Don’t go back

Picture of John Major, an elderly white man with white hair, wearing glasses with thin rims, a white shirt, blue tie and dark-coloured jacketLast week the former Prime Minister, John Major (right), popped up to have a go at the Scottish National Party, which opinion polls suggest is likely to get a majority of the seats in Scotland next month and which could all but wipe out the Scottish Labour party. He warned that a minority Labour government would be held to ransom or subjected to “a daily dose of blackmail” by the Nationalists who would nudge them further and further left, which would be “a recipe for mayhem”. Of course, this was aimed at English voters rather than Scottish ones; he knows that Tory voters north of the border are hard to come by nowadays. They have only one MP there, in Dumfries and Galloway in the far south-west.

It’s 18 years since there was last a majority Tory government and John Major was its leader. There are hundreds of thousands of young adult voters now who barely remember John Major’s time in office, so it might do to remind people of why his party then spent 13 years in  opposition. It was a miserable five years dominated by mean-spirited policies, pointless jingoism, moral crusades and sex scandals. I was a first-time voter in 1997 (except perhaps for a local election, I can’t remember) and voted Plaid Cymru as I was studying in Aberystwyth. In that election they lost every seat in Scotland and a number of what were thought to be safe seats in England, including those of cabinet ministers. Here are some of the things I remember about that time.

1. Europe. That was the era of the Maastricht treaty which the Tories fudged by signing without allowing a referendum, which there was widespread demand for, and negotiating an opt-out from the Social  Chapter. Pretty typical of British politicians’ mentality towards Europe; they want the benefits for business but not for ordinary people (the same reason we haven’t signed the Schengen agreement). His stance met with huge opposition from Tory MPs including people in his own cabinet, whom he called bastards. There was also a widely-reported incident in which he  threatened to “f***ing crucify” Tory opponents. Needless to say, this didn’t make them look like a unified or coherent party come 1997, and the Referendum Party cost a large number of Tory MPs, including David Mellor in the previously rock-solid Tory Putney, their seats in 1997.

2. Back to Basics. At the 1993 Conservative party conference, John Major gave a speech in which he claimed that the world “sometimes seems to be changing too fast for comfort”, that “for two generations, too many people have been belittling the things that made this country”, and attacked a series of Tory media devils:

In housing, in the ’50s and ’60s, we pulled down the terraces, destroyed whole communities and replaced them with tower blocks and we built walkways that have become rat runs for muggers. That was the fashionable opinion, fashionable but wrong. In our schools we did away with traditional subjects - grammar, spelling, tables - and also with the old ways of teaching them. Fashionable, but wrong. Some said the family was out of date, far better rely on the council and social workers than family and friends. I passionately believe that was wrong.

Round about the same time, various Cabinet ministers, notably John Redwood, were giving speeches attacking single mothers as women who “have babies with no apparent intention of even trying marriage or a stable relationship with the father of the child”, with Peter Lilley claiming that they do so to secure council houses and benefits, a claim which many people believed as it had been advanced by the Tory tabloids as fact for years. It just so happened that a number of his ministers weren’t satisfied with the traditional family themselves, a number of them being exposed as having extramarital affairs and one of their MPs (and former BBC education correspondent), Stephen Milligan, being found hanged in stockings and suspenders with a black bin liner over his head.

(Incidentally, the decline of some high-rise estates with walkways is also attributed to the decline of council housing in general, as the better properties were sold off under Thatcher’s right to buy scheme and the remaining estates were filled with “needy”, often troublesome, families. When first built, they were neighbourhoods that residents took pride in.)

The Guardian's front page, showing Jonathan Aitken, a former British politician, and the headline \3. Corruption: Besides the sex scandals, a number of MPs, including ministers, under John Major’s leadership were involved in corruption scandals: Michael Mates found lobbying on behalf of Asil Nadir, Neil Hamilton and two others taking cash to ask questions in Parliament, Jonathan Aitken being jailed for perjury. The term commonly used for this behaviour at the time was “sleaze” and it was a constant theme of political reporting during that time. Hamilton lost his seat in Tatton, Cheshire to the journalist Martin Bell who stood as an anti-corruption candidate, although the now Tory chancellor George Osborne re-took it in 2001.

