on 18 February 2009
I am not, by any means, a political supporter of Mr Major (according to my Father I am a "Trot" - which translates into English as "liable to vote Liberal Democrat"), but I can't remember any political autobiography I've enjoyed so much. Sometimes sharply witty - verging on the downright catty on occasions - always clear, never pompous, generous in praise of others. I don't agree with the politics one iota more than I did before I read the book, but I did, to my surprise, end up liking the man who wrote it.
John Major said it himself - if he had been the only candidate in the 1997 election he would have come second. The usual view of his premiership is of an interlude between the eras of Thatcher and Blair. Historians in due course may see it otherwise, but the first thing that needs to be said is that as a historical record these memoirs are first class. For candour, fair-mindedness, lack of ego and clarity in separating fact from inference and opinion I have never read their like from anyone who ever attained such a position.
The candour doesn't stretch to telling us absolutely everything. Like Jimmy Carter John Major was unlucky on top of his own errors, but one great piece of good luck was that his affair (while in a junior post) with a parliamentary colleague Edwina Currie did not come to light until he had left office. It was the funniest story in 20th century British politics and it highlights what was always his problem - he wasn't taken seriously. His face was against him, his voice was against him, and his bank-managerish way of expressing himself at times, such as I have borrowed for my caption to this review via Private Eye, was a gift to the satirists and the chattering classes. Otherwise his style of writing is, in all important and relevant respects, excellent. I cringed on reading '...the huge constituency and its rich variety of interests'; or '...he was always ready with a good-humoured story'. His innocent pride at his own little jokes and bons mots is pretty embarrassing too, but some of his more acid asides such as regarding the overlooked hopefuls whose self-ascribed talents would have needed a long-range telescope to be discerned are actually much better, although he floored me with his remark about the 'column inches' devoted by the papers to Hugh Grant after his famous arrest.
There I go. It's all too easy not to take him seriously, and it's all wrong too. This man was a national leader through some pretty momentous times. I can't say that his narration of the gulf war added much to what I already knew, but nobody else was in a position to enlighten us so much about the economic ups and downs of the 80's and 90's, and especially about the issue that more than any other wrecked his government, namely relations between Britain and Europe. Unlike many national leaders, Major understood economics. His rise to the top was mainly via the Treasury, and when next, I wonder, will we ever see an economic narrative like this, told by a man who knows what he's talking about, who was right at the centre of decision-making, who is or appears to be completely willing to tell the whole story, and who is able to put it across with such lucidity? If you think economics is complicated, try understanding the British Conservative party and its behaviour over Europe. Here we find Major the historian at his superlative best. The behaviour of his 'euro-sceptic' MP's was a psychologist's field-day, and Major assesses them individually with a dispassionate calmness that is staggeringly impressive considering the hell they put him through. It would all have broken many a lesser man (or woman). I never voted for his government nor would I if I had the chance again, but I can't see how his bitterest critic can fail to be impressed by the way he kept his nerve, and by the way he can stand back from his own performance under that sort of pressure and assess it as if he were marking an exam paper.
As if all this were not enough, he had Northern Ireland to deal with. If it would be fair to say that he was out of his depth with the issue, the same could be said about every other prime minister who has tackled it. Major made a bold and honest attempt to cope, and some of it has stuck, and Blair has been the beneficiary as he has been in a significant number of other ways. Above all, Blair inherited a sound economy after all the travails of the previous 10 years, Major knows that, and he's sore about the lack of recognition of the fact. Major was unlucky to come to office at the time he did - Thatcher and Blair were elected on a wave of disgust at the failures, real or perceived, of the preceding governments, up with whose shortcomings, as the phrase goes, we were fed. Major entered 10 Downing Street at a time when changes were going on that he only partly understands and, characteristically, doesn't claim to understand fully. He came from a poor background, and he is a 'compassionate' conservative. Those have actually been around for a long time, witness Disraeli himself. Witness also Macmillan, the premier who said 'We are all socialists now'. Macmillan was quite unquestionably compassionate, but he belonged to a tradition, and in an era, when the Conservative party had every reason to believe that power was its birthright. These days it still thinks so, and, worse, acts as if it does. Its problem is that the rest of us think otherwise. Labour's shortcomings are manifold and monstrous, but it doesn't make that mistake and that could be Labour's salvation for quite a long time. If I'm right, Major's thoughtful musings, while valid in point after point, are missing the main one. He was a good manager, but he failed as a leader and as a politician. Blair could see, as FDR could all those years ago, that if you at least act as if you understand what people are asking for they will put up with a great deal. For all his humble origins Major failed to connect, partly through his own fault as he can see very well, but mainly because nobody associated the Conservative party with the values that he himself is most interested in - health, safety, pensions, school, hospitals and so on. These are traditionally Labour's strong suits, and, largely through his inheritance from Major, Blair has slain the dragon that Labour can't be trusted with the economy. That leaves the Conservatives rowing over Europe on the assumption that what matters to them must therefore matter to the rest of us. Their own chairman and advertising magnate Lord Saatchi has grasped the point perfectly well 'Who needs the Tories now?' Blair is running into trouble through pushing his phenomenal luck a little too far and he will be going shortly in any case, but as he faces his fifth Conservative opponent in 8 or 9 years I expect he and his successor will make short work of whoever it is because they have grasped this point. I wonder whether Major has come to see it this way too by now.
on 18 October 1999
This is the most recent of the many autobiographies and memoirs to come out of the pens of the Thatcher government - and by far the most interesting. Unlike the others, the author does not seem to have fallen into the trap of rewriting history to make us think that the author was right all along, and that everyone else was wrong - Mr Major signs up for the blame when he believes he was as fault, and is very modest in taking the credit for some of his (unfortunately not publicised at the time) successes. The result is refreshing - recent history with the unmistakeable whiff of truth.
