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 was the Member of Parliament for Huntingdon from 1979note to 2001, and served consecutively as Foreign Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer from mid 1989 to late 1990 in the last government of Margaret Thatcher before succeeding her as PM. Like Thatcher to Ronald Reagan, Major can be seen roughly as the Transatlantic Equivalent to George H. W. Bush.
In the wake of the ousting of Thatcher, Major took over 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 1992 general election campaign, most famously making Literal Soapbox Speechesnote , but he emerged with a surprise victory where his party received a (still unbeaten) record 14,093,007 votes.note Major however ended up with a barely-workable majority in the House of Commons of only 21 seats (in contrast, Thatcher had achieved 144- and 102-seat majorities in 1983 and 1987 respectively) — though even this was mostly dismissed as a side effect of lingering resentment towards Thatcher, with most political commentators predicting afterwards that Major would likely call another election in 1994 or 1995 and win back the huge majority the Tories had enjoyed for most of the 1980s.
Instead, everything swiftly went downhill from there.
Five months after the election, Britain was expelled from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM)note on what was called "Black Wednesday". Although this would unexpectedly help the economy recover in the long run, in the short term it greatly damaged the Conservatives' reputation for good economic management since they had spent the last year trying their hardest and spending billions to stay in the ERM. 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 lay down their weapons first before negotiating — yet despite such occasional positive developments Major's government was dogged by scandals, PR disasters and Conservative infightingnote , especially over European issues. Having been in power since 1979, the party had little left to offer to voters, whereas Labour were regrouping and modernising, firstly under the leadership of John Smith, and then Tony Blair following Smith's untimely death in 1994. 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. Brilliantly, it worked, as Major (who had disappointed the party's Thatcherite right wing by being politically and temperamentally more moderate than she was) faced only token opposition from Eurosceptic right-winger 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, losing over half their seats. Major resigned the leadership less than three weeks after he lost government.
Easily forgotten between the iconic personalities of Thatcher and Blair, caricatures tended to depict him as a rather boring, grey little man, an image that his large glasses, dull image, and habit of dressing in grey only encouraged. 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 (at the time making him the youngest PM since The Earl of Rosebery was appointed just before his 47th birthday in 1894) and less than four years older than Blair was when he took office.note
While initially considered one of the UK's worst Prime Ministers upon leaving office, Major is viewed much more favourably in hindsight. His reputation improved especially sharply in The New '10s — something doubtless helped by the massive falling out of public opinion his immediate successor Tony Blair suffered in the same 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) he 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 1998note , allowing respective successors Blair and Bertie Ahern to finalize the deal and take credit.
His term also saw his original regular jousting partner in the Commons, the 1992-4 Labour leader John Smith, die after 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 how 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 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 Conservatives distracted the public from his many successes as Prime Minister, which are now finally being recognised.
Even some more left-leaning people, while disliking the Tories on principle, will concede he was a better leader then his successors. These include William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard, none of whom appealed to many non-Tories while they led the Opposition; David Cameron, whose austerity measures helped fuel polarization and who called a Brexit referendum that is seen as having damaged the country irreparably; Theresa May, who failed to achieve Brexit while pushing extreme anti-immigrant ideas leading her to lose her majority; Boris Johnson, who notoriously amassed a reputation of untrustworthy and allegations of bigotry and who is widely believed to have supported Brexit just so he could become PM, and for whom Major has always had a strong dislike; and Liz Truss, whose mini-budget involving large-scale borrowing and various tax cuts for the wealthy was widely criticized and led to financial instability and ultimately led to it being reversed before she resigned after only 49 days in office, making her the shortest-serving PM in history.
He is also one of the few people, and the most recent person, to have held three of the four Great Offices of State (the exception being Home Secretary), having been at different points in his political career Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Foreign Secretarynote .
Belying his grey image, Major's family background is remarkably colourful. His father, Tom Major-Ball, was born Abraham Thomas Ball in 1879 and spent most of his youth in Pennsylvania, became a circus acrobat and later music hall song-and-dance man, fathered secret children through affairs in 1901 and 1923, was caught up in a civil war in Uruguay, and only adopted the stage name 'Major' as part of a double act called 'Drum & Major' with his future first wife who later died in a stage accident. He married his second wife at nearly 50, combined his real and stage surnames and founded a business selling garden gnomes, and was aged 64 when baby of the family John arrived. There is a delightful theory that seeing an old bill poster featuring Tom Major was where young fellow Brixton resident David Bowie got the idea of the character Major Tom's name for his song "Space Oddity".
