Sunday, 3 November 2013

Major: grey manna from heaven or deep, grey emptiness?

'For a time, Major took his charter very seriously. The absurdity of a citizens' charter, written in secret by a government department and launched by a prime minister, escaped him. As his predecessor had virtually abolished citizens, we are probably not yet very real to him either.'
Sarah Benton (1991), 'Viewpoint: Citizen Major', Marxism Today, July, p.9.

'And he briefly resurrects old enmities, pointing out "an early example of... the Times's ability to be wrong on every major issue".'
no author (2007) 'Major's Game: book review of More than a Game: The Story of Cricket's Early Years', The Economist, 16th June, p.101.

'John Major's bizarre resignation - an act more of bravado than of bravery - will solve very little and carries considerable risks [...] It all smacks of Richard II, not Henry V.'
Simon Jenkins (1995), 'This midsummer madness', The Times, 24th June, p.18.

'We have had a government that tried to operate an economy as well as a society according to blunt, free-market principles. It's clearly failed. What we don't have in Mr Major is an alternative ideology. We've got a change of style, and a lot of rhetoric about a classless society and opportunity for all - but we do not have a way forward.'
Gordon Brown (1991) 'After Thatcher: Business as Usual', Marxism Today, January, p.26.

'Mothers who wouldn't know what to do with a Heseltine or a Portillo wish their daughters could find a nice man like John Major to bring home to tea.'
Alice Thomson (1994) 'Can women's votes save John Major?' The Times, 2nd February, p.15.

'As Thatcher's preferred successor, John Major represents continuity. But he also represents the routinisation of charisma, and the dissipation of the energy, the radicalism, and the conviction that suffused the Thatcher decade.'
Andrew Gamble (1991) 'After Thatcher: Following the Leader', Marxism Today, January, p.15.

'In a speech marked by the xenophobic smack of  its attack on foreign 'scroungers', Mr Lilley openly and impertinently cheeked Mr Major for referring to himself and other right-wingers as 'bastards' - saying that he had it on his mother's authority that he was not 'fatherless' - and capping all by echoing a Thatcherite rant against the powers of a European superstate.'
Anthony Bevins (1993), 'Bastards are the masters, for now', The Guardian, 10th October, p.8.

'John Major became an object of contempt for his dogged refusal to preside over the break-up of the Conservative Party.'
Bagehot (2003) 'Archbishop Major', The Economist, 16th August, p.27.

Steadily, there has been a perceptible shift in perceptions of John Major.

Obviously, his resolutely centrist performance in Westminster on 22nd October will provide a contrast to the neo-liberal dogmatism of Cameron-Osborne Toryism and the shallow poujadism of Nigel Farage. In this week's New Statesman, ex-cricketer and columnist Ed Smith writes of Major's 'late popularity' and 'measured and affable public appearances'. He regards him as 'a victim of the way the market for news and public opinion operates', whose reputation has grown since leaving office - in stark contrast to Tony Blair's. Smith will have seen Major's intervention on energy prices, proposing a windfall tax in a manner that is rather more in touch with public opinion than with notions of a sacrosanct private sector 'market':

The erstwhile 'Grey Man' has produced evidence of a 'hinterland', publishing books on cricket and music hall. Not areas that will prove everyone's cup of Earl Grey, but surely specific interests to be commended, next to the career politics and the workaday immersion in pop culture of the current generation.

Cultural historian Alwyn W. Turner has written recently - in his new 1990s history - of Major's brief period of ascendancy as a 'classless' Tory, making great strides initially as someone from an unusually humble background who seemingly had more of a 'common touch' than the absurdly messianic latter-day Thatcher.

Turner writes of his understated compassion for the dying, cancer-afflicted left-wing Labour MP Eric Heffer. In January 1991, Major crossed the floor of the House of Commons, knelt beside Heffer and had a private conversation. Turner also mentions a curious flirtatious side that few knew existed prior to revelations of his affair with Edwina Currie. "Would you like a nibble of my mace?" he is said to have cheekily asked Margaret Beckett. All reflective of very different personality to the abrasive, inhumanly driven Thatcher. Major took a notably more realistic, constructive approach to the Northern Ireland question than his predecessor - leading to the Downing Street Declaration of December 1993.

It is beyond question that of living Prime Ministers, Major would be the most affable company on a personal level, as ex-Labour MP Chris Mullin's diaries attest. He clearly sees things on a human scale, and Mullin reveals that he was prescient regarding the threat to democratic and cultural values posed by Rupert Murdoch. He was too weak to act on this, however. Though his successor Blair was much more fawning in his subservience to the culturally debasing mogul.

