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Sir John Major

Sir John Major
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Although Sir John Major won the biggest electoral victory any British political party has ever seen, he is often overshadowed by the two charismatic prime ministers who came before and after him: Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. As a result, John Major can be overlooked despite the fact that he had a significant role in re-energising the economy after a bad recession and leading the way to peace in Northern Ireland. Let's take a closer look at his time in office and his legacy in British politics.

British Prime Minister John Major

Sir John Major became prime minister of the United Kingdom in 1990, after Margaret Thatcher. In 1992, he won a landslide election victory of 14 million votes, which remains the greatest electoral victory any British prime minister has ever had. His time as prime minister came to an end when Labour decisively won the 1997 national election under Tony Blair.

Landslide victory

An election where the victorious party wins by a large margin

Sir John Major John Major speaking at an event StudySmarterJohn Major speaking at an event at Chatham House, Wikimedia Commons

Early Life

Sir John Major had a fairly unusual start to life for a Conservative politician. He was born in 1943 to a circus performer and he left school with just three O-levels to help support his family aged sixteen. He worked in a variety of jobs that he didn't enjoy, including at a garden ornaments business, and went through a brief period of unemployment in 1962.

The young John Major became interested in politics, joining the local branch of the Conservative Party in Brixton in 1959. He unsuccessfully ran for councillor in Larkham Ward in 1964 but had better luck when he successfully became a councillor for Ferndale Ward in 1968. John Major also married Norma Johnson in 1970.

Although Major lost his seat in the 1971 Ferndale councillor election, he managed to get onto the Conservative Party's list of potential MPs. After several unsuccessful elections, he was finally elected MP of Huntingdon in 1976.

The Parliamentary Years (1976-90)

John Major quickly moved up the ranks in the Conservative Party. This short timeline shows his rise during the years following his election as MP.

Year Event
1981John Major was appointed Parliamentary Private Secretary.
1983John Major was appointed assistant party whip, responsible for all MPs in East Anglia.
1984John Major was invited to join the 'Blue Chip' group - an exclusive social group for rising stars in the Conservative Party.
John Major was appointed Treasury Whip.
1985John Major was made Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS).
1986John Major became the Minister of State for the DHSS.
John Major gave his first speech at a Conservative Party Conference in October.
1987John Major was promoted to the Cabinet. He became Chief Secretary to the Treasury.
1989John Major, who was a favourite of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was promoted to Foreign Secretary despite his lack of experience in foreign affairs.
After just three months as Foreign Secretary, John Major was promoted to Chancellor of the Exchequer after the former chancellor fell out with Margaret Thatcher and resigned.
1990Thatcher resigned after she failed to get the necessary votes to definitively win a leadership challenge within her party. John Major decided to run for Prime Minister and although he was two votes short of an overall majority, he won many more votes than his two opponents. He was appointed prime minister on 28 November 1990.

Party whip

An official within a political party who makes sure that the party's members vote according to what the party leadership wants

Chancellor of the Exchequer

The government's chief financial minister, in charge of tax and public spending

Prime Minister

John Major's first two years as prime minister coincided with an economic recession with high unemployment rates. To the surprise of nearly everyone, he decided to call an election in 1992 and the Conservatives won a record majority: 42% of the vote.

Sir John Major Map showing 1992 UK General Election voting patterns StudySmarterMap showing voting patterns in the 1992 UK General Election, blue = conservative, Mirrorme22 - Wikimedia Commons

However, Sir John Major's government became increasingly unpopular over the next few years despite the upturn in the economy during the mid-1990s. This was partially because he introduced higher taxes in 1993. There were also several scandals during these years involving cabinet ministers.

Sleaze scandals

Sleaze is a broad umbrella term used for any number of actions by members of Parliament which bring their ethics into question. Examples include sexual misconduct, fiddling with expenses, and using a governmental position to gain favour.

A scandal is when these sleazy actions or events come to public attention and are met with outcry.

Between 1990 and 1997, John Major's Conservative Party was rocked by a series of scandals involving Conservative MPs. Some of these involved scandals of sexual misconduct, and others involved financial corruption.

These scandals were heightened by the fact that Major had made a famous speech in 1993 called 'Back to Basics' which committed his party to promoting traditional family values in Britain. The contrast between the party's talk and it's behaviour seriously weakened the Conservatives' public image.

One of the worst moments of John Major's time as Prime Minister was an event known as Black Wednesday, on 16 September 1992. This was when Major was forced to withdraw the British pound from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) because Britain couldn't keep the pound within the exchange rate limits set by the European Community.

The Bank of England changed British interest rates four times on that Wednesday, before accepting that they had to give up and withdraw from the ERM. This financial crisis cost Britain approximately £3.14 billion.

European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM)

A monetary system that tried to reduce exchange rate variability to create financial stability among the different countries of Europe

In 1997 the Conservatives lost to a landslide Labour victory under Tony Blair. Sir John Major resigned as Prime Minister and Conservative party leader, although he continued to serve as a local MP until 2001.

