John Major Early Life
As Prime Minister Sir John Major oversaw Britain’s longest period of continuous economic growth and the beginning of the Northern Ireland Peace Process. John Major was born 29 March 1943, in Carshalton, Surrey, but raised in Brixton. Unlike many Prime Ministers of the 20th century, he did not attend university after leaving school at 16.
John Major entered politics at a young age as an active Young Conservative in Brixton and stood as a candidate for Lambeth Council aged only 21, winning the seat and becoming chairman of the Housing Committee. He stood for Parliament twice in 1974 in St Pancras, losing both times before winning Huntingdonshire in 1979.
In 1981 he became a ministerial aide and then a minister himself in 1985. Entering Cabinet in 1987 as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, he won the admiration and respect of his colleagues due to his ability to keep spending down. He was then promoted to Foreign Secretary in 1989 and Chancellor of the Exchequer soon after that. Following Margaret Thatcher, John Major became Prime Minister and attempted to make peace between both party and country in the wake of a divisive decade. He took a leading role, alongside US President George HW Bush, in the first Gulf War, and survived an IRA mortar attack on Number 10 during a Cabinet meeting. He won the 1992 general election, with the Conservatives receiving the highest number of popular votes in history but with a smaller majority of 21, which itself was reduced in by-election defeats during the parliament. This victory was on the back of reversing the unpopular poll tax, Community Charge, which was introduced at the end of the Thatcher government.
After this election, however, his fortunes began to change. Five months into the new parliament, John Major was forced to abandon a leading part of his economic policy: membership of the Exchange Rate Mechanism. Intended to keep inflation low by linking exchange rates to the Deutschmark, the markets forced the UK out after government spent billions trying to buck the market. At the same time a fresh round of conflict began within his own party over Europe. He secured a number of opt-outs from the Maastricht Treaty regarding social policy and membership of the single currency – but this was not enough for a number of his colleagues. Throughout the rest of his time as Prime Minister, he suffered from continued attacks from his own party and Cabinet on Europe, which played a role in destabilising the government
In addition to this, the Major government was the subject of a number of press stories about infidelity and poor moral behaviour both within the Cabinet and wider party. The label of ‘Tory sleaze’ stuck and lost John Major’s government further credibility. The economy picked up after leaving the Exchange Rate Mechanism, and, under John Major, the beginning of Britain’s longest period of continuous economic growth began. He also began work engaging with the IRA to work towards a peaceful end to the conflict in Northern Ireland, his work there leading the way for the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
Who is Sir John Major?
Sir John Major was born on 29th March 1943, the son of Tom Ball, known as Tom Major, and Gwen Major. He was educated at Cheam Common Primary School and then Rutlish Grammar School. He left school in 1959, on the day before his sixteenth birthday. Out of school, he continued to study, and qualified as a Banker (AIB).
Sir John was elected a councillor at Lambeth Borough Council in 1968, going on to become Chairman of the Housing Committee. He became the Conservative Parliamentary candidate for the safe Labour seat of St Pancras North for both the General Elections in 1974.
In 1976, Sir John became the Conservative Parliamentary candidate for the constituency of Huntingdonshire, and in 1979 he won in the General Election to become an MP. The constituency was renamed Huntingdon and the boundaries redrawn, and Sir John was to hold this seat comfortably until his retirement from the House of Commons in 2001. He made his maiden speech in the House of Commons on 13th June 1979.
Parliamentary Private Secretary
In 1981, Sir John was appointed a Parliamentary Private Secretary and then a junior whip in 1983. He became the Under-Secretary of State in the Department of Health and Social Security in 1985, and then a Minister of State in the same department in the following year.
Following the 1987 General Election, Sir John was promoted to the Cabinet as the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and appointed a Privy Councillor. He was then promoted to become Foreign Secretary on 24th July 1989, a position he held only until 26th October 1989 when he became the Chancellor of the Exchequer, following the shock resignation of Nigel Lawson. He set out his views in the 1989 Autumn Statement where he focused on the need to keep inflation low, and repeated that priority in the 1990 Autumn Statement, made just days before he was to become Prime Minister.
Following Margaret Thatcher’s resignation following the November 1990 Conservative leadership contest, Sir John became Prime Minister on 28th November 1990. In Sir John’s first Cabinet, Norman Lamont became the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kenneth Baker became Home Secretary and Douglas Hurd remained as the Foreign Secretary.
Sir John became Prime Minister just after Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait, and he worked closely with President George Bush to liberate Kuwait as part of Operation Desert Storm. After the war ended, and Saddam Hussein began to persecute the Kurds, Sir John launched the “Safe Havens” policy, that protected them and saved many thousands of lives. In a joint doorstep interview with the President on 22nd December 1990, he set out the British Government’s position in Iraq. Despite the efforts of the Prime Minister and other world leaders to get Saddam Hussein to leave Kuwait, military action started in mid January 1991, with Sir John making a broadcast to the nation on 17th January 1991.
Sir John pledged to concentrate on keeping inflation low, and started to launch the idea behind the Citizen’s Charter pledging to give power back to individuals, a subject he spoke on in detail at the Economist Conference in January 1992. In the early part of 1991 plans were drawn up to replace the controversial Community Charge “Poll Tax” with the Council Tax.
In 1993 the National Lottery Act was passed, with the aim of raising extra money for the arts, sports, millennium and good causes. Sir John saw this as an opportunity to allow investment in areas which often lost out when expenditure was being allocated and spoke on this at the English Heritage Conference in September 1994. Sir John launched the National Lottery in London in November 1994.
In April 1993, at a speech to the Conservative Group for Europe, Sir John was speaking of how Britain would remain unique and distinctive, and his phrase, “fifty years from now Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers” has been much quoted.
Sir John Vetoed Jean-Luc Dehaene as President of the European Commission
In June 1994, Sir John vetoed Jean-Luc Dehaene as President of the European Commission, opting instead for the less federalist Jacques Santer. Tony Blair was elected as leader of the Labour Party in July 1994 following the death of John Smith. Shortly after, in early September 1994, Sir John gave a speech at the William and Mary lecture in Leiden putting forward his vision for the future of the European Union.
In September 1994, Sir John visited South Africa to mark the progress made in the country since apartheid. He addressed the South African Parliament with his vision for the country’s future.
In February 1995, the Framework Document on peace in Northern Ireland was published, following the IRA ceasefire in August 1994. In February 1996 an IRA bomb ended the ceasefire, but all-party talks resumed in June 1996, despite a bomb that month in Manchester. The Government published an update on the Prime Minister’s position in November 2006.
Sir John Stood Down as Leader of the Conservative Party
In June 1995, Sir John stood down as leader of the Conservative Party, triggering a leadership contest, which he won in the first round.
Sir John’s time in office saw interest rates fall from 14% to 6%, unemployment was down to 1.6 million and inflation remained low. He handed over an economy that had been growing for five years.
Sir John was awarded the Companion of Honour by the Queen in 1999 and he stood down from Parliament in 2001. On St. George’s Day, 2005, Sir John was appointed a Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter by HM Queen Elizabeth II.
Sir John Major Biography and Profile (John Major)