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Useful Notes / John Major

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Britain's leader from 1990–97, in glorious Technicolor.

"I like peas."

Sir John Major, KG, CH, PC (born 29 March 1943) is a British politician who was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and the Leader of the Conservative Party from 1990 to 1997. He served consecutively as Foreign Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Thatcher Government from 1989 to 1990, and was the Member of Parliament for Huntingdon from 1979 to 2001. Like Margaret Thatcher to Ronald Reagan, Major can be seen as the Transatlantic Equivalent to George H. W. Bush.

In the wake of the ousting of Thatcher, Major took charge of the Conservative Party at a time they were trailing the Labour Party by 20 points and more in the polls. Not only did Major recapture support in the campaign (included making a speech on a literal soapbox), but the 1992 general election with a surprise victory and a (still unbeaten) record 14.1 million votes. It was all downhill from there.


Five months after the election, Britain was expelled from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) in what was called "Black Wednesday".note  This unexpectedly helped the economy recover in the long run, but since the Conservatives had spent the last year trying their hardest and spending billions to stay in the ERM, it greatly damaged their reputation for good economic management. There was also significant progress in the Northern Ireland Peace Process — the only thing that prevented a full peace agreement was the government's demand that the IRA should lay down their weapons first before negotiating. Despite these developments, Major's government was dogged by scandals, PR disasters, and conflict in his own party, especially over European issues. Having been in power since 1979, the Conservatives had little left to offer to voters, whereas Labour were regrouping and modernising under the leadership of Tony Blair. Rumours of leadership challenges came and went, resulting in Major calling a leadership election against himself in 1995 in an attempt to secure his control over the party. It actually worked, as Major (who had disappointed the party's Thatcherite right wing by governing closer to the centre than she had) faced only token opposition from John Redwood and was easily re-elected, but it really just delayed the inevitable. In the 1997 general election, the Conservatives were routed by Blair's reformed Labour Party and lost over half their seats. Major resigned as Tory leader after less than three weeks as Leader of the Opposition.


Easily forgotten between the iconic personalities of Thatcher and Blair, caricatures tended to depict him as a rather boring, grey little man, an image not particularly helped by his large glasses, dull image, and tendency to dress in grey. Major's stodgy old image in contrast to Blair's youthful one is ironic, as Major was one of the UK's younger Prime Ministers, taking office at age 47, just three years older than Blair when he took office.note 

While initially considered one of the UK's worst Prime Ministers upon leaving office, Major is viewed much more favorably in hindsight. His reputation has improved over the last decade — something undoubtably helped by the massive falling out of public opinion his successor Tony Blair has suffered in the same time period — and he is now a respected elder statesman and a sought-after speaker whose opinions carry a respectable amount of clout with politicians and the public. Some analysts now accept that he was underrated as PM. Moreover, the '90s boom, the longest post-war boom, began under him. Crime began to go down, his decision to retain the Pound and not adopt the Euro is now seen as a very wise move (he claimed to have negotiated "Game, Set, and Match for Britain" at the Maastricht Treaty in December 1991), and in foreign policy (Kuwait and other countries) did well. He and concurrent Irish Taoiseach John Bruton did most of the legwork behind the Good Friday Agreement, but neither stayed in office long enough to see its final ratification in 1998,note  allowing successors Blair and Bertie Ahern to finalize the deal and take credit. His term also saw his regular jousting partner in the Commons, the Labour leader John Smith, die of two heart attacks. The two men had had an excellent relationship away from the despatch box, and Major, obviously affected, reminisced in the chamber about he and Smith would privately share "sometimes tea, sometimes not tea", an awkward-but-sweet remark that became famous. The improvement in his reputation is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that he was ranked as the third-worst Prime Minister of the 20th centurynote  in a poll among various academics and historians in 2000, before being ranked as the country's sixth-best post-war Prime Ministernote  in a similar poll in 2016. An increasingly common assessment of Major is that his struggles as leader of the Conservative Party distracted the public from his many successes as Prime Minister, which are now finally being recognized.

He is also one of the few people to have held three of the Four Great Offices of State (the exception being Home Secretary), having been at various points in his political career Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Foreign Secretary.

John Major's father was a circus acrobat. Many jokes were made about Major being the only boy to ever run away from the circus to become an accountant. He's not the only circus child to reject the circus life for a more stable livelihood by a long shot, but it certainly didn't help his image as The Bore.

Like many politicians, he had an embarrassing sibling: in this case, his brother Terry Major-Ball, who famously ran a company that made garden gnomes.

