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1997 Onwards - John Major’s Contributions in the ‘The Major Years’

Below is the text of John Major’s contributions in the first episode of ‘The Major Years”, a three-part series produced by the BBC and directed by Denys Blakeway. The series was first screened in October 1999.


ON HIS PARENTS


Some people would sneer in a patronising fashion at the fact that my father made garden ornaments for a living at one stage, or that he spent some time in the circus or that he had been a music hall artist. I must say that patronising sneering at two people who I knew were better than those who were sneering at them did strike home, and I freely confess it hurt. It gave me a contempt for the sneerers. I’ve no embarrassment about my parents.


ON GROWING UP


Our landlord in Brixton was not some casual landlord that my parents had found, finding somewhere for us to live, it was in fact my half-brother who had been born just at the turn of the century. Then, perhaps even more surprisingly, I discovered that I had a half-sister who was still alive who had been born in the 1920s. I think that it imbued in me a sense of tolerance for people who made mistakes, I learned directly from my own experience, you can make mistakes and do something extremely foolish – perhaps even unforgiveable – and still not be a bad person who should be dismissed. You’re just human and you’ve just made mistakes.


ON EDUCATION


My parents always hoped and expected a great deal of me, and when they were alive, I didn’t deliver any of that. For a range of circumstances I never settled down at the school, I didn’t like the school, I didn’t work at the school. I wasn’t particularly a trouble maker but I was pretty alienated from the system there and I left school with a miserable academic record that must have, given their expectations, have been quite heart-breaking for them. Through sheer idleness and disinterest and a determination almost not to conform at school, I let them down. When I went home with those dreadful examination failures, when they knew I should have passed and I knew I should have passed, even then there was no reproach. You could see the hurt at the failure, but there was no reproach. I realised then that I just had to do better in future.


ON ENTERING POLITICS


And I never accepted, even from my earliest age that because I didn’t come from a conventional background that I couldn’t be a Conservative. Or because I didn’t come from a conventional background and go to university I couldn’t get into the House of Commons. That seemed to me to be an absurdity. If the Commons was what it was originally intended to be, the Commons, then it had to be a proper balance from right across the country. I always felt that politics was like bicycling, if you got on your bike and you kept on going, then one day with a reasonable measure of luck, good fortune and hard work, you would get to where you wished to be.


ON BECOMING FOREIGN SECRETARY


She sat there with a bloom on her cheeks. When she had a bloom on her cheeks and was looking particularly happy then she usually had something rather grand to bestow. The Prime Minister said to me, “hold onto your seat-belt, you’re the centre-piece of the reshuffle and I would like you to be Foreign Secretary”, and my heart sank.


ON BECOMING CHANCELLOR


She may have the reputation of being the Iron Lady in the public eye, but she’s very human as well. I think apart from the politics of it, she was hurt. It seemed to me that she was fairly close to tears, and I just put my hand out and put my hand over her hand for a moment or two while we talked about what might happen.


ON HIS POLITICAL VIEWS


I was moving through Government faster than a counter goes around a Monopoly board, so there wasn’t a great deal of time to step back and make philosophical speeches. I was too busy dealing with the practicalities of the day, I wasn’t hiding my views, those people who knew me knew my views very well.


ON JOINING THE ERM


Some time later Lady Thatcher wrote that I was drifting intellectually with the tide, the pro-European tide. If that was her view, she certainly didn’t say so at the time, she certainly didn’t say so to me, and she certainly did not advance that as an argument for changing the policy that I was advocating.


ON HIS CAREER


I never had a game plan about what the next job would be and whether I would become Prime Ministers. Lots of people have subsequently suggested that I did, but I didn’t. I operated largely by what I think was the Iain Macleod maxim, “if the ball comes in your direction, grab it”, and in politics the ball often came in my direction and I did grab it.


ON MARGARET THATCHER’S LATER PERIOD AS PRIME MINISTER


It seemed to me that Margaret was no longer examining the facts before reaching the decision, she was operating on gut instinct. From time to time, once an idea was put forward, perhaps sometimes tossed forward quite loosely, they just ran into the slammed door of a closed mind.


ON MARGARET THATCHER STANDING AGAIN IN THE SECOND ROUND OF THE LEADERSHIP ELECTION


The first thing she said, in a rather breathy way, straight away was “I want you to second my nomination”, and she wrote later that there was a palpable pause. And there was, there was a palpable pause, I did pause. And it wasn’t because I was disinclined to support her, I was always prepared to support her and second her nomination, it was because that approach after a bad first round ballot defeat, was exactly what had caused her so much difficulty in the party, this pre-emptory assumption, it was just I would like you to second my nomination. It seemed to me that was exactly the mistake of man-management, that was the reason for the pause.


ON STANDING TO BECOME PRIME MINISTER


I was not an eager entrant into the fray, and I would have preferred to have stayed a good deal longer at the job that I had always wished to have, that of Chancellor of the Exchequer. It was not a terribly convenient time for me to move on to become Prime Minister, you can’t turn it down if it happens, but it was not a terribly convenient time and I was not sitting there thirsting to become Prime Minister.


ON MARGARET THATCHER SAYING SHE WOULD REMAIN A BACK SEAT DRIVER


I was very alarmed, I was very alarmed because I could see immediately that it was going to cause damage. If I agreed with her policies I would be seen simply, as the Labour Party put it, as the son of Thatcher. Where I disagreed it would be said that I was wrecking her legacy. So I saw from the outset that that remark would cast a very long shadow indeed, and it did, it was the first part of the wedge that was to become between us.


