John Major

1990 - 1997

John Major (1943- ) became prime minister by winning Dame Fortune’s lottery several times in succession. Born to older, downwardly mobile theatrical parents and leaving school at 14 with few and poor examination results, he failed at several jobs before joining Standard Chartered Bank, where he remained at a junior level. Then he won election to Lambeth Council in 1968, the only election in his lifetime when Conservatives won control of that inner-London council, and became Chairman of its Housing Committee. Despite his lack of education or track record outside Lambeth, this, together with hopeless candidacies in inner London seats at the two 1974 elections, got him selected in 1976 for the rock-solid Conservative constituency of Huntingdonshire.

Major rose relatively quickly under the Thatcher governments, because he had excellent people skills, then after the 1987 election he was made Chief Secretary to the Treasury because of his banking background. After being initially out of his depth, he was within three years promoted first to the Foreign Office, then to the Exchequer. Here he foolishly, through enthusiasm for “Europe” and ignorance of economics, joined the EEC’s Exchange Rate Mechanism at a hopelessly overvalued parity. Then within three months he was pushed by Thatcher, who had wrongly acquired the impression he shared her views, into succeeding her.

As prime minister Major had one substantive achievement, winning the 1992 election, which enabled him to stay in the job for 6½ years, longer than Attlee, Lloyd George or Baldwin and just short of Macmillan. Just after the election, Britain crashed out of the ERM, losing billions of dollars to George Soros and other speculators, a debacle that Major extremely unfairly blamed on his successor as Chancellor Norman Lamont (1942- ). Leaving the ERM allowed sterling to find its market level, ending a lengthy and painful recession entirely caused by Major’s ERM folly. A better man would have resigned at this point.

Lamont’s successor Kenneth Clarke (1940- ) ended any attempt at Thatcherite rigor in the spending departments. He remembered market principles only once, when in 1995 he refused to allow a rescue of the 200-year-old Barings Bank, which had gone bust through the ineptitude and criminality of a junior trader, thus nailing shut the coffin of Britain’s merchant banks – Barings had previously been rescued in 1890, at the height of British capitalism.

Another John Major disaster with long-term consequences was in education, where in 1992 he arbitrarily converted all Britain’s polytechnics to universities. This hugely increased costs both to the Exchequer and to students, devalued the British degrees “brand” worldwide and created a plethora of expensive low-quality institutions that degraded British higher education and wasted the lives and money of innumerable marginal students.

On the social side, Major launched a “Back to Basics” campaign, with emphasis on family values, which was inevitably followed by a succession of ministerial resignations after their affairs and sex lives had been splashed all over the tabloids – follies that were later found to include those of Major himself, who had been frolicking with his fellow minister Edwina Currie (1946- ). All this provided light relief to the public from the boredom of Major’s rule, while increasing Tony Blair’s eventual 1997 majority. Major also instituted the National Lottery, through its encouragement of gambling a regressive tax on the poor and stupid, whose proceeds were devoted, not to the iconic National Health Service but to trivial projects in sport and “charities.”

Major’s unforgiveable error was to sign the Maastricht Treaty, committing Britain to an ever-closer political European Union, without holding a referendum. Had a referendum been held, the Treaty would almost certainly have lost by a substantial margin as it did in Denmark, at which point the EU would have been forced to remain a purely economic community, to which the British people had agreed in 1975. By preventing a referendum, Major deprived Britons of their democratic sovereignty, which was only restored to them (in principle) by David Cameron’s in/out referendum of 2016.

Despite his interpersonal skills, Major’s rise to Britain’s top job was rationally inexplicable; so was his keeping it so long. On the “more harm than good” criterion, he deserves to share the bottom of this list with Macmillan and Heath.

© 2020 Martin Hutchinson