4. Jingoism: Does anyone remember the party conference in 1995, where Michael Portillo claimed that three letters — ‘SAS’ — “send a chill down the spine of the enemy” and “spell out a clear message: don’t mess with Britain”? The one where he also claimed that Britain’s Tomahawk cruise missiles “can be launched from a submarine 1,000 miles away and guided down a single chimney”? (The latter was inaccurate; they were supposedly accurate to six metres, which means they might hit the right house.) Along with the claim that Britain had thousands of men ready to die for their country, the claims caused widespread offence in the Forces. It also showed that the party really had no fresh ideas, two years before a general election. (An article in the Independent taking apart that speech can be found here.)

Image of rows of coffins each with a green covering, with groups of people, mainly women, on each side and some among the coffins, in a valley5. Bosnia: John Major’s government sat on its hands (along with other European governments of left and right) for three years while a genocide went on under their noses, with women being raped in camps set up for the purpose, TV news showing emaciated men, and finally an outright massacre when the so-called UN safe area of Srebrenica fell to the besieging Serbs (after the UN refused to designate it a “safe haven”). British troops were sent as UN “peacekeepers” with orders to defend themselves, but not local civilians, which along with a similar debacle in Rwanda discredited the whole principle of UN peacekeeping for years to come. Major’s government refused to allow the side whose civilians were being massacred to arm themselves while the perpetrators were getting weapons from Russia, and refused to allow refugees into the country. Their master plan was to force the Bosnian government to “negotiate” the partition of their country.

6. Railway privatisation: Major’s government passed the bill to privatise British Rail in 1994, with the tracks themselves going to one large company, Railtrack, with the service provision being opened to tender. The system has been one of the most inefficient privatisations, the process itself costing hundreds of millions of public money in consultancy fees and huge parts requiring upgrades at public expense first (e.g. the West Coast signalling, the Kent and Thames/Chiltern modernisations). A favourite claim of supporters of privatisation is that British Rail featured decades of under-investment that lasted years after the Beeching closures; in fact, in the 1990s the government found money not only for those upgrades but also to re-open lines, such as the Nottingham-Worksop route.

John Major isn’t responsible for everything that’s wrong with the country today. There have been two governments and three prime ministers since. But he did preside over a catastrophic defeat for his party in 1997 including its wipe-out in Wales and Scotland, and his party’s reactionary wing fought two successive general elections with similar policies to his Back to Basics campaign — appeals to xenophobia, “common sense” and other tabloid standards, complete with the hypocrisy (e.g. Michael Howard appearing tough on illegal immigrants, until it was revealed that his father was one, and that a Labour MP had intervened on his behalf). He still remains the last Tory leader to win an outright majority in the Commons, and that was 23 years ago.

I was a teenager in the mid-90s. If you weren’t around then, you may remember the fall of George W Bush to Barack Obama — getting rid of John Major and his group of rudderless Thatcher functionaries was that much of a joyous occasion, and regardless of the criticisms — the micromanagement, the warmongering, the cowardice in the face of the Tory press and American power — Tony Blair’s first government did things that were far more radical than anything Barack Obama has done. It’s a mystery why anyone thought wheeling out John Major was a good idea; perhaps because he reminds the Tories of a time when they actually ruled the UK, including Scotland, despite having been rejected by most Scots. As Labour said in their 2001 election campaign, “don’t go back”. Those were not the good old days, unless you were a TV satirist, because they were days of meanness, hypocrisy, sleaze, scandal and decline.

Image sources (except the Guardian front page): Wikimedia. Image of John Major supplied by Chatham House under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence. Image of Srebrenica by Juniki San, licenced under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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