Sir John Major: Policies

Below is a table outlining some of Sir John Major's most significant policies during his time as prime minister and whether or not they were successful.

Policy

Explanation

Success

Removal of the Poll tax

John Major scrapped the unpopular poll tax which had contributed to Thatcher's fall in 1991.

Very successful

He managed to scrap the policy without splitting the Conservative Party.

Educational Reforms

John Major made nursery education available to all four-year-olds and put plans in place to enable three-year-olds to access nursery education as well. He also started league tables to monitor schools' performance.

Successful

He managed to introduce these reforms despite worries within his party about the cost of extending education to three and four-year-olds.

European Union

John Major was a European enthusiast and his policies included keeping Britain in the ERM and getting the Maastricht Treaty passed in the House of Parliament.

The Maastricht Treaty (1992) formed the European Union.

Unsuccessful

Britain crashed out of the ERM on Black Wednesday and although the government signed the Maastricht Treaty, the outcome was an internal split in the Conservative Party that meant Major had to return to a less Euro-enthusiastic position in order to keep the peace.

Tackling the Recession

John Major introduced policies to help economic growth.

Fairly successful

During Major's time in office, unemployment fell slightly, interest rates dropped and the economy grew for the first time in several years. However, Britain didn't enter a golden economic age; it was simply a small improvement on a fairly dire situation.

Northern Ireland

John Major's policy was peace and diplomatic negotiation with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to help end the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Very successful

The negotiations were handled sensitively and paved the way for the Good Friday Agreement (completed under Tony Blair's Labour government in 1998) which ended the Troubles.

Poll Tax

A flat-rate tax that every adult in the country had to pay, regardless of their income or property situation - it was eventually scrapped in favour of Council Tax, which was variable according to where people lived and how big their house was. This was seen as much fairer.

The Troubles

Nationalist conflict in Northern Ireland between the 1960s and 1998. Ulster Protestants wanted Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom and Irish Nationalists (mostly Catholic) wanted Northern Ireland to leave the UK and join a united Ireland instead.

Maastricht Treaty: The Maastricht Treaty was the foundation treaty of the European Union. Major was in favour of the treaty and pushed it through parliament. However, he faced a lot of opposition, including rebels within his own party who were opposed to the idea of Britain joining the European Union. The torturous process of trying to get the treaty through Britain's legislative body made Major look like a weak leader.

Sir John Major and Brexit

Major's involvement in the question of European Union membership didn't end with the end of his time in office. He was one of the most outspoken critics of the Conservative campaign to leave the European Union in 2016.

Sir John Major's Heart of Europe Speech

Major's pro-European stance was most clearly demonstrated in his March 1991 speech at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation about his belief that Britain's place should be 'at the heart of Europe.' 1

Some people believed that what Major wanted was for Britain to fully integrate into a federal Europe. However, this wasn't what he wanted. Sir John Major was, in Gillian Peele's words,

...neither an enthusiastic Europhile...but neither was he a Eurosceptic.2

Europhile

Someone politically supportive of European integration

Eurosceptic

Someone politically opposed to European integration

Rather, what Major wanted was Britain to exercise 'a strong leadership role' in the European community because he thought this would best serve Britain's interests. This is best summed up in a speech John Major made two years later:

If we tried to huddle back into some private yesterday we wouldn't have any alliances we could make. Others would make the rules. And they'd impose the rules on us. 3

Sir John Major and the Brexit Referendum

So, what was Major's response to the idea of leaving the European Union?

Sir John Major Two road signs pointing at opposite directions where one has the UK flag and the other has the EU flag StudySmarterThe campaign to leave the European Union began when Conservative prime minister David Cameron organised a referendum to determine whether Britain should remain a member of the European Union in 2016, Pixabay

In one television interview, Major argued that the Leave campaign was 'verging on the squalid' and that 'the British people are being misled' by false information. He also called Boris Johnson - the prime minister who finalised Brexit - a 'court jester' and argued that the National Health Service (NHS) was:

'about as safe with them [meaning Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Duncan Smith] as a pet hamster would be with a hungry python. 4

Sir John Major's Legacy

Sir John Major Sir John Major giving a speech as Prime Minister StudySmarterSir John Major, Wikimedia Commons

Some have argued that Sir John Major was an unsuccessful Prime Minister. He was often perceived as a colourless leader who lacked charisma. Notable failures of his office include:

  • Black Wednesday
  • Sleaze scandals
  • Deepening divisions of his party over Europe.

Political historian Dick Leonard argues that John Major was an incapable leader who could not handle the economic and political issues he faced as Prime Minister. 5

Others have been more positive in their assessment of Sir John Major's period as Prime Minister. Journalist Peter Oborne argues that Major was an 'honest, decent and competent Prime Minister' who left Britain a 'not-inconsiderably better place than he found it.' 6 In particular, Oborne points to John Major's role in promoting the welfare state, his creation of the National Lottery and his role in Northern Ireland as significant triumphs.

