- This article is about the British politician. For the 15th-century Scottish philosopher called John Major, see John Mair. For the Canadian Supreme Court justice, see John C. Major.
The Right Honourable Sir John Major, KG, CH (born 29 March 1943) is a British politician who served in the Cabinets of Margaret Thatcher as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Foreign Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer before succeeding Thatcher as Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1990 to 1997. He retired from the House of Commons in the 2001 general election. Template:Infobox President
John Major was born on 29 March 1943, the son of Tom Major-Ball, a former travelling showman. He was christened John Roy Major but only the name John is shown on his birth certificate. He used the middle name Roy until the early 1980s.
He was born at the St Helier Hospital, Carshalton in the wealthy Worcester Park area of Sutton, attending primary school at Cheam Common, and then going to Rutlish grammar school in Merton, where he had an undistinguished education. In the 1950s, his father's garden ornaments business failed, and the family were forced to move to Brixton in 1955.
Major left school at 16, with three O-levels - in History, English Language, and English Literature. He watched his first debate in the House of Commons in 1956, and attributes his political ambitions to then. He applied to become a bus conductor, but his application was rejected, allegedly because of poor arithmetic. His first job was as a clerk in an insurance brokerage firm in 1959. Disliking this, he quit and for a time, he manufactured gnomes with his brother, Terry Major-Ball. He also joined the Young Conservatives at this time.
After a spell of unemployment, he started working at the London Electricity Board in 1963, and decided to undertake a correspondence course in banking. He took up a post as an executive at Standard Chartered Bank in May 1965 where he rose quickly through the ranks. He was sent to Nigeria by the bank in 1967, and nearly died after a car crash.
He is an Associate of the Institute of Bankers.
Early political career
Major was interested in politics from an early age, giving speeches on a soap-box in Brixton market. He stood as a candidate for Lambeth Borough Council at the age of 21 in 1964, and was unexpectedly elected in the Conservative landslide in 1968. While on the council he served as Vice-Chairman of the Housing Committee, being responsible for the building of several council housing estates. Despite moving to a ward which was easier for the Conservatives to win, he lost his seat in 1971.
He stood for election to Parliament in St. Pancras North in both general elections of 1974 but failed to win the traditionally Labour seat. In May 1976 he was selected by Huntingdonshire Conservatives as their candidate at the next election, winning the safe seat in the 1979 general election. Following boundary changes, Major became MP for Huntingdon in 1983 and subsequently won the seat in the 1987, 1992 and 1997 elections. He stood down at the 2001 general election.
He was a Parliamentary Private Secretary from 1981 and an assistant whip from 1983. He was made Under-Secretary of State for Social Security in 1985 and became minister of the same department in 1986. He entered the Cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury in 1987, and in a surprise re-shuffle on July 31, 1989, a relatively inexperienced John Major was appointed Foreign Secretary, succeeding Geoffrey Howe. He spent only three months in that post before becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer after Nigel Lawson's resignation in October 1989. Major presented only one budget (the first one to be televised) in the spring of 1990. He publicised it as a budget for savings and announced the TESSA (Tax Exempt Special Savings Account) arguing that measures were required to address the marked fall in the household savings ratio that had been apparent during the previous financial year.
When Michael Heseltine's challenge to Margaret Thatcher's leadership of the Conservative Party forced the contest to a second round and Thatcher withdrew, Major entered the contest alongside Douglas Hurd. Though he fell two votes short of the required winning margin of 187 votes in the second ballot, Major's result was sufficient to secure immediate concessions from his rivals and he became Leader of the Conservative Party on 27 November 1990. The next day, 28 November 1990, Major was summoned to Buckingham Palace and appointed Prime Minister.
Major as Prime Minister
Major was Prime Minister during the Gulf War. During the first years in office, the world economy slid into recession after the long boom during the 1980s. Expected to lose the 1992 election to Neil Kinnock, Major took his campaign onto the streets, famously delivering many addresses from an upturned soapbox as in his Lambeth days. This populist "common touch", in contrast to the Labour Party's more slick campaign, chimed with the electorate and Major won an unexpected second period in office, albeit with a small parliamentary majority. This proved to be unmanageable, particularly after the United Kingdom's forced exit from the ERM on Black Wednesday (16 September 1992) just five months into the new parliament. Major allowed his economic team to stay in place unchanged for seven months after Black Wednesday before forcing the resignation of his Chancellor, Norman Lamont, who he replaced with Kenneth Clarke. This delay was indicative of one of his weaknesses, an indecisiveness towards personnel issues, that was to undermine his authority through the rest of his premiership.
