From Major to Minor, or even Minnow

The continuing reminders of former Prime Minister John Major’s hypocrisy and duplicity over Brexit justify an airing of one of the most damning, yet accurate, verdicts on him from a political historian

One of the benefits of social-media in politics is how it enables we amateur commentators, not only not to have to rely on, but also to by-pass, the legacy media when it comes to pointing out the hypocrisy of politicians making utterances completely at variance with what they’ve asserted on previous occasions.

One such instance occurred on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show last Sunday, 22nd July. Marr ‘interviewed’ (if a relatively soft-pedal invitation to spout his views more or less unchallenged can be dignified with that word) former Prime Minister John Major, transparently to give him an opportunity to re-iterate his call for a second EU Referendum.

Fortunately, and because, as the cliché goes, ‘the internet never forgets’, this was soon being contrasted with Major’s 20th December 2015 appearance on the same programme, when he said this (from 04:20 onwards):

‘I think it’s a long-term decision. I mean, the argument we can have a referendum, say no, then go back and re-negotiate. is just a fallacy. If we come out, we are out.  That’s it. It’s not politically-credible to go back and say ‘we’ve re-considered’, or ‘let’s have another referendum’. If we vote to stay out, then we are out, and we will have to get on with it.’ 

The earlier interview was widely shared on social-media, as of course was the entirely justified mockery, derision and disgust. But it occurred to me that it might be useful for others to see how a serious political historian judged the hapless Major in retrospect.

In Andrew Roberts’ ‘A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900‘, published in 2006, he summed up Major thus, a damning verdict which, to my mind, has rarely been bettered:

“John Major’s manifest failure to grow into the role of prime minister was remarkable, indeed almost unprecedented. Other premiers have acquired at least a patina of charisma after seven years in power, but not him.

Major only became prime minister because, after the fall of Mrs Thatcher, he was neither the ultra-liberal Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, nor her political assassin, Michael Heseltine.

Thatcher, who had wildly over-promoted Major to Chancellor of the Exchequer, wrongly believed him to be the heir to her ideological legacy. Very soon after securing him victory, the Thatcherites discovered their mistake.

Major spoke of wanting Britain to be ‘at the heart of Europe’, without explaining what in practice this meant. Later, he was recorded calling the three euro-sceptics in his Cabinet ‘bastards’ and ruined his nice-neighbour image by being caught on tape saying, ‘I’m going to fucking crucify the Right.’ In one sentence he thus managed to swear, blaspheme, split an infinitive and make a promise he could not keep.

With only the limited vision of a Party apparatchik – he was a Party Whip in the House of Commons before becoming a minister – Major was unable to win the support of even two-thirds of his Parliamentary Party when his Cabinet colleague John Redwood stood against him for the Party leadership in the summer of 1995.

Redwood adopted the slogan ‘No Change, No Chance’, which was proved to be prescient by the 1997 election. Over issues such as the citizen’s charter; a hotline to complain about motorway cones; surrenders over qualified majority voting in Europe  and the EU working time directive; and much else, especially over Bosnia, Major was shown to be a figure of pathos.

One area where Major was thought to be entirely personally innocent of the disasters which struck his ministry was over ‘sleaze’. Of course, had anyone known that Major had earlier been conducting an affair with one of his fellow ministers, Edwina Currie, (fortuitously) while his wife was away in his Huntingdonshire constituency, he would have been laughed out of office.

Major weakened himself in November 1994 when he withdrew the Party Whip from eight Conservative MPs over the European issue, something that Neville Chamberlain never did to opponents of appeasement in the Thirties and which also never happened to the Suez rebels of 1956.

By this gross act of intolerance, against patriots whose only concern was the protection of British sovereignty, he showed how at heart he was a Conservative hack politician and essentially unfit for high office, let alone the premiership of the United Kingdom.”

The 10 years since publication haven’t in my view diminished the validity and accuracy of that judgement by one iota.  If anything, they’ve enhanced it. And Theresa May is being compared unfavourably with him. The mind boggles.

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