Major, then, might just be the ex-PM you could just about engage with in an earnest and affable conversation over a pint...

Ultimately, however, his period as Prime Minister was disastrous.

The Criminal Justice Act was passed in 1994.

The railways were privatized from 1994.

In the same year, he presided over what Turner describes as a shambolic and demeaning failure to pass the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill to legislate for disability rights - earning the ire of Stephen Hawking among many others: 'I don't think any disabled person should vote for the present government unless they do something to atone for the shabby way they killed the Civil Rights Bill'. The responsible minister Nicholas Scott had killed the Bill with amendments and had used an eighty minute speech to talk it out, while refusing to admit that that was what he was doing.

Major maintained the despicable Section 28 and expanded anti-Union laws set in train under Thatcher.

Whatever his personal qualms - as detailed by Turner - he sanctioned Heseltine's steadfastly inhumane closing of the pits in late 1992.

His years in office were, as The Observer argued in the week of his vainglorious and bathetic resignation as party leader in 1995, 'characterised by crisis management'. That ludicrous episode demonstrated self-inflicted crisis, with the "PUT UP OR SHUT UP" call being followed by a challenge out of left - or rather right - field from vulcan headbanger John Redwood.

This 1994 sketch from The Day Today of a film 'reserved for times of national emergency' captured this sense of perpetual crisis, as well as the Major years' deluded, deadening preoccupation with heritage. The show's brilliance was to have this wonderfully ludicrous projection of Tory normalcy broadcast after its fabricated scoop of John Major punching the Queen. In its cynical fantasy the video summarises the government's attempt to paper over the cracks left by virulent Thatcherism. It represents the sad bathos of its times, as a hapless, non-threatening PM presided over measures that threatened the quality of a large number of people's lives - all the while pretending: EVERYTHING'S ALL RIGHT.

Major presided over a stagnant Britain. While there was vivid, energized cultural opposition from 1990-94, this was quickly overtaken by a resurgent cultural conservatism. Areas as diverse as television situation comedy, cinema, popular music and stand-up comedy saw a perceptible shift away from politicised, socially engaged content towards pastiche and willful, disconnected individualism.

The movement from Mike Leigh's Naked to Secrets and Lies indicates a shift. As does the movement from the likes of Derek Jarman being supported to the ascendancy of Guy Ritchie. Lad culture, while surely lamented by Major personally, was a significant legacy of his era - and the media culture grew ever more aggressive and cynical.

At the time, as the years passed, it felt as if his tired, incompetent and nasty government would never end. In 1996, yours truly was moved to write and record a song attacking the newly established National Lottery, coming across like Adrian Mole channeling John Lydon. In this intemperate, hastily assembled slice of punk agit-prop, my thirteen-year-old self lashed out at those running the culture, discerning "no ray of light in their Major-grey cheeks!" The song was a rather ghastly racket, but few could doubt the sincerity of the irritation at the man whose very name had became a sort of adjective synonym of 'dismal'.

Of course, now I know a bit more. Major did have the misfortune to preside over a party haunted, indeed besotted by the ghastly subject of its 1990 matricide. They have never looked back on looking back, remaining to this day the 'bastards' - in Major's words - that she created, forever seeking revenge against her assassins and completion of her ideological 'project'. The man Major might have had an instinct for the moderate, 'decent' English vote. His fellow party members haven't, at least since the passing of the Macmillans, Macleods and Whitelaws. In October 1995, Hugh Dykes, moderate Tory MP for Harrow East, noted that the representatives at his party's Blackpool Conference were 'more and more right-wing, narrow-minded, selfish and xenophobic'. Hardly an understatement when the event included the bombastic, bellicose "Don't mess with Britain" speech from bastard-in-chief Portillo. This era saw the ascendancy of such lovely humans as Peter Lilley, IDS, Michael Howard, John Redwood and Ann Widdecombe. A supposedly decent man in charge merely provided ideal incubation conditions for some of the lowest impulses:

While the 'Grey Man' possessed an unusually compassionate outlook - devoid of sharp elbows and social scorn - he simply did not run the country according to these 'decent', 'One Nation' Tory principles. He did little if anything to quell the juggernaut of neo-liberalism unleashed by his abhorrent predecessor. The best that can be said of him is that he didn't preside over a foreign policy disaster like the Iraq War or the sort of retrograde 'reforms' of health, education and welfare that Cameron's government are now pursuing.