There are two schools of thought on the legacy of former Prime Minister Sir John Major. The more prominent and popular of these considers him a weak leader who presided over a party, government and country in meltdown plagued by divisions and outrageous sleaze. The latter of these problems was further accentuated by Edwina Currie’s revelations that she had had a four-year extramarital relationship with Major during the mid-to-late 1980s; revelations subsequently confirmed by Major himself.
The second, smaller and almost unnoticed school of thought (the one that I belong to) has a more favourable view of the man. This group does not deny that the second Major government of 1992 to 1997 suffered from some major disasters (no pun intended), many of which were self-inflicted by the Conservatives. Yet it also recognises that in spite of its continuous troubles, this much-maligned administration accomplished a phenomenally series of improvements that have not only still gone unacknowledged by wider opinion, but bequeathed an extremely enviable inheritance to New Labour. This legacy is so great that its effects have prevented an economic downturn despite Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s corporatist methodology and meddling. In addition, despite the continuous supply of sleaze stories about his second government, that Major administration was still remarkably well-behaved in comparison to New Labour’s shower of hypocritical “me too” gravy-boat passengers and Westminster village idiots who are living off of the backs of all the decent, hardworking and honest taxpayers that pay their wages.
In hindsight, the issue of scandal caused by members of the second Major government was primarily confined to public positions on the outer rim of high office (the most senior government minister found at fault was Treasury Chief Secretary Jonathan Aitkin); the same cannot be said of Tony and his cronies. Whether it be Blair himself at the centre of storms over illicit donations and loans, deliberate public deceptions and a pathological aversion to the nation’s history and traditional civil liberties, John Prescott’s private and public misdeeds or Peter Mandelson’s activities, New Labour is rotten to the core, with the scale of this corruption putting even Richard Nixon to shame.
Also in hindsight, economic troubles between 1990 to 1993 such as Black Wednesday proved to be rather minor blips as the British economy improved tremendously for almost five consecutive years from 1992 through to the end of Major’s mandate in 1997. The u-turns that the government was compelled to perform were no different from those that almost all administrations both competent (such as those of Thatcher) and incompetent (like New Labour) have made over unpopular policies.
If one ignores the negative attitudes that surround the Major years and instead just focuses on the promises Major had made and what he accomplished such as low inflation, greater accountability of public figures and private and public institutions not to mention fewer unnecessary and stifling regulations that harmed wealth creation, then you will come to a different conclusion. The record of Major’s second government is one of the very finest in British political history, building on the already solid foundations of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. In good political times, this record in office would be a remarkable achievement, yet when one considers the troubles that Major faced during this period and the lingering aftermath of Margaret Thatcher’s fall from power and the legacy of her political dominance, it was little short of a divine miracle. Major inherited an almost impossible situation, yet he managed to win a general election that nearly everyone thought he was going to lose and got the country back into economic shape despite the myriad of problems that plagued him almost non-stop, spending eight years of his political career cleaning up the economic mess made by Thatcher’s renegade Chancellor Nigel Lawson.
If Major is not the paragon of integrity that he had portrayed himself to be before Currie’s made her revelations public, then he more than paid his penance as Prime Minister, doing so with determination, good grace, hard work and talent. We all have much to thank him for and as such, his record and reputation deserve rehabilitation.