Many jokes were made about John Major being "the only boy to ever run away from the circus to become an accountant", although in actual fact his father had retired from the music hall by the time he was born note . He's not the only child from such a background to reject that 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 elder brother Terry Major-Ball, who as a young man took over their father's garden-gnome company and who during his baby brother's premiership became an author and columnist much in demand in the media, purely because he was the Prime Minister's brother.
In 2002, a revelation broke out that Major had had an extramarital affair with former 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 10 Downing Street by the IRA with mortar bombs from a nearby rooftop 'unmemorable'.
Another notable facet of Major's premiership was his initially poor relationship with concurrent American President Bill Clinton — something that was partially derived from Clinton inviting Sinn Féin leader 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 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. The relationship did repair by the time Major left office, but he never enjoyed the closeness with Clinton that Blair did.
He declined elevation to the House of Lords after leaving the Commons in 2001, a precedent that every subsequent PM to date has followed. While mostly keeping a fairly low profile after leaving office (a trend he started at the end of his concession speech after the 1997 election by announcing his plans to see a cricket match at the Oval), Major returned to the limelight about two decades later by campaigning in favour of a second referendum to address and resolve Brexit, an issue in which he favoured Remain. The irony of Major pushing so hard for a second referendum when he worked so hard to deny the public a first referendum on Maastricht over 25 years earlier did not pass without comment. In 2019 he joined a lawsuit, launched by activist Gina Miller, to reverse the controversial prorogation (suspension) of Parliament by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in what was widely seen as an attempt by Johnson to undermine parliamentary oversight of the government's efforts to negotiate a Brexit deal and force a "no-deal" exit by fait accompli. This suit was successful, forcing Parliament to be reconvened. After yet another delay in Brexit was arranged with the EU, Johnson then called an election with cross-party support, and Major actively campaigned against his own party.note However, with Johnson winning the Conservatives their biggest majority since 1987, and every candidate Major endorsed going down to defeat, it appears he has irreparably damaged relations with the party he once led. Ironically, it was once rumoured that fellow Remainer David Cameron had planned to appoint Major a hereditary peer, the first since another previous PM, Harold Macmillan.
Since the death of Thatcher in 2013, Major has been the earliest PM who is still living. All subsequent ex-Prime Ministers (Blair, Gordon Brown, Cameron, May, Johnson and Truss) are also still living. He's also the most recent of the very short list of British PMs who never attended university note — he took correspondence courses to be certified in banking.
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 network. The real kicker is that in an attempt to make Major a more interesting character, they invented an affair between him and minister Virginia Bottomley. When Major's affair with minister Edwina Currie much later 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 had become given the new context.
- There is a PM who very clearly looks like John Major in the 1994 Funfax Spy File Organiser.
- Private Eye's prime-ministerial parody of him was "The Secret Diary of John Major (Aged 47 ¾)" (obviously based on The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾ in style) with Running Gags "my wife Norman", "oh yes!", "I was not inconsiderably incandescent" and "the book of bastards".
- John Major is frequently referenced in Adrian Mole: The Wilderness Years. Adrian notes that Major cannot say "want" to rhyme with "font", but says "went" instead. Adrian wonders if this was due to him being terrorised by his circus performer father, telling him off for saying "I want". Adrian also has several people telling him that he looks exactly like Major, including his own mother.
- 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. Alan B'stard also claims that he's never had a conversation with him as he falls asleep when trying.
- He appears in Jack Higgins' Eye of the Storm, which revolves around the aforementioned mortar attack on Downing Street, and went on to appear in several other Higgins novels published in the mid-90s.
- Kim Newman wrote two short stories about alternative versions of him under the banner title Alternate Majors: "Slow News Day" (set in an Alternate-History Nazi Victory where Major is the puppet UK prime minister) and "The Germans Won" (actually referring to the 1966 World Cup), where Major is a bus conductor. In the regular timeline, Major actually applied for a job as a bus conductor in his youth but couldn't do the mental arithmetic the job requirednote ; one of the explicitly-mentioned features of the story's alternate history is the adoption of a much simpler schedule of bus fares.
- Mr Bent, the stuffy uptight chief clerk of the Ankh-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 AlternateHistory.com 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 AlternateHistory.com, 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, 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.) Were it 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. This also means that the PM's predecessor who tried to throw Fudge out of the window was Margaret Thatcher.
- 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.
- He is played by Mike Myers on Saturday Night Live taking questions from Parliament including if Oasis is the greatest band ever.
- In the fifth season of The Crown, which focuses on The '90s, Major is played by Jonny Lee Miller. It's a largely sympathetic portrayal, in line with the Johnson-era reevaluation of Major.
- Depicted in the Harry Potter AU fanfic Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue, in which Major gets increasingly involved in magical affairs towards the end of his term, to the point of standing up to Rufus Scrimgeour on the issue of him imprisoning suspected Death Eaters without trial.