TV Review: It’s bitter out
Old politicians never die, they’ve just been off for a bit writing their memoirs. So it has been with John Major, whose book BBC1 has been kindly promoting in its three-part series The Major Years.
Looking back on Major’s premiership, it’s amazing how such an apparently grey and placid man could have been at the centre of such sustained political turbulence. In many ways it was surprising that he became Prime Minister at all—he certainly didn’t fit the mode of the typical Tory politician. Humble beginnings, a Brixton childhood, state education with three ‘O’ levels, and a father who spent most of his time as an odd-jobbing circus performer do not exactly point the way towards a future Tory premier.
Indeed, one of the most fascinating and noticeable features of the series is what it left out—which is why, in the first place, Major became a Tory at all. Why is it that that he was attracted towards a political party based on an unabashed defence of privilege and Establishment interests?
Other aspects of Major’s life were revealed superbly, like so many layers taken off an onion. And yes, Major revealed some tears too, for the way people sneered at his upbringing when he knew that his parents were decent people with far more guts and application than the chinless wonders in the Tory Party who looked down on them.
The political parties people choose to join can be highly revealing, the more so when there are no easily identifiable social or class explanations on hand to explain their choice. It is then that a deeper, more psychological approach is needed, and this is clearly the case with Major. Just what on earth drives any teenager with Major’s social and class background to get up on a soapbox every weekend in Brixton to defend the Tory Party?
Clearly, Major thought that joining the Young Conservatives would give him some social and career advantages, and he was not alone in that. But as was revealed in this series, there was more to it than this. It was as if he wished to prove himself amongst those who looked down on him most and treated him like a spec of dust. A more natural inclination might be to fight this sneering attitude and the people responsible for it from without, such as in the Labour Party or the political left. Major chose to fight it from within and then triumph among his natural enemies.
What was unfortunate for both his peace of mind and his political career was that despite rising to the very top of the Conservative tree, Major was never actually able to defeat the snobs and sneerers in his own Party. Socially brittle, he never truly felt accepted and was their prisoner whatever he did and wherever he went. Indeed, as Premier he saw them everywhere, trying to belittle him and bring him down, both in Parliament and in the Tory press.
John Major as PM was distinctive for two things which were in themselves intimately related—his working class origins and the thinness of his political skin. In terms of his background, Major probably fits closer to an academic sociologist’s definition of “the working class” than any other British Prime Minister. And, not without coincidence, he was the most politically sensitive and fragile PM in modern history, with only Harold Wilson having run him close.
In striving to understand Major it is not necessary to suggest that we should feel sorry for him. Major was a man who did an immense amount of damage to the working class, both in Britain and of course abroad, including in countries like Iraq. And in a Party full of greasers and back-stabbers, John Major could more than hold his own. He was not, as his political aide Judith Chaplin revealed, an entirely pleasant man.
What is most illustrative of all about him though—and this series brought it out as well as could be expected—are the inherent dangers involved in clambering up the greasy pole of capitalism. In this sense Major is not unique as there are tens of thousands of John Majors throughout Britain in almost every walk of life—fundamentally decent people with “something to prove” and who set out to prove it by squirming their way to the top, whether it be in politics, industry, finance or education. That process involves them taking up actions, adopting prejudices and engaging in relationships with people which are fundamentally unhealthy and based on nothing more than power, preferment and the settling of scores. As John Major proved, that is rarely if ever a route to sustained happiness and a fulfilled life. It is virtually guaranteed, instead, to lead to a whole lifetime of spite, resentments and bitterness. And if Major himself needs further proof of that he should take an even longer, harder look than he already has done at his immediate predecessor, with whom he has far more in common than he has ever realised.