The youngest British prime minister of the 20th century, John Major (born 1943) succeeded Margaret Thatcher as leader of the Conservative Party and political head of the United Kingdom in 1990, a post he held until 1997.
John Major had a highly unusual background for a Conservative Party leader. Born on March 29, 1943, in the middle-class London suburb of Merton, he was the son of Gwendolyn and Thomas Major. Thomas Major, 66 when his son was born, was a colorful man who had a remarkably varied career as a circus acrobat, vaudevillian, mercenary, and manufacturer of garden ornaments. When John Major was very young, the family lived in comfortable circumstances, and he attended Rutlish Grammar School, a state-run school for bright children. When Major was 11, however, the family moved to Brixton, the so-called "South Bronx of London," after Thomas Major's business suffered financial reverses.
Young Major disliked the authoritarian atmosphere of school and left at 16 to find work. His first job was a clerical position, which he soon left to pursue a more lucrative career as a construction laborer. Shortly after this change he was laid off and spent several months on the dole. These months were a formative experience for Major, who became a Conservative after deciding that socialistic paternalism only perpetuated poverty. At 18 Major found another clerical position, and this time he started a career. Through his native intelligence and hard work he rapidly made his way through the ranks of the Standard Chartered bank, eventually becoming assistant to the bank's chairman. In the mid-1960s Major went to Nigeria, where he performed community service work and where he acquired a heart-felt hatred of racism.
Upon his return Major continued working at the bank and, after determining that he "wanted to be inside the goldfish bowl rather than outside, longingly looking in," he began to take an active role in politics, at first at the local level. He served as a member of the Lambeth Borough Council from 1968 to 1971 and was chairman of the council's housing committee from 1970 to 1971. It was during this time that he met a quiet, opera-loving, young campaign worker, Norma Johnson, a home economics teacher. They married in 1970, which was, Major later said, "the best decision of my life." Major made two unsuccessful attempts to win a parliamentary seat in 1974 and eventually succeeded in 1979, becoming the Conservative member for Huntingdonshire in east central England.
John Major in Parliament
Major's parliamentary career progressed steadily from committee work to parliamentary private secretary in the early 1980s. In 1983 he became an assistant government whip and in 1984 a full-fledged whip, a position which helped him to understand the interests and concerns of backbenchers as well as providing him with much greater visibility to all members of Parliament. It was in this capacity that he first came prominently to Margaret Thatcher's attention. At a dinner party he held his own against her in a heated argument about economic policy. Thatcher was impressed (Major later stated that Thatcher "doesn't like wimps"), and thereafter served as Major's patron.
Major was soon appointed undersecretary of social security (1985-1986) and social security secretary (1986-1987), where he was noted for his compassionate concern for the elderly. From 1987 to 1989 he served as chief secretary to the treasury, the effective deputy chancellor of the exchequer. In this position, serving under the brilliant but controversial Nigel Lawson, Major was able to emulate his father's acrobatic skills by holding a firm line on government spending without making enemies of his more senior colleagues. Like his mentor Thatcher a devotee of a strict monetary policy, he said, "Public expenditure must be restricted. People must understand that if they have jam today, they may not be able to afford butter tomorrow."
In July 1989 Major's career took a quantum leap when, during a Cabinet reshuffle, Margaret Thatcher appointed him foreign secretary. The appointment attracted a great deal of attention—and no little surprise. Major professed himself to be "totally astonished," and political observers were stunned that the young and wholly inexperienced Major had been placed in one of the top positions in the British government. Many attributed the appointment to Thatcher's desire to move Major's predecessor, Sir Geoffrey Howe, to a less visible position, and most realized that it was a great tribute to Thatcher's confidence in Major. Nonetheless, Major did not much enjoy his stay at the Foreign Office, where his informal style offended traditionalist civil servants and diplomats and where he found the work unfamiliar and uncongenial.
He had very little time to make his mark in foreign affairs because, as the result of another Cabinet reshuffle, he was appointed chancellor of the exchequer in October 1989. As a former banker and deputy chancellor, Major had strong credentials for the job, which was, said his wife Norma, "the job he's always wanted." The circumstances surrounding Major's appointment, however, were not auspicious. He replaced the confrontational Nigel Lawson, whose strong differences with Thatcher over the issue of the European Community's impending economic union had caused internal divisions in the party. Also, the economy, racked by rising inflation and unemployment, was headed towards recession. Despite these drawbacks, Major quickly established his authority in the Treasury and proved to be a very well-respected and well-liked boss known for his approachability, thoughtfulness, hard work, and careful decision-making. As chancellor Major emphasized his strict anti-inflation policy, characterized by tight controls on government spending and high interest rates.
