At the Oval, I reflected once again on John Major’s remarkable legacy as PM
Cricket. Aargh. My gorge rises at the very word. Days — months — years of schoolboy misery; long, wretched, empty afternoons of boredom, fear and wasted time. Which is no way to say thankyou to Sir John Major for inviting me to a remarkable book launch for what looks and sounds like rather good book: More Than a Game. But the truth is that I made my way to the John Major suite at the Oval in south London on Monday last week more out of affection for Sir John than for cricket.
I’m so glad I did. That busy, crowded room will fix itself in the memory as a sort of still-life of Majorism and his seven long years as prime minister from 1990 to 1997, a strange time in British politics. Sir John’s Oval party reminded me of everything I admired about him, and everything that bemused.
The room was full of chalk and cheese. A sprinkling of young suits; a gathering of old blazers; young bloods; old rogues; young Sloanes; High Tories; loyal Conservative workers; Cockneys; peers — and — ooh! there goes a Heseltine shaking his mane look — quick — there — just behind that herd of sportsmen. And in the centre of it all this decent, quick-minded, thoughtful, original, slightly edgy man from south London: a total one-off, not an exemplar of any type.
The word I’m trying not to use for the book-launch is ‘eclectic’ because eclectic suggests the sort of mix that acquires a flavour and potency from its very diversity: ‘big tent’ — that sort of thing. ‘Eclectic’ is almost contrived: a quality one might consciously aim for in an anthology, a political party or a social gathering. When, on the other hand, the variety is almost haphazard, ‘eclectic’ is not the word. One would not observe, of a Northern Line Tube carriage at rush-hour on a Tuesday, ‘what an eclectic crowd!’ The differences between people at the Oval last week arose not from a planned heterogeneity but from the fact that there was really only one thing that united all of us there: not cricket, not Toryism, not literature, but the fact that we all personally liked John Major. And — for all the criticism (sometimes scorn) his government and he himself attracted in the 1990s — the truth is that it is hard to imagine any other figure capable of stringing along a late-20th-century Conservative administration so many years beyond the end of its natural life. This was a personal achieve ment, and though in his autobiography Major seems to regret he never ‘stamped’ his authority or mark on his epoch, or ever quite found his pace, or tone, or stride, I believe that if anyone had stamped at all hard, the whole administration would have fragmented. It was his hard-to-get-a-handle-on yet hard-not-tolike quality that kept things together.
Michael Heseltine would certainly have stamped. As leader I doubt he’d have won the general election in 1992, but if he had won, then the Tory civil war Major strove so long to avoid would have broken out within months. And neither Margaret Thatcher herself nor any neo-Thatcherite successor could have done other than go down gloriously (and fast) with all guns blazing.
Was that, though, all Major achieved — an unlikely prolongation of the Conservative sunset? I would argue otherwise. This month, as Tony Blair departs Downing Street after a comparable time in office, is a good time to pose the question; for the more you look at how modest have been the achievements of Mr Blair’s ten years, despite three whopping majorities and (at first) the whole nation and its news media willing him onwards, and how considerable were the achievements of John Major’s seven years, despite a tiny majority sinking to zero, and a media climate which soon turned violently against the Conservative party, the more solid appear the fruits of an era at first sight shapeless.
The first fruit, of course, was the opt-out for sterling from monetary union. Major himself was never convinced by the case for the euro (my private impression was that he was quietly hostile) but had he tried to commit a Conservative government to perpetual opposition, the administration would have fallen apart. The narrow ground he chose — ‘maybe one day but not yet’ — was at the same time the only ground from which the 1990s parliamentary Conservative party could be held together, and the best way to let our European partners down gently. Gordon Brown was to play the same game with his pro-euro Prime Minister, Blair. And it was Major who committed us to the singlecurrency referendum whose threat proved Mr Brown’s best weapon. Postponement is such a powerful strategy in politics, as elsewhere, yet so hard to trumpet as the achievement it often is. Major saved the pound — it’s a simple as that.
The second was the National Lottery. I dislike gambling, but it is hard not to acknowl edge the substantial force this lottery has become. Imagine that Blair had thought it up and carried it through — he’d be crowing about it endlessly now, and probably demanding to announce the draw in his final week.
The third is controversial but of importance and permanence. Privatising the railways was a huge and difficult jump, from which Margaret Thatcher always shied. Looking back, I wonder that Major dared. It is possible to argue that the railways were privatised in the wrong way; but few of us would now dream of going back to British Rail as it was. Today, investment, subsidy and passenger numbers are rocketing — as all three should — and the public sector has divested itself of an enormous and inappropriate commercial undertaking. This, too, is part of Major’s legacy.
Fourth comes the most important legacy of all, yet the most intangible. We all laughed at the Citizen’s Charter, yet so far as public services are concerned, this was the beginning of an epoch-making shift from citizenas-supplicant to citizen-as-customer. And it was John Major’s very personal contribution to the way we think of society.
Thatcherism, I concede, had some simple themes, a distinctive flavour. Blairism has had a zeitgeist of its own. Majorism was caught in the crossfire between eras, between class interests, between passing phobias, ideological obsessions and Commons wars. We felt we almost knew what John aimed to represent, and that he almost knew too — like a name on the tip of your tongue — but that it kept eluding us.
Yet that last decade of the 20th century was rather important. It was — he was — the beginnings of much that matters now. Other Tories might have book-ended the party’s 18year reign with more of a flourish, but facing defiantly backwards. No leader other than Major, I think, could have left it poking forward, however uncomfortably, into the future.
As I slipped out of his book launch last week, smiling at the very slight incongruity of the scene, I blessed the incongruity of the Major years. They were an uncompleted building, half-rendered, half-painted, with reinforcing rods left sticking forward into the future. Unsatisfactory — achingly so, not least for him. But so much better than the magnificent lead-lined bunker that neoThatcherites would have had us construct.
Matthew Parris is a columnist for the Times.