The Right Honourable John Major, CH (born 29 March 1943) was a senior British politician who served in the cabinets of Margaret Thatcher as 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.
Major was born 29 March 1943, the son of Tom Major-Ball, a 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.
Although born in the wealthy Worcester Park area of Sutton, Major grew up in the much poorer Brixton where the family were forced to move after the failure of his father's business. He had an undistinguished education at Rutlish Grammar School and left school at 16. 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 broking firm in 1959, and, for a time, he worked manufacturing gnomes with his brother, Terry Major-Ball. He eventually went to work as an executive at Standard Chartered Bank in May 1965 where he rose quickly through the ranks, before leaving on his election to Parliament in 1979. He is an Associate of the Institute of Bankers.
He married Norma Johnson on 3 October 1970. They have a son (James Major ) and a daughter (Elizabeth Major ).
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, Camden 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 assistant whip from 1983. He was made Under-secretary of State for social security in 1985 and became minister in the same department in 1986. He entered the Cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury in 1987,and was chosen as Foreign Secretary in 1989. 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 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 prime minister on 27 November 1990.
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 Britain's forced exit from the ERM on Black Wednesday (16 September 1992) just five months into the new parliament.
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 which required a vote on the social chapter aspects of the treaty before it could be ratified. Several Conservative MPs 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 (in other words, that he would resign if defeated). 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 and, most damagingly, within the Cabinet itself.
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.
His re-election failed to restore his authority. 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.
After leaving office
Few were surprised when Major lost the 1997 general election to Tony Blair, though the immense scale of the defeat was not widely predicted. This loss led to his resignation as leader of the Conservative Party. Since then Major has, in marked contrast to his predecessor, 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.
Following the death of Princess Diana in 1997, John Major was appointed a special guardian to Princes William and Harry, with responsibility for legal and administrative matters.
John Major 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.
This quiet retirement was only 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 (a form of moral absolutism) to throw charges of hypocrisy.
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.
Media representation of John Major
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. On the breaking of the Edwina Currie story, it ran a special known as The Secret Diary of John Major, age 59½.
Owing to the fact that 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'.
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Last updated: 09-03-2005 18:37:12