Welfare State

A system in which the state plays a key role in protecting the economic and social wellbeing of its citizens

Political historian and biographer Robert Taylor gives a fairly balanced view of Sir John Major. He points out that Major was handed a 'wretched legacy' by Margaret Thatcher during an economic crisis, and that this should be taken into account when assessing what he managed to accomplish. 7

Taylor reminds us that Major won his party an outstanding electoral success in 1992 and that he left the country's economy in a much better shape than it was when he had arrived. His final assessment of Sir John Major is a fitting conclusion:

[...] he was an extraordinary ordinary man whose period as Prime Minister deserves to be treated in its own terms and with more compassion and a deeper understanding of what he faced and what he sought to achieve [...] 8

Sir John Major - Key takeaways

  • Sir John Major was prime minister and leader of the Conservative party from 1990 to 1997.
  • John Major succeeded Margaret Thatcher as prime minister after a quick rise through the ranks of the Conservative party between 1981 and 1990.
  • In 1992, John Major led the Conservative party to a record-breaking election, where the Conservatives won 42% of the vote. To this date, no party has ever won such a large majority of the public vote. However, John Major quickly lost popularity, and Labour won a landslide election in 1997.
  • Although some of John Major's policies were successful - notably his role in leading to peace in Northern Ireland - others were not so successful, such as his policy on Europe.
  • Sir John Major was a strong believer that Britain should be at the 'heart of Europe'.

References

  1. Sir John Major, 'Speech to Conservative Central Council', Southport (23 March 1991).
  2. Gillian Peele, 'John Major and Europe: A Case for Reappraisal?' in John Major: An Unsuccessful Prime Minister? Reappraising John Major, ed. Kevin Hickson and Ben Williams (2017), ch. 17.
  3. Sir John Major, 'Speech to the Conservative Group for Europe', Manchester (22 April 1993).
  4. Sir John Major, 'Interview on the Andrew Marr Show', London (5 June 2016).
  5. Dick Leonard, A Century of Premiers: Salisbury to Blair (2004), p. 341.
  6. Peter Oborne, 'Foreword' in John Major: An Unsuccessful Prime Minister? Reappraising John Major, ed. Kevin Hickson and Ben Williams (2017).
  7. Robert Taylor, Major (2006), p. 4.
  8. Taylor, pp. 2-3.

Frequently Asked Questions about Sir John Major

Norma Major

On 19 June 1997, Sir John Major announced his resignation as leader of the Conservative party after losing the general election to Tony Blair.

In response to the general election result of 1992, Major said "About half an hour ago, I learned that we had passed the magic winning post in real seats and not just in a projection. I am absolutely delighted with the outcome of the General Election."

John Major is currently 79 as of July 2022. He was born on 29 March 1943.

1990-1997

Final Sir John Major Quiz

Sir John Major Quiz - Teste dein Wissen

Question

When was Sir John Major the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom? 

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Answer

1990-1997

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Question

What was Sir John Major's opinion on Brexit?

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Answer

He was one of the most outspoken critics against Brexit. He called it the Brexit Leave Campaign 'squalid'.

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Question

Which party did John Major belong to? 

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Answer

The Conservative Party

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Question

When did John Major finally become an MP after years of unsuccessful attempts? 

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Answer

In 1976, when he became MP for Huntingdon

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What was Black Wednesday?

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Answer

In September 1992 the pound sterling crashed in the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), which led to interest rates being adjusted 4 times in just one day.

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What happened on Black Wednesday?

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Answer

Major was forced to withdraw the British pound from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) because Britain couldn't keep the pound within the exchange rate limits set by the European Community. 

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Question

What is the Maastricht Treaty?

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Answer

The Maastricht Treaty is the foundation of the European Union, this treaty pushed for further economic integration, especially for shared European currency, resources, citizenship; and foreign and defence policies.

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What did Major do regarding education?

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Answer

He made nursery education available to all four-year-olds.

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What was the economy like when John Major became Prime Minister? 

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Answer

The economy was in a very bad place - unemployment was very high. 

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What percentage of the vote did John Major win in the 1992 landslide election? 

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Answer

42% 

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What were the sleaze scandals during John Major's time as Prime Minister? 

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Answer

A series of scandals where several Conservative MPs were found to be involved in sexual misconduct and financial corruption 

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What was Major's policy on the poll tax? 

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Answer

He scrapped the poll tax in 1991. 

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What was Major's attitude to Northern Ireland? 

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Answer

Peace and Negotiation. This helped lead the way to the Good Friday Agreement. 

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Question

What famous phrase did Major use to explain his opinion on Britain and Europe? 

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Answer

Britain should be at the 'heart of Europe'

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Question

Which did Sir John Major label Boris Johnson as concerning the Brexit campaign? 

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Answer

A court jester

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