So farewell then, John

May 9, 1997

He didn't convince the electorate but John Major has inspired five biographers to write about him. Brian Brivati asks the latest, Anthony Seldon, why he spent two years writing about the greyest occupant of No. 10

So now we have four surviving ex-prime ministers. I do not suppose they will socialise much. Their reputations, however, are already competing in the market place of history. Margaret Thatcher has been the most successful in publishing terms, a brilliant biography by Hugo Young, best selling memoirs and another major biography by John Campbell on the way. Ted Heath, also well served by Campbell, is finally writing his memoirs and Kenneth Morgan has delivered his official life of James Callaghan. So what about John Major?

Major has a profound image problem: it is difficult to separate him from the Steve Bell cartoon. However, anyone who can become prime minister and stay there for six and a half years must be more than the sum of his caricatures. The role of constructing Major's first full, though unofficial, monument and putting him into tentative historical perspective has been taken on by Anthony Seldon, cofounder of the the Institute of Contemporary British History and author on, among many other things, Conservative party history. Major's fifth biographer, he is the first to tackle the whole of the government, a challenge met with characteristic thoroughness: 450 interviews and a full gutting of the quality press to produce a volume of some 850 pages.

Why spend two years of your life writing about the greyest occupant of Number 10 since Stanley Baldwin? Seldon's response is upbeat. He had not written a biography, met Major or felt any particular affinity with him. But Seldon did feel that Major was being underrated. "Maybe I have a bent for defending people. My first book was about Churchill's last years in office. I attempted to retrieve Churchill's reputation as a peace-time premier and show that he was actually an effective prime minister."

He feels the press have been particularly hard: "It is hard to find any prime minister, certainly in the past 25 years, who has not been subject to sustained criticism from sections of and occasionally the entire press. But I think the criticism from the Tory press is unprecedented and one has to go back to the Conservatives in opposition between 1929-31 to see the Tory press turning on a Tory premier for such a prolonged period."

Once into the project he identified four core critiques of Major and his government. The liberal critique is that he came in with high- minded ideals, combining tolerance towards ethnic minorities and homosexuals - making Britain at ease with itself - with a high-minded foreign policy and care for the environment. But under pressure from events, and needing to placate the right, Major achieved little and over Bosnia failed to deliver a high-minded foreign policy.

The right-wing Conservative critique is that Major was the "upstart who usurped power unnaturally from Mrs Thatcher" and was anyway, never a proper Tory; that he squandered the Thatcherite legacy by letting public expenditure rise in 1992-93 and that he failed to reduce the tax burden. His constitutional policy was based on political advantage rather than gut Tory instinct, leading him to sell out British interests in Europe.

The Labour critique is that he was a vacillator of no consistent principle or policy who allowed Britain's intolerable divisions to increase, leaving the country far less at ease with itself.

Finally, the managerial critique argues that that he lacked the essential attributes of a leader: ability to define an agenda, mobilise support for that agenda and then inspire followers with a vision of where the project is going. He also failed in his management of the civil service, oversight of quangos, of public service and his own party. This failure resulted in the corruption of politics, the rise of sleaze and a fundamental mistrust of politicians.

Seldon explores each of these critiques and "produces an assessment of Major and his place in history that I think will stand the test of time". The criticisms are obvious, but what is the case for the defence? Seldon hedges a little: "That is a very difficult question to answer, because you have to unpack how much would have happened anyway," but he lists what he sees as the legacy of the Major years: "He made a real contribution in overseeing the economy in the past two or three years, holding together the Conservative party, furthering the Thatcherite agenda in privatisation, changing the constitution in the direction of trying to introduce greater openness, striking the Maastricht deal in December 1991 with the two opt-outs on EMU and the Social Chapter and subsequently piloting the country into a more assertive line with EU partners. I think he would look at his defence of the constitution and see that as a significant milestone in holding the fabric and constitution together at a time when fashionable opinion wanted to institute changes. There is also the National Lottery and his attempts to try to introduce more sport and to contribute to the gaiety of the nation."

Not bad for a man widely written off for much of his premiership. Seldon, emphasising the immense difficulties of governing with a small parliamentary majority, argues: "I think that one way of assessing the value of a prime minister is to look at the innovations introduced by that prime minister, which are likely to stand the test of time. Clearly we do not know how much Mr Blair will retain of the Majorite agenda but all the indications are that he will retain a substantial amount of it. Now to take, for example, Ted Heath; the great majority of the Heath reforms from 1970 to 1974 to industry, trade unions, local government, the welfare state and Ireland were subsequently dismantled. I don't think that will be the case for Major."

So Major's place in history may depend on the agenda that this new Labour government will follow. If he had won on May 1 he would have gone down as the greatest campaigner of the age. But because he personalised the campaign to an extraordinary extent, putting a rather misplaced faith in campaigning skills derived from 1992 - an election he thinks he won but which in reality Kinnock lost - he now suffers for the defeat. This was his defeat and as Edward Heath could tell him, the Tory party will not forgive him. As the knives slice into Major's leadership of the Conservative party, he can take some comfort from the knowledge that the first monument to his premiership has already been constructed, and that this critical biography will provide the foundation for subsequent debate.

Brian Brivati is reader in history, Kingston University. Anthony Seldon's biography of John Major will be published in November.

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