I'd recommend this to anyone with an interest in British political history, or indeed to anyone who wants to read a good autobiography. Mr Major's style is light, often revealing and frank, and only rarely plodding. In many cases, you can almost hear him saying what he has written!
Mr Major comes across as a man who made the best of several pretty miserable hands of cards that were dealt him - from his early life, through to the trials of running a fractious party with a slim majority. The fact that he does this with fortitude and conviction speaks volumes for the man.
As I watched the results from the 1997 General Election from the sidelines of America (remembering that ten years prior I had been in the thick of things, on the floor of a count and being shown on BBC intently staring at the bank teller drafted to count the box in which I had an interest), I was variously amazed, pleased, saddened, and in the end, pleasantly surprised at the good humour of John Major, who said very simply, 'Okay, we lost.'
I met John Major first when he was a rising parliamentary star recruited to come to the constituency of the backbencher for whom I worked. He came to give a pep talk to the local Conservatives on a local radio programme; this constituency (Basildon) was considered a dead loss, so much so that the PM and various other Cabinet names wouldn't waste their time making a stop--but John Major came, and, we won.
Major has put together an interesting account of his time in office. Thankfully he concentrates on his political career (not spending hundreds of pages giving us the sort of childhood information that rarely adds value to a political autobiography), starting with his first victory coming to the House of Commons in 1979 (Margaret Thatcher's first victory as leader) and culminating with the 1997 electoral defeat, which he took with relatively good grace and rather few recriminations. And, whereas many political figures spend a large part of their memoirs in a 'If I were still there' mode, Major only devotes a few pages to the follow-up and future (in a five-page chapter entitled Aftermath) preferring not to speculate on irrelevant imponderables, and avoiding the problem of which he was most critical in his predecessor--that being of not wanting to let go.
It was no secret that one of the things the press and public eagerly sought in this book was Major's opinions on the continued attempts by Thatcher to exert an influence in leadership. His rocky relationship with the former prime minister has many examples through the text, some explicit and some subtle (such as the caption from a photo taken at the 1990 Conservative Party Conference, which reads 'Still on good terms with Margaret following the announcement of our entry into the ERM.').
In general, this is a well-written book, and John Major's tenure of office is rather more interesting than popular memory or the press would have one believe, perhaps understandable due to following a person of such flash and sparkle as Thatcher--who could compete with that? Major did in many ways, and, as his autobiography shows, he won in many ways, and when he lost, he was a gentleman.
on 18 February 2012
If Shakespeare was alive today and still writing tragedies, then he'd have enough material here for a blockbuster.
The benefit of hindsight shows John Major was always likely to be up against it:
1) Having to follow such a dominant force as Thatcher. She was never going to leave the stage quietly.
2) The splits in the party - mainly on Europe. (still rearing its ugly head today).
3) Dealing with the aftermath of the boom and bust years when Lawson was chancellor.
4) Potential apathy from the British people after The Conservative party had been in power for a lengthy period.
All of these issues are dealt with in length by Major and it is fascinating to read his side of the story. The book is very well writen, the tone thoughtful and respectful. Even his "enemies" are given polite consideration (for the most part) rather than crude dismissal. His recollections of the european summits and the strengths and weaknesses of other european leaders was particularly fascinating. Major also confirmed what many people have often suspected that, when it comes to european matters, Germany and France often unite to become a formidable force (hurdle?).
I'm not sure how Major could have united his party, it would appear to be mission impossible. The big surprise was that Major secured an election victory in 1992 despite the country experiencing a recession. One of the key questions I was left asking was whether the mavericks who supported John Redwood's leadership bid realsied, at least in part, that by exposing the party's division on Europe so ruthlessly, they would consign the Conservative party to a decade and more in opposition? This question seems to baffle John Major. Still,surely history won't repeat itself with Europe and one Mr Cameron?
The tragedy for him was that by the time of the 1997 election (and Tony Blair's coronation), the economy had recovered somewhat - despite the ERM humiliation (or because of it?) On completing the book I had much sympathy for Major despite his lapses into ocassional dithering (IMHO). He seems a decent, old-fashioned person, for a politicain at least. I was left contemplating how successful he might have been under less trying circumstances.
To be honest, I felt that the book was a little long in places, though a number of subjects deserved thorough examination.
A good read, better than the recent efforts from Blair and Mandleson (though I did enjoy both) but not quite as good as recent publications from Andrew Rawnsley or Chris Mullins.
on 24 May 2002
Whatever the drawbacks of the book may be, and there are pleanty, it is a breath of fresh air.
Some will criticise it for the lack of full disclosure (by which they mean dirt) regarding Thatcher, Hague, Portillo and others. Yet, we should all applaud the man for having the integrity not to speak ill of those he was once an ally, servant, colleague of. This defines the difference between Major and Blair (as well as some of the aforementioned). It seems like a totally different world, yet it was only a short while ago.
You should read this book, if for no other reason, then to get a perspective of the modern day political cynicism, and how it does not have to be that way. We are all at fault for letting it become like this. This book can serve as a reminder of what we should expect and demand, rather than the spoon fed spin that today's politicians of all parties seek to weave, and the obliging media regurgitates without much consideration. The Blair theme music "Things can only get better", at least from the political perspective, could not have been more wrong!