ON THE LEADERSHIP CAMPAIGN


You could sense, from the body language of the people in the tea-room, that something had changed. A week or so ago I had been the Chancellor of the Exchequer who would sit down and have a cup of tea and a bun with them in the tea-room, but there was just this separate and rather more tense atmosphere when I walked in, and it was compelling. It was then that I thought it was possible, perhaps even probable, that I might win.


ON MARGARET THATCHER WANTING TO JOIN MAJOR AFTER HE WAS DECLARED LEADER


Margaret said, very warmly, “well I will come out with you”, and of course that would have absolutely played upon that image and it would have been a very bad start, I think it would have been bad for her and it would have certainly have been pretty bad for me. So Norman Lamont, how he did it I don’t know but with great skill, disattached her and I went out to see people on my own. Now, in retrospect I rather regret that, because although it would have meant a little short-term criticism and a little short-term mockery from the Labour Party, I think it would have been more gracious to have gone out with someone who had been Prime Minister for eleven years.


AFTER LEAVING BUCKINGHAM PALACE HAVING BECOME PRIME MINISTER


After I left the Queen, the car began to drive down the Mall, and it’s a very short journey from the Mall to Number 10 and it occurred to me that it was a very long journey from Coldharbour Lane to Number 10. I decided to set out, before I went into Number 10, precisely what it was that I most passionately cared about. So I scribbled some notes on the back of an envelope and that was the origin of the statement that I then made.


What I had in mind was an end to the poll tax riots, an end to the bitterness and the hostility that we’d found on the door-steps and an end to the exclusion of many of the minority groups who felt they were outside of the race to prosperity that we’d seen throughout so much of the 1980s. Those were the matters that were in my mind when I spoke outside Downing Street and when I turned to walk through that black door for the first time as Prime Minister.


ON THE IRAQ WAR


We were pretty confidence that he had both chemical and biological weapons, it was the biggest fear as we came up to the Gulf War. He was given an unmistakeable message that the response would be dramatic if he choose to use that sort of weapon in the conflict to come. He was told diplomatically precisely the scale of the response that there would be, but I don’t wish to enlarge on that.


ON MEETING BRITISH TROOPS


When I had met the servicemen, I had been very struck by how young they were. They were pretty much the same age as my son, my son was just a little bit younger, and when I thought of them and saw them, I often inadvertently transposed James’s face on their bodies. I could see those young men as just a little older than my own son.


ON NOT ATTACKING BAGHDAD


United Nations Resolutions gave the allies the authority to expel the Iraqis from Kuwait. It expressly did not give the allies the authority to proceed into Iraq and to drag Saddam Hussein out by the heels. We would have broken the law, we would have broken up the coalition and we would perhaps never have been able to put such a coalition together again in the future, and add to that the fact that the generals said we should stop, that the soldiers were engaged in what people were saying at the time was a ‘turkey shoot’, these were all points that the hind-sight warriors who tell us with the benefit of 50/50 vision much later we should have done something different. It was very, very, very frustrating. But we had gone to war to maintain the rule of law, not to break the rule of law.


ON MARGARET THATCHER AFTER SHE LEFT OFFICE


You would have had to have had a heart of stone not to have understood the frustration she must have faced. I think I have always been an observer of people, I don’t think you needed to be a very acute observer to realise that what had happened to her must have been immensely hurtful.


ON RELATIONS WITH EUROPE


When I became Prime Minister the relationship with our European partners was frankly rather poor. They took the view that the British stood apart, that they shouted from the terraces, that they rarely engaged in the main game. I thought that the best way to proceed was to go into Europe and to set out my concerns, my hopes, my aspirations, the things I would concede and the things that I couldn’t accept, in a speech actually inside Europe.


ON MARGARET THATCHER’S AIDES


Their concern was too boost her, to make her feel better, to encourage her in everything that she had done. And one of the ways that they did it was by disparaging everybody else. And then of course they carried every whisper, every mention, every tiny bit of frustration she uttered in private out into public. And so it spread out into the public and began to spread out into the Conservative Party as well.


Almost in terms of a Greek tragedy we were forced apart by the activities, events and people who muttered and talked about what it was Margaret thought in private.


This was at a time where almost daily there seemed to be reports of what Margaret had said, whether she had said them or not, I don’t know, but there were reports that were causing great difficulty within the party. So I was very frustrated, and I think there’s no doubt at times, in the privacy of someone I thought I could trust I let off steam, quite a different matter from the considered view later.


ON THE MEDIA


Perhaps up to a point I was too sensitive about some of the things in the press, I’m happy to concede that. But, the politicians who are said to have hides like rhinos and be utterly impervious to criticism, if they’re not extinct, they are very rare and I freely confess I wasn’t amongst them.


ON THE SOAPBOX


I thoroughly enjoyed it, I felt at ease with it. I thought it was electioneering as it should be. And the public patently liked it, even those who were not on our side enjoyed heckling, and I didn’t mind that. It was a real contact, it was what elections ought to be about. And I felt for the first time we had put the media to one side and had direct contact with the electorate as a whole.


ON THE 1992 GENERAL ELECTION RESULT


We had won the election that everyone had said was unwinnable. We had polled more votes at that General Election than any political party before, or since, has ever polled in a General Election. And yet we had a tiny majority of seats, and even then I could begin to see that life in a fifth consecutive Conservative Parliament would be life in very uncharted waters indeed.