Why was the Major Government such a failure?

John Major and Margaret Thatcher.

In United Kingdom politics during the years of 1990-1994, John Mayor administration has been argued to be a failure because it was unsuccessful in different sectors. For the Conservative party; leadership has been a feature since at least the late eighties with the removal of Margaret Thatcher. Her successor, John Major, has a difficult leadership faced by rebellions, particularly over Europe, and the party appeared unmanageable by the time. On the other side, it has been argued that it was not a completely failure as he handled the issue of domestic policy with Ireland successfully. This essay will discuss:  Why was the Major Government such a failure?

Starting with his background John Major came from a poor London family. The son of a circus performer and manufacturer of garden gnomes, he left school at 16 with almost no qualifications, but rose rapidly though banking, a short period of local government experience, to election as a Conservative MP in 1979. He was favoured by Margaret Thatcher during the 1980s precisely because he has no connections with the traditional Conservative grandees. Ten years after his election, Thatcher made him Foreign Secretary, and in short order he became Leader of the House, Deputy Prime Minister, and Chancellor of the Exchequer. He replaced Thatcher as a prime minister in 1990. Although he was a Thatcher supporter in the 1980’s, he rapidly distanced his government from hers by abolishing the poll tax, taking up a more pro-European political stance, and adopting a radically different political style. ‘He replaced the autocracy of the Thatcher era with something more collegial and unassuming’. [1]He succeeded in winning the 1992 election as a result but immediately ran into serious trouble when a mismanaged currency crisis forced the pound out of the European Monetary System. Government infighting over Europe, and a growing national concern over government ‘sleaze’ added to his reputation for being weak and ineffective leader, and he was defeated spectacularly in the general election of 1997 by Blair and New Labour. 

But then, the question that arises is: was it really a failure? History shows that Major’s first year of office proved a successful one. Unpopular measures, notably the poll tax, were jettisoned and the stance on European integration softened. The new Prime Minister has a “good war” during the Gulf war in the spring and showed a much defter handling on the situation in Russia. In addition, ‘he also had a successful summit in December at which the EC heads of government agreed the Maastricht Treaty.’[2]To that extend, John Major was widely praised for his policy on Northern Ireland. Although significant it was one success among that appeared a string of failures in other sectors.

 However, no sooner had Major led his party to a victory than events turned against him. A run on sterling in the summer forced an unwilling government to withdraw from the European exchange rate mechanism. The recession lingered. The Bill to give legal effect to the Maastricht Treaty ran into trouble in the House of Commons. ‘It was delayed following a “no vote” on the Treaty referendum in Denmark.’[3]Plus, the government policy of closing most of Britain’s remaining coal mines (1992) and (all in 1994) a proposal from Michael Heseltine[4] to privatise the Post Office, financing of the European Community and the imposition of Value Added Tax (VAT) on domestic fuel.

In the case of the Bill, it gave effect to a Maastricht commitment to increase the EC budget faced serious back-bench opposition. The Prime Minister made passage of the Bill a vote of confidence. The government got the Bill though without defeat, but eight Conservative Mp’s failed to support the government at second reading stage. The whip was then withdrawn from all eight. After the Bill’s passage, the government had to get the approval of the Commons for its policy on the treaty’s social Chapter.  It suffered a defeat in its attempt to get that approval and then, in a second vote to get agreement, made it a vote of confidence.

Now, coming back to the question; it has been argued that John Major administration was a failure because it faced economical problems such as the Black Wednesday[5]; private consultation and it was weak in the leadership style. Major clearly wanted to govern the party and the country from the centre. But in practice he was unable to impose his authority on either, despite his contribution to the electoral victory. ‘He was the prisoner of parliamentary arithmetic; but the indiscipline that reigned throughout his second term was unprecedented in Conservative history’.[6] In fact, is to believe that a significant centre grouping is essential to any successful political party and that for historical reasons this has been truer of the Conservatives than of any major rival. The truth that Tories had become ‘an ideological party’ by 1996 did not rule out the possibility that a solid centre might still be found among the various factions. But the general election of the following years showed that John Major’s Conservatives were both ideological and unsuccessful. As an example of this, is the time when Major was challenged for the leadership by John Redwood in 1995, pragmatic MP’s, like Ian Lang and Gillian Shephard, were prominent in his campaign. But the very fact that the Prime Minister was challenged and had to fight so hard to cling on, underlined the weakness of the new Tory centre. Some scholars like Brendan Evans argued that Major’s weaker style of leadership whereas Thatcher left no time for ideological disputation. Also, has been said that Major has been disadvantaged by Thatcher’s legacy in three particular ways. First, she got the party to believe that Conservative governments are radical and purposeful. Second, while the potent mixture of free-market economics and populist nationalists politics proved electorally effective in the 1980’s, it has lost its appeal. Finally, she bequeathed a party divided over Europe.