Despite Major's best efforts, the Conservative Party collapsed into political infighting. Major took a moderate approach but found himself undermined by the right-wing within the party and the Cabinet. In particular, his policy towards the European Union aroused opposition as the Government attempted to ratify the Maastricht Treaty. Although the Labour opposition supported the treaty, they were prepared to undertake tactical moves to weaken the government, which included passing an amendment that required a vote on the social chapter aspects of the treaty before it could be ratified. Several Conservative MPs (the Maastricht Rebels) voted against the Government and the vote was lost. Major hit back by calling another vote on the following day (23 July 1993), which he declared a vote of confidence. He won by 40 but had damaged his authority.
Later that day, Major gave an interview to ITN's Michael Brunson. During an unguarded moment when he thought that the microphones had been switched off, Brunson asked why he did not sack the Ministers who were conspiring against him. He replied "We don't want another three more of the bastards out there. What's Lyndon B. Johnson's maxim?..." Major later claimed that he had picked the number three from the air, but many journalists immediately named the three as Peter Lilley, Michael Portillo and Michael Howard, who were three of the more prominent "Eurosceptics" (throughout the rest of Major's premiership the exact identity of the three would be blurred, with John Redwood's name frequently appearing in a list along with two of the others). The tape of this conversation was leaked to the Daily Mirror and widely reported, embarrassing Major. (The maxim referred to is Johnson's famous comment about J. Edgar Hoover. Johnson had once sought a way to remove Hoover from his post as head of the FBI, but upon realizing that the problems involved in such a plan were insurmountable, he accepted Hoover's presence philosophically, reasoning that it would be "better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside pissing in").
At the 1993 Conservative Party Conference, Major began the "Back to Basics" campaign, which he intended to be about the economy, education, policing, and other such issues. However, it was interpreted by many (including Conservative cabinet ministers) as being about personal morality. As a result, it disastrously back-fired on him by providing an excuse for the British media to expose "sleaze" within the Conservative Party: David Mellor and Tim Yeo had to resign over sex scandals, Tim Smith and Neil Hamilton were alleged to have taken payment to ask questions in the House of Commons, and the bizarre death of Stephen Milligan provided a curious side-show.
Despite opening talks with the IRA when he took office, Major continually denied he had done so. When, in November 1993, he declared in the House of Commons that "to sit down and talk with Mr. Adams and the Provisional IRA...would turn my stomach", Sinn Féin gave the media an outline of the secret talks held regularly since February. An IRA ceasefire was called in 1994. In the House of Commons he refused to sign up to the first draft of the "[George] Mitchell Principles" which in turn ended the 1994 IRA cease fire. In March 1995, Major refused for several days to answer the phone calls of United States President Bill Clinton, angered at his decision to invite Gerry Adams to the White House for Saint Patrick's Day .
In 1995, tired at continual threats of leadership challenges that never arose, he resigned as Leader of the Conservative Party, and announced he would be contesting the resulting leadership election. John Redwood, the Secretary of State for Wales stood against him. Major won by 218 votes to Redwood's 89 (with 12 spoiled ballots, 8 abstentions and 2 MPs not voting at all) – easily enough to win in the first round, but only 3 more than the target he had privately set himself. (The Conservative Party has since changed its rules to allow a simple vote of no confidence in the leader, rather than requiring a challenger to stand; this mechanism was used to remove Iain Duncan Smith from the leadership.)
His re-election failed to restore his authority. Despite his best efforts to restore or at least improve the popularity of the Conservative party, Labour remained far ahead in the opinion polls as the election approached. By December 1996, the Conservatives had lost their majority in the House of Commons. Major managed to survive to the end of the Parliament, but called an election in March 1997 as the five-year limit for its timing approached. Major delayed the election in the hopes that an improving economy would help the Conservatives win a greater number of seats, but the gamble failed and Labour won a massive majority.
John Major was elected leader of the Conservative party as a conciliatory figure to unite the disparate groups within the parliamentary Conservative party that had come into the open under Margaret Thatcher. However a small majority after the 1992 election meant that the comparatively small group of euro rebels within the parliamentary Conservative party had undue prominence and power. The Maastricht Rebellion undermined his position as leader of the Conservative party. By the 1997 general election Major was cast as an unfashionable grey figure unable to control a divided sleaze ridden party. This popular perception is perhaps unfair on a Prime Minister who began the Northern Ireland peace talks and helped a severely damaged economy recover from the setback of Black Wednesday.
1997 General Election Defeat
On 1 May 1997 the Conservative party suffered one of the worst electoral defeats since the Great Reform Act of 1832. Few were surprised when Major lost the 1997 general election to Tony Blair, though the immense scale of the defeat was not widely predicted.
In the new parliament Labour won 418 seats, the Conservatives 165, and the Liberal Democrats 46, leaving the Labour party with a majority of 179. After the defeat commentators speculated on whether or not it would be possible for the Conservatives to overturn such a large majority in a single election (it proved not to be).
John Major himself was re-elected in his constituency of Huntingdon with a majority of over 18,000. However, 179 Conservative MPs were defeated.
