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Pol/Econ Government
Pol/Econ: Sir John Major: An interview at the LSE
Thursday, 10 May 2007 Written by Henry Midgley
Sir John Major
One of the virtues of the present political climate is that as leaders in the major industrialised countries become younger- so their retirements become longer. Whereas British Prime Ministers like Gladstone or Disreali died shortly after losing office in the 19th Century, now politicians tend to have a long retired lifespan after leaving office. In America Bill Clinton is a natural example- George Bush will have a long period of vigorous life ahead of him too when he leaves the Presidency as will Tony Blair when he leaves Downing Street. One of the more interesting things that such young ex-politicians are able to do is look back on their lives and try and analyse them. Having stood at the summit of politics, they can assess what their careers meant and what they might have done differently.

Of course amongst those leaders is Sir John Major- and watching Major reconstruct his political life is an interesting enterprise- he was recently interviewed and some elements of what he said may interest readers of Bits who are interested in his period of government in the UK.

Sir John's discussion with Elinor Goodman, the political editor of Channel 4 News from 1983 until 2005, goes through some frequently travelled territory. Sir John's administration was marked by a series of events- the first Gulf War, the unravelling of the pound's membership of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, the Northern Irish peace process and the economic growth of the early to mid 1990s. Those four events all cast shadows forwards- but all were part of processes that lasted far longer than Sir John's own period of power, the Gulf War was in play under Margaret Thatcher and the decisions taken in the first war will always be compared to decisions made in the second gulf war under Tony Blair, she took the UK into the ERM, her Anglo Irish agreement began the process by which peace in Northern Ireland was achieved and Tony Blair finished the process and the period of economic growth has continued right up into the reign of Tony Blair and beyond that will continue- unless things change massively- into the reign of the next Premier.

Listening to Major the constraints on power become very obvious- the fact that a Prime Minister is only there for a number of years and that much of what he does is about manipulating a process, rather than inaugurating an era. Major followed a historically significant Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, whose impact is still being digested within the UK. Some of his decisions- like the further privatisation of the railways- which Major attempts to defend in this interview- were continuations of a process which began under Thatcher and which has continued under Blair where peripheral tasks of the state have been delegated to private industry. Major possibly bent this process to become more redistributive- that at least is what he claims to have wanted to do here- but ultimately he bent a process which he was part of rather than controlled.

So what essentially do we learn from Major? What did he do and what was his contribution to British history? Listening to Major one thing does become obvious- firstly that he had a vast impact on Northern Ireland and secondly that he balanced on a rope within the Conservative Party on Europe. On both issues this recent interview is interesting. On Northern Ireland, Major claims that at no point was the majority of the cabinet behind his line of policy on Northern Ireland. Recent emotional events in Northern Ireland, where the unthinkable, a coalition between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party, ancient enemies, has happened. Major's government played the key role in getting that through- it would not have happened without Major setting up the key stages of the process. Particularly because the fact it was the Tories that went to negotiate with Sinn Fein first made the whole process uncontroversial within England and hence easier to deal with in Ulster. Major's work in the province was a real success and one for which his presence was key, given what we now know about his cabinet and their opposition to it. It was his policy and it has made Britain a better place.

The second major thing that comes through his interview is the European issue within the conservative party. Sir John argues that he sacraficed his own policy instincts- more pro-European, wetter and more redistributionist in order to seek party unity. Again we return to the fact that Major was a victim of circumstance. He wishes in retrospect that like Peel he had split the party in order to obtain a goal, rather than like Balfour keep the party going. One might dispute Sir John's analysis- if he had been more leftwing my thinking is that he might have been overthrown- he was challenged in 1995 and though that fizzled out, a more strident Prime Minister might have faced a more prominent challenger. But we shall never know...

Evaluating the Premierships of Prime Ministers so close to us is very difficult- I don't want to evaluate Sir John's period here (and anyway it will never be done in the constraints of an article this length- I'm following the concentration of the interview). Afterall the conventional wisdom we all operate by now might not seem so wise twenty or thirty years down the line. Sir John refers to the closeness of the American alliance and the way that UK and US military officers almost treat each other like they were part of the same military- interesting in the context of the fact that many on the left and right express doubts about that alliance now after Iraq. Privatisation likewise might not look so good down the line- so its worth waiting to make a conclusion.

In some areas this argument- the argument of retrospection has swung back in Sir John's favour. During the first years of Blair, the contrast between New Labour's command driven management of the Uk with Sir John's fuddled conversation based model was frequently drawn. Blair did things, Major discussed them. Well it appears from the criticisms made by Lord Butler that Blair's sofa government in part led to Iraq- Major's more collegiate model stands a chance to return- probably not under Gordon Brown. Despite that there is an interesting question that Goodman asked Major which he didn't answer, whether a government based on subtle distinctions and arguments in cabinet will ever work in a media age addicted to headlines and adoring of leaders- a problem I suspect that neither Major nor his successor have solved.

Major's interview brings out though the way that it is interesting to listen to people who have been there and done it- Major was Prime Minister for seven years- whether historians look kindly upon him is something that none of us know, but as we attempt to understand the office and the powers it wields and our own histories, listening to those that have held the office is a useful exercise. Ultimately the Premiership is the Prime Ministers- and their psychology and thinking is the object that political analysis deals with.

Moving thus onto territory personal to him, Sir John mentions two points which I also found interesting and raises the question that I started with: the youth of Prime Ministers and Presidents today as compared to historical examples. Sir John wonders openly now whether he would be a better Prime Minister now than he was when he took over- his knowledge of the world is far more advanced than it was when he took over. An aspect of this is the way that he has treated his retirement- asked what his successor Tony Blair should do in September when his term has expired, Sir John argued that there was more to life than politics and Blair should find other things to occupy himself and look forwards and not reanalyse the past forever- maybe that's the attitude of a man who has seen a bit of life, has his buffetting and is now psychologically righted.

Sir John is very much an outlier in taking this attitude- both his Tory predecessors Margaret Thatcher and Edward Heath were furious on losing office and never recovered. Sir John seems to have found a way to retire, relax and go willingly back to being a private citizen- if nothing else he may be a model for Europe's increasing numbers of highly skilled pensioners in their search for contentment!