 It was predicted that we would be unable to break free from the “ideological tracks of the eighties”, to reposition the party in the continental Christian Democratic mainstream, or to stamp any authority or ideology on it. In few words, the party’s success in the period leading up to the electoral victory of 1992 contrasted with the collapse of the government’s power in the two years afterwards. From the outset, Major had been challenged to produce a “big idea” to give his government a clear identity. By recognizing the importance of quality in the public services, rather than having a deep ambivalence towards their existence. In this case, ‘the Charter appeared to offer and agenda for action which neatly points up the difference between Thatcherism and the policies that the Prime Minister intends to make his own’.[7]

In domestic policy, Europe continued to create divisions in the period after 1992, although Major’s main achievement was the restructuring of the state. The government pursued its neo-liberal strategy of reducing to state to an inescapable core. It has been said that after his victory he appeared more sympathetic to Britain’s role in the EU and tried to face down his Euro-sceptic right wing. Also that, ‘the trauma of securing the ratification of the Maastricht in the summer of 1993, however, led him back to a position of seeking to reconcile the Thatcherite right.’[8] In the middle of deep economic problems, Major placed his emphasis upon securing his authority in the parliamentary party by ensuring the passage of the Maastricht paving Bill. In the November vote, Major’s threat to the twenty-plus-euro-rebels who could defeat the Bill, of an imminent general election, was considered ineffective since the party’s high command would not permit it. At the end, he won the vote but was less successful when the Bill came up for a final ratification in 1993.

In discussion of the welfare state, as elsewhere, two contrasting views have come to dominate explanations of John Major’s administration and its relationship to the preceding period of governance under Thatcher. The first has tended to see Major’s administration as a return towards traditional Conservationism, a more consensual and pragmatic politics that abandons the further-flung, ideological outposts of Thatcherism. A second view sees Major as the authentic inheritor of the radical neoliberal blanket, carrying though the agenda of his predecessor with a zeal which is sometimes seen to have ‘out Thatchered Thatcher.[9] On the other hand, the alternative view, which sees the Prime Minister as ‘the man who out Thatchered Thatcher’, has also to be treated with considerable caution. Certainly, since John Major took over leadership of the Conservative Party, the Thatcherite policy agenda has been pressed further forward and this has sometimes given the impression his government has rushed in where even Thatcher feared to thread (for example on privatization of coal mines, rail and postal services). But in this context it is really more appropriate to see the role of the government as implementing rather than originating policy change.

 The bottom line here is: the loss of Conservative domination of political ideas, the pressure to soften Thatcherism and co-operate with Europe, the continuing demand from the Thatcherite wing for ‘pure’ policies, and charges that the Conservatives required a period of Opposition to recharge its batteries, led Major to attempt to redefine Conservative philosophy. These attempts did not alter the public perception that he ‘has no sense of where he was going’. A leading Thatcherite considered the attempts ‘half-baked’ and lacking the detailed policy background to give them meaning.[10] Moreover, he also asserted that the free market did not disrupt community, and exemplified his point by reference to suburbs, villages, and small towns where, with the state dominant business had fled. Major argued that Conservatives emphasized choice of welfare state for the consumer.

