A look at mediocrity in the extreme

The Major Premiership
June 2, 2000

This edited volume consists of chapters by experts from a range of policy areas - central and local government, the European Union, Northern Ireland,devolution, education, welfare and industrial relations - plus studies of the political role for interest groups, parliamentary dissent and public opinion.

Students of British politics will find a succinct account of the Major years. Unfortunately, there are two omissions: economic policy and health.

John Major's premiership was punctuated by a paradox. Elected to act as the custodian of Margaret Thatcher's inheritance, he yet raised hopes of more emollient and conciliatory policies. Though he was denounced from the right for betraying the expectations of many of those who voted for him, empirical evidence, summed up by Peter Dorey, indicates that "the most striking feature" of his government was the extent to which it "followed a broadly Thatcherite trajectory".

According to Kevin Theakston, the "civil service revolution" under Major produced "probably irreversible changes" with the privatisation and contracting out of segments of the civil service and the introduction of market disciplines and the commercial ethos into the very heart of government. Similarly, much of the framework of labour protection that had survived the Thatcher decade was further dismantled as the Major government persisted with the crusade for an ever more "flexible" labour market.

Educational policy exhibited the distinctive new-right pattern of marketisation and bureaucracy. This was quite predictable since transaction costs, duplication of services and the creation of measurable indicators to mimic price signals all require form-filling, the multiplication of administrative posts and the creation of a world safe for the accountancy profession.

There are those who, failing to grasp that, except in revolutionary times,change is incremental, gradual and cumulative, doubted whether Thatcherism was ever implemented. They will find here evidence to the contrary. This was most obviously so among those who bore the brunt of the Major-Thatcher programme - the unemployed and social security recipients.

If the Major government stood by Thatcherite policies, why the thunder on the right? The clue seems to be the vehement opposition of a vociferous section of the Tory party to the EU. Yet the far more corrosive effects of the spread of the global free market were met with disinterest if not enthusiasm. For the radical right, it seems, the market is as welcome and as unstoppable as a bracing wind: the EU, in contrast, consists of institutions staffed mainly by people who occasionally wish to tamper with the market.

In 1997, disaster overtook the party. Could another leader have averted this? The answer the book provides is "no". Several authors identify "Black Wednesday" as the defining moment. Equally, it may be that election day 1997 represented the electorate's judgement of 18 years of Thatcherite government. Ironically, the most solid accomplishment of the Thatcher-Major years must have been the dissipation of any political will to challenge the new consensus it implanted.

And what of Major himself? Perhaps we should leave the last word to Joseph Heller's Catch 22: "Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some have mediocrity thrust upon them." With Major, it had been all three.

Eric Shaw is senior lecturer in politics, University of Stirling.

The Major Premiership

Author - Peter Dorey
Editor - Peter Dorey
ISBN - 0 333 73681 8
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £45.00
Pages - 6

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