In 2002, a revelation broke out that he had had an extramarital affair with Health Minister Edwina Currie MP prior to becoming Prime Minister; this was greeted with universal incredulity by the British media, as they couldn't conceive of him doing something so interesting.note  But then again, Major could be the only PM in history who managed to make being attacked in Ten Downing Street by the IRA with mortar bombs from a nearby rooftop 'unmemorable'.

Another notable facet of Major's premiership was his horrible relationship with concurrent American President Bill Clinton, in which the two could barely stand to speak to each other — something that was partially derived from Clinton inviting Gerry Adams to the White House on St. Patrick's Day 1995, right when Major and Irish Prime Minister John Bruton were in the middle of peace negotiations with the IRA. Anglo-American relations deteriorated greatly as a result, with many political commentators at the time wondering if it would spell the end of the "special relationship" between the United States and the United Kingdom.

John Major in Fiction

  • Along with Margaret Thatcher, he was a regular character on the British puppet comedy series Spitting Image. When he first appeared, he constantly mentioned to people that he was a son of an circus performer. Upon taking power, he had a radar dish on his head to pick up orders from Thatcher; this was dropped later for a puppet coloured entirely in shades of grey. Major was depicted as an extremely boring man (indeed, the writers felt he was quite dull when compared to the far more interesting Thatcher) who, in one famous sketch, sat with his wife, Norma, eating dinner almost completely in silence only piping up to ask for more peas. The same puppet appeared in an ident for the then fledgling Carlton Television. The real kicker is that in an attempt to make Major a more interesting character, they invented an affair between him and Virginia Bottomley. When Major's affair with Edwina Currie became public knowledge, the creators of Spitting Image had to go on record as saying it was a coincidence, not advance knowledge, but that they couldn't believe how funny it now was given the new context.
  • There is a PM who very clearly looks like John Major in a Funfax spy puzzle thing about missing brains or something.
  • Private Eye's prime ministerial parody was "The Secret Diary of John Major" (obviously based on The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole in style) with Running Gags "my wife Norman", "oh yes!", "I was not inconsiderably incandescent" and "the book of bastards".
  • The opening credits of As Time Goes By, which shows the historical events that occurred since the two main characters had last known each other, shows archive footage of Major to establish the present day. (The show debuted in 1992.)
  • Major is described succinctly on The New Statesman as the only person who ever ran away from the circus (he did) to join a firm of accountants, rather than the other way round.
  • He appears in Jack Higgins' Eye of the Storm, which revolves around the aforementioned mortar attack on Downing Street.
  • Kim Newman wrote two short stories about alternative versions of him under the banner title Alternate Majors: "Slow News Day" and "The Germans Won" (the latter of which not being the alternative history you might be expecting).
  • Mr Bent, the stuffy uptight chief clerk of the Anhk-Morpork bank in Making Money has a clear reference to John Major in that he ran away from the circus to become an accountant.
  • While he is again not named directly, he is referenced in a segment in the The Beano Video-Stars which was released in 1994. Minnie the Minx is hungry for jelly babies and sees them everywhere, including on the TV news where a newsreader says "Here is the news. The Prime Minister said today he would no longer tolerate being grey and was going out to buy some jelly babies."
  • There was a short period during which had a running gag about how non-dull John Major was for a person with that much of a reputation of dullness. This culminated in the production of a (fake, obviously) film poster for John Major as John Major in: John Major: A Major Motion Picture About John Major.
  • Speaking of, the timeline Shuffling the Deck (which rearranges the order in which post-war British Prime Ministers served their terms, and consequently their public reputations) features an alternate version of Major whose term is anything but boring, seeing as he basically becomes a British version of Silvio Berlusconi — a cocky and decadent populist noted for massive and flagrant corruption, who ends up resigning office and fleeing to Dubai to escape criminal charges.
  • He is seen in an episode of Pinky and the Brain, though he speaks with Received Pronunciation instead of his actual South London accent.
  • The PM with whom Cornelius Fudge meets in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince should be Major, in the real-world chronology. In practice it's unclear whether it actually is. (J. K. Rowling, who is notoriously bad with numbers, has admitted that she had Tony Blair, who took office the following year, in mind as she wrote the scene.) Had it been Major, though, this would lead to the highly amusing image of a Prime Minister with a real-life reputation for extreme dullness having to put up with colourful figures like Cornelius Fudge periodically bursting through his fireplace.
  • In the Radio 4 satire Little Blighty on the Down (which reinvented the British Government as a parish council) Mrs Roberts was succeeded as the council leader by John Barnum; his name being an obvious reference to Major's circus background.


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