On balance, we have seen that the Major government’s record on social policy has been dominated by the implementation of the agenda of his predecessor, but there is one area in which the PM administration could claim to have originated policy, and that was in the inauguration and promotion of the Citizen charter, an initiative strongly identified with the Prime Minister. Introduced in the summer of 1991, it was trumpeted in the 1992 Conservative manifesto as ‘the most far-reaching programme ever devised to improve quality in public services. In many respects the Major government remained loyal to the economic programme of the Thatcher governments, but in the context of accepting that the debate was no longer about whether there would be closer European cooperation in the future; it was now about what sort of EU would emerge from that closer cooperation. So once again, this is another example that not everything under Major administration was a failure.

But yet, as problems mounted the Thatcher/Major Governments pursued incompatible strategies: shedding functions, intervening to try and control its environment, and searching for self-governing mechanisms. The privatization/marketisation of the public sector and the creation of the regulatory state rendered the Thatcher/Major Governments as vulnerable as their predecessors, but the source of their vulnerability changed. With the unions broken, turbulence came from the public services of health, education and welfare. ‘The modern Conservative Party’. Major claimed: ‘is heir to both the great nineteenth-century political traditions; to the wigs, in our free market radicalism; to the Tories, in our belief in community and tradition’. This created a paradox: we need to change in order to preserve: if we cling to outdated habits, rules and restrictions, we risk the collapse of our economy and society. On the other hand, change is itself destabilizing… by removing just one brick, we may risk bringing the whole house down’.[11]

Therefore is to suggest that the crisis facing the party in the mid-1990s derives from a leader less effective in juggling the complex relationship between strategy, policy and the black arts of party management which could underpin a successful electoral appeal in a mass democracy.

 After the research done in this essay is tempting to conclude that: yes, it was a failure. Moreover, the three general hypotheses about Major’s leadership were identified: first, that he was tightly constrained by the changes that Thatcher had made to the party and to the state; second, that he offered a new mixture of Thatcherite neo-liberalism with elements of socially progressive Conservatism; and third that he, like Thatcher, did not have a strong ideological motive but had simply taken over the task of exercising statecraft. Because, both Thatcher and Major had to deal with Britain’s changing position in a world economy that has become increasingly international and interdependent, with the deregulation of financial markets and the growth of transnational production. Such changes have further limited the autonomy of all British governments and Major, like any incoming Prime Minister, was therefore constrained by his economic and political inheritance. The conclusion then is that he has not been unwillingly constrained by the key components of the Thatcherite legacy. Additionally, is to believe that his government was a massive blow for the Conservative party; the research done suggest that on balance fewer things were achieved under his agenda; for those reasons it to believe that it was an unsustainable government and indeed a failure.


Brendan Evans and Andrew Taylor: from Salisbury to Major. Continuity and change in Conservative politics, Manchester University Press, 1996. Chapter 9: Conservatism and the 1990’s.

-David Childs: Britain since 1945, Routledge, 2006, 6th edition.

 -Ian Budge, David Mckay: The new British Politics, 4th edition, Pearson Longman. Chapter 5.

 -Kevin Hickson: The political Thought of the conservative party since 1945, Palgrave Macmillan 2005. Chapter 3: Centre.

-Peter Dorey: British Politics since 1945, Blackwell, 1995.

-Philip Norton: The Conservative party. Prentince Hall, Harvester Whearsheaf, 1996.Chapter 3: History of the party III Thatcher and Major.

-Steve Ludlam and Martin Smith: Contemporary British Conservatism, Macmillan press LTD, 1996. Chapter 11: Social Policy under Thatcher and Major.

[1] The new British Politics; Ian Budge; 4th edition; chapter 5. P 101

[2] The Conservative party; Philip Norton; chapter 3. P 65

[3] The Conservative party; chapter 3. P 65

[4] Michael Heseltine: is a British businessman, Conservative politician and patron of the Tory Reform Group.

[5] Black Wednesday: refers to the events of 16 September 1992 when the Conservative government was forced to withdraw the pound sterling from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM).

[6] The new British Politics; chapter 5, p.64

[7] From Salisbury to Major: Continuity and change in Conservative politics; Brendan Evans. Chapter 9. P 248

[8] From Salisbury to Major: Continuity and change in Conservative politics P. 263

[9] Contemporary British Conservatism; Steve Ludlam. Chapter 11. P.204

[10] From Salisbury to Major: Continuity and change in Conservative politics P 266

[11] The new British Politics. P 144


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