In March 1990 Major passed his first big test as chancellor when he presented the fiscal year 1991 budget. The budget proposed no sweeping changes: high interest rates would remain to combat inflation. Calling for a return to a "culture of thrift," Major sought to stimulate savings by offering special tax-exempt savings plans. More important than the substance of the budget speech, however, was its style. Major self-confidently, skillfully, and clearly presented his budget to Parliament and a large television audience, helping restore confidence in the government and doing his own career no little good.
Like many of his Conservative colleagues, Major took a cautious view on the impending European Community's economic union. Though not as anti-Europe as his leader, Major fully understood her fears of the impact of European economic union on British sovereignty, and he had to tread a careful path between Thatcher's manifest disapproval and complying with Britain's obligations to her European partners. Utilizing all his skills as a peacemaker, he slowly eased Britain's path to Europe, entering Britain into the Exchange Rate Mechanism of the European Monetary System in October 1990.
Replaces Thatcher as Prime Minister
Following a challenge to her leadership from former Cabinet minister Michael Heseltine, Thatcher resigned as prime minister on November 22, 1990. Major quickly emerged as a strong candidate to succeed her: he had the backing of Thatcher and the "Thatcherite" wing of the party, his background in economic affairs provided him with important experience, and he was widely liked. After a brief campaign, in which he was opposed by Heseltine and Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, he won the leadership election on November 27, 1990, and became prime minister the next day.
As the new prime minister, Major called for party unity and took steps to achieve it by immediately appointing his electoral opponents to Cabinet positions: Heseltine as environment secretary and Hurd again as foreign secretary. His new Cabinet was substantially different from Thatcher's and served to demonstrate that Major was his own man and not, as his critics impugned, "Son of Thatcher." The former poor boy from Brixton also pledged to help build a "society of opportunit…. in which what people fulfill will depend upon their talent, their application and their good fortune."
The first problem confronting the new prime minister occurred within the Conservative Party when a black lawyer was selected as the party's parliamentary candidate in Cheltenham. This selection caused some blatantly racist opposition from a small group of local Tories, which Major quickly squelched. But Major also had to face long-term problems whose solutions have eluded both Tory and Labor governments for the past 20 years: integration with Europe and the ailing British economy.
Major's chances for success were greater than his predecessor's, however. Although the giant shadow of Thatcher loomed over him, Major was, and, just as important, seemed to be, a "kinder, gentler" person. He had the ability to inspire both respect and liking, could be firm without being strident, could encourage discussion without dominating it, and could be polite without being condescending. He had a quiet, modest, and self-effacing manner which colleagues and opponents alike found congenial.
Major was different in other ways as well. He was, as was widely observed, the first world leader not to remember World War II, and his perceptions and expectations set him apart from his elders. In addition, he was viewed by some as a sort of symbol, living proof of Thatcher's Toryism of upward mobility through individual achievement, not through family connections. And unlike Thatcher, Major was no ideologue. Indeed, he was often described by British politics critics as a "grey man" because he was calm, efficient, and a little dull and because it was difficult to pin down his views on controversial matters. Despite his strict views on economic matters, he was not an aggressively right-wing Tory, nor was he a left winger, even though on social issues such as capital punishment and racism he was determinedly liberal. He was, in fact, a centrist, who could gain support from all factions within the party.
In mid-1995 Major resigned as the head of the Conservative Party and called for a parliamentary election to establish leadership of the party. With that move, Major became the first British Prime Minister to subject himself to a leadership role while in office. Major won the election on July 4, 1995. In 1997, however, Major lost the election to Labor Party leader Tony Blair and stepped down from the office of prime minister.
Further Reading on John Major
The first book-length biography of John Major was Edward Pearce, The Quiet Rise of John Major (London: 1991); an excellent introduction to Major's background, characteristics as a politician, and prospects can be found in Sheila Rule's "A Meteor in Thatcher's Political Constellation," New York Times (October 27, 1989); for useful information on Norma Major and the Majors' personal life, see Maurice Chittenden's "Purdah Reduces Major's Wife to Tears," London Sunday Times (March 18, 1990); Guy Garcia gives a balanced examination of Major's leadership victory in "A Victory of Major Proportions," Time (December 10, 1990); Craig R. Whitney's article in the New York Times on November 28, 1990, is a good overview of Major's prospects as prime minister, especially regarding the economy; more discussion of Major's prime ministerial prospects is provided by Daniel Pedersen's "The Tory of the Future," Newsweek (December 10, 1990), which additionally presents a thorough analysis of Major's political background; "The Surprising Mr. Major," in The Economist (December 1, 1990), also discusses Major's prospects as prime minister, but from a Conservative perspective; another article in the same issue of The Economist, "John Major: More Than a Tedious Talent," praises Major's achievements and hails his "greyness" as being uniquely suited to British politics and the British national character.