party, led by - who knows?

Yet even that measure, a fantasy one, defines Mr Major's misfortune in politics: he has been a man who stopped things happening rather than one who made things happen. By beating Labour at the polls, he finally blocked British socialism. He stopped the Conservative Party falling apart over Europe, if perhaps only temporarily and at great personal cost. He cancelled the poll tax, or at least caused it to be cancelled. He prevented the Maastricht treaty from being a straightforward lever towards greater integration and blocked the single currency with our opt-out.

These are huge negative achievements. He has certainly left a mark on the country. No Major, no New Labour. Today Tony Blair would be, perhaps, an outgoing Home Secretary, shaking his head and warning of the need for his party to change. Clause IV would still be enshrined in the Labour Party constitution. The trade unions would be embedded both in the Labour Party's policy-making and in national industrial policy.

No Major, no opt-out from economic and monetary union. Imagine it: today we would be heading apparently unstoppably for the single currency. How dramatically would that have changed our politics? Would the Tories not now be campaigning openly as a nationalist party, and calling for withdrawal from the coming federation?

We cannot really know. Maybe Michael Heseltine would have succeeded Thatcher, somehow held the party together (I doubt it) and negotiated a similar Maastricht position (I doubt that, too). Perhaps the dolours of the Major years, from the policy disaster of Black Wednesday to the real disaster of the BSE crisis, would have been better handled by another Tory leader or a Kinnock administration.

All we know for sure is that Major himself will be remembered more for the person he replaced, and the electoral landslide that finally buried him, than for what he did himself. In policy terms, there was little that is distinctive in ``Majorism''. The Citizen's Charter was a trendy, consumer-power idea which was fine as far as it went, but which frankly didn't go very far. The ``next steps'' hiving-off and commercialisation of parts of the state bureaucracy were a logical extension of privatisation and have saved taxpayers' money. But the ideas came from abroad and have not, to date, managed to reconcile private business culture with public service.

In the health service, the introduction of market-mimicking mechanisms and fund-holding produced some greater efficiencies and better, richer GP practices, but at the cost of an excessive and unaccountable new health bureaucracy. The ``two-tier health service'' has moved from being a rhetorical Opposition objection to being hard, visible fact. Like the utility privatisations, some NHS trusts have produced ``fat cat'' managers whose attitudes offended the drab, but serious and honest public service culture of Britain.

In education, Major's drive to give more freedom to schools and less authority to local authorities has given some headteachers real power to change things for the better. What he said about school culture was brave and right and was followed by Labour. His insistence on league tables, however flawed the early ones have been, was a victory for openness and information.

But in general, the education changes of the Major years lacked coherence and direction. Without differently-valued education vouchers and a far more radical attitude to what constitutes a school, he had no way of really giving parents more power. Too often ``parental choice'' came to mean the power of the best local schools to turn children down. If he wasn't heading back towards an 11-plus type system, it was hard to know quite where he was going. Thus far the management changes, along with the national curriculum, have gifted Britain the most divided, most centralised education system since the war.

What of the area where Major himself hoped to achieve an historic breakthrough - Northern Ireland? Had he not grasped the tentative offers of Irish nationalism early on, and stuck doggedly to the endless negotiations that followed the first IRA ceasefire, then the peace process would have been stillborn. The killings and bombings would, we must assume, have continued at the previous rate. That means that there are today hundreds of people alive who would have been dead but for John Major, and thousands whole who would have been maimed but for this tenacious and patient man. How many other people in modern British history can claim as much?

That is a great achievement, whether or not the Irish dilemma is resolvable. We should never forget it. But it has then to be said that Major did not pursue the process with as much determination when it began to fall apart, and the warnings from Dublin grew more shrill and more panicky.

He adopted a morally coherent but inflexible negotiating posture. Why? Partly because he thought it right, but also because he judged the thinness of his parliamentary majority and the simmering rebelliousness of strongly pro-Ulster Tory MPs made it impossible to apply yet more pressure on the Unionists. Another leader might have made another judgement - might have looked at the Westminster arithmetic, realised that there was a risk of this being the first administration to fall on the Irish question since Gladstone's - and pressed on anyway. Even had that happened, the Irish parties might have been wholly resistant to further pressing. We cannot know. But at any rate, Mr Major's Northern Irish breakthrough remains a salient won on behalf of peaceable humanity, not a settlement achieved.

At home, he did not do enough for what we learnt to call the underclass, nor for the young unemployed. Few of us doubted his own decent instincts - though in political combat he could be an angry, sinuous and vengeful man. But his own social instincts were never made flesh as working policies. His staunch anti-racism, his genuine dislike of the snobbery and patronising complacency of much of British life, his tolerance towards the peculiarities and lapses of others and his feeling for poorer, struggling citizens - none of this took us much further towards the ``classless society'' he artlessly proclaimed.

As a political leader, he could comfort and mildly amuse much of the nation, but he never roused us or inspired us. Throughout his time in Downing Street, he was a member of the British family, rather than the family head.

He was the blinking, decent-looking bloke at the head of an ill-disciplined and disloyal crew, whose rats and fanatics got most of the coverage. They, above all, stopped any bigger messages breaking through about the economy or social reform, and as time went on Westminster under Major became an increasingly surreal sideshow. There were lurid sleaze stories, incomprehensible vendettas and endless arguments about the constitution between strange men in blazers ... and there seemed only a weak link between all that and daily life.

I think it was that broken link between what the Tories were up to under Major and the country's attention or respect that most explains the Labour landslide. Had John Major been a better leader, he would have silenced the worst of the disloyalists and managed, somehow, to regain our attention. But he wasn't, and didn't, and paid the penalty.

If that seems a harsh verdict, it is also worth saying that he was, perhaps, the leader for his time. After the turmoil and high emotion of the Thatcher years, he gave the nation a kind of a rest. Ideologically, he was on the winning pro-market side. But he was also an early British victim of the relative loss of power and status of national leaders in the age of global markets - and the victim this week of the lurches in voter mood which may be part of that post-ideological age.

He was a too-still point in a fast-turning world. The Major years have been years of great cultural and commercial vibrancy, but of political hesitation. As between full-hearted engagement in European Union and the beginnings of withdrawal from that Franco-German project, he dithered. But perhaps dithering was exactly what Britain wanted from him.

Major was not a great prime minister. He would probably concede that himself. But he did his level best, with stoicism, grit and - mostly - heroic good humour while we mocked him half to death. In the end, his dignity silences the mockery. But in the end, he was our Mr In-Between: he was what happened after Margaret Thatcher, and before Tony Blair.