Sunday, January 3, 2010

Major what-if questions...

Interesting to see Craig Murray pay a back-handed compliment to John Major following his attack on Tony Blair over Iraq. Murray suggests that Major has been the best Prime Minister of his lifetime (ie. going back to the days of Harold Macmillan) - albeit "out of a deeply depressing bunch".

Personally, whenever I think of Major's legacy I find it hard to look past his boneheaded obstinacy over the Scottish constitutional issue. Scottish civil society let off a collective sigh of despair in the early 1990s when the realisation dawned that - by complete chance - we'd been landed with a Prime Minister for whom not budging an inch on Scottish self-government was a genuine personal obsession. For evidence of the latter point, we need look no further than Major's peculiar "The United Kingdom is in danger! Wake up!" speech in the midst of the 1992 election campaign. It's hardly likely that his advisers informed him that such a rallying-call was a big potential vote-winner on either side of the border, so I think we can safely assume he actually meant it. Under his leadership, the party became so instinctively intransigent on the issue that, when in 1993 Ian Lang produced his embarrassingly thin Taking Stock "reforms", an English Tory backbencher rose in clearly genuine anguish to seek reassurance that the Union wasn't being put in jeapordy by a few extra meetings of the Scottish Grand Committee!

But on the substance of the Iraq issue, it's a tantalising thought that under Major's premiership the UK might have taken a different course. Certainly nobody can have any doubt from his repeated angry exchanges with Paddy Ashdown that Major was far more sceptical about the merits of military intervention in the Balkans than his Labour successor. And the UK's shameful lack of initiative throughout the Rwandan genocide is perhaps another clue to Major's instinctive dislike of "adventurism" abroad. However, when it really comes down to it, I simply find it impossible to believe that any Conservative Prime Minister - whatever his instincts were telling him - would not have been joined-at-the-hip with the US over an issue as big as Iraq. Well, perhaps the pro-European Ken Clarke might have had the guts to chart an independent course, but there are very few others.

For a similar reason, my own choice for "best PM since 1958 out of a bad bunch" would have to be Harold Wilson - whatever his many and varied faults, at least he kept the UK firmly out of the Vietnam War. And he saw off a right-wing MI5-inspired coup plot against him - how many PMs can say that?


  1. John Major was never interested in Scotland or its constitutional issues. His main objective was to ensure Scotland stayed within the broken Union because he needed the oil revenue.

    He was well aware the tories were a lost cause in Scotland after Maggie's destruction of our industries.

    Plus you're right about his ability to see off his opponents. A shrewd, clever man who certainly offered the public a face they could trust. That hasn't happened since and I can't see it happening in the foreseeable future.

  2. I think that the best Prime Minister since 1958, would ahve to be a choice of two whom we never had. ken Clarke and Shirley Williams.

    As SR says, Major was less than interested in Scotland except financially. He wasn't like most previous Tory Prime Ministers, he didn't even come here to shoot deer.

    I'l remember him best for the catastrophic, dangerous and incredibly expensive privatisiation of the railways. Even Thatcher wouldn't have been that stupid adn good ness knows that's saying something..

  3. Hi, Subrosa - I was actually referring to Harold Wilson when I was talking about the plots, but you're right, Major had an extraordinary knack of seeing off plots as well! It was striking how much he raised his game during the 1995 leadership contest - he had only one really good performance at PMQs in the whole six-and-a-half years of his premiership and it was during that campaign.

    Tris, it was interesting to hear Michael Portillo say a few months ago that the reason Mrs Thatcher never considered privatising the postal service was simply that it was called "Royal" Mail. So it seems previous Labour governments missed a trick by not creating nationalised industries called 'Royal Steel', 'Royal Telecom', etc. Perhaps they should even have created a 'Royal Health Service' just to be on the safe side!