At about noon on 2 May 1997, John Major officially surrendered his seals of office as Prime Minister to Queen Elizabeth II. Shortly before his resignation, he gave his final statement from Number Ten, in which he said "when the curtain falls, it is time to get off the stage." Major then famously told the press that he intended to go with his family to The Oval to watch some cricket.
Following his resignation as Prime Minister, Major briefly became Leader of the Opposition and remained in this post until the election of William Hague as leader of the Conservative Party in June 1997.
After leaving office
Since leaving office Major has, in marked contrast to his predecessor (Margaret Thatcher), tended to take a low profile and to stay out of front-line politics, contributing only occasionally from the back benches and indulging his love of cricket as president of Surrey County Cricket Club.
In March 2001 he gave the tribute to Colin Cowdrey at the latter's memorial service in Westminster Abbey. In 2005 he was elected to the Committee of the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), historically the governing body of the sport, and still guardian of the laws of the game.
He has been a member of Carlyle Group's European Advisory Board since 1998 and was appointed Chairman of Carlyle Europe in May 2001. He stood down from Parliament at the 2001 general election and has so far declined the customary life peerage and seat in the House of Lords that is given to former Prime Ministers. He was knighted in 2005. He has played only a very limited role in Conservative Party politics since 1997, although he did support the (unsuccessful) campaign of his former Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, for the party leadership in 2001, against strong Eurosceptic Iain Duncan Smith.
Major's quiet retirement was spectacularly disrupted by the revelation in September 2002 that, prior to his promotion to the Cabinet, Major had had a four-year extramarital affair with a fellow MP, Edwina Currie. Commentators were quick to refer to Major's previous Back to Basics platform to throw charges of hypocrisy. Max Hastings in his book Editor in 2002 also commented on Sarah Hogg, a colleague at The Daily Telegraph, "Sarah knew Major intimately, in a way none of the rest of us did".
In February 2005 it was reported that Major and Norman Lamont were holding up the release of papers on Black Wednesday under the Freedom of Information Act. Major angrily denied doing so, saying that he had not heard of the request until the scheduled release date and had merely asked to look at the papers himself.
During his leadership of the Conservative Party, Major was portrayed as an honest ("Honest John") but otherwise dull man, unable to rein in the philandering, bickering and general sleaze within his party. John Major's appearance was noted in its greyness, his prodigious philtrum, and large glasses, all of which were exaggerated in caricatures. For example, in Spitting Image, Major's puppet was changed from a circus performer to that of a grey man who ate dinner with his wife in silence, occasionally saying "nice peas, dear". The media (particularly The Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell) used the fact that Major was observed by Alastair Campbell tucking his shirt into his underpants to caricature him wearing his pants outside his trousers, as a pale grey echo of Superman.
Private Eye parodied Sue Townsend's The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, age 13¾ to write The Secret Diary of John Major, age 47¾, featuring "my wife Norman" and "Mr. Dr. Mawhinney" as recurring characters. The magazine still runs one-off specials of this diary (with the age updated) on occasions when Sir John is in the news, such as on the breaking of the Edwina Currie story or the launch of his autobiography.
Because he grew up in Brixton, the so-called "capital of the Jamaican community in London", he was regularly joked about as being Rankin' John Major by Curtis Walker and Ishmael Thomas, the hosts of an early 1990s BBC comedy programme called Paramount City . Later he would also be depicted as Johnny Reggae by the cast of The Real McCoy . His Brixton roots were also used by the Conservative Party's 1997 Election campaign in 'Black' newspaper The Voice, using the slogan 'What can the Conservative Party offer a working class kid from Brixton? It made him Prime Minister'. He is also most likely the Prime Minister featured in the first chapter of J.K. Rowling's novel Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, though technically, Tony Blair would have been Prime Minister in June/July of 1997.
On April 23, 2005, Major was made a Knight Companion of the Order of the Garter by Queen Elizabeth II. He formally received the honor on June 13. Membership of the Order of the Garter is an honour traditionally bestowed on former British prime ministers.
Titles and honours
Styles from birth
- John Major, Esq (1943–1979)
- John Major, Esq, MP (1979–1987)
- The Rt Hon John Major, MP (1987–1999)
- The Rt Hon John Major, CH, MP (1999–2001)
- The Rt Hon John Major, CH (2001–2005)
- The Rt Hon Sir John Major, KG, CH (2005–)
- Lord of Her Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council (1987)
- Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour (1999)
- Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter (2005)
- “Oh, Lord, if I must die today,
- Please make it after close of play.
- For this I know, if nothing more,
- I will not go, without the score.”
- Book John Major for Keynote and Conference Talks
- John Major's "bastard" quote from The Observer
- An unofficial web site about the 1990-1997 Conservative administration.
- The Public Whip – John Major MP voting record
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