John Major

28/11/199002/05/1997
John Major

Sir John Major (born 29 March 1943) is a British politician who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Leader of the Conservative Party from 1990 to 1997. Major was Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Foreign Secretary and then Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Thatcher Government from 1987 to 1990, and was Member of Parliament (MP) for Huntingdon from 1979 until his retirement in 2001. Since the death of Margaret Thatcher in 2013 he has been both the oldest and earliest-serving of all living former prime ministers.

Born in St Helier, London, Major grew up in the South London suburbs of Worcester Park and later Brixton, a move necessitated by his family's worsening financial situation. Leaving school in 1959 with just three O-levels, Major worked in a variety of jobs, as well as enduring a period of unemployment, before eventually establishing a career in banking at Standard Bank. However Major's ambitions lay in politics, and after a period as a Councillor at Lambeth Council, he was elected to the House of Commons at the 1979 general election as MP for Huntingdon. He served as a Parliamentary Private Secretary, Assistant Whip and as a Minister for Social Security. In 1987 he joined the Cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury and, in a surprise move, was promoted to Foreign Secretary two years later. Just three months later in October 1989 he was made Chancellor of the Exchequer, where he presented the 1990 budget. Major became Prime Minister after Margaret Thatcher resigned in November 1990.

Major presided over British participation in the Gulf War in March 1991, launched the Citizen's Charter initiative, and negotiated the European Union's Maastricht Treaty in December 1991. In the midst of a severe recession, he went on to lead the Conservatives to a record fourth consecutive electoral victory, winning the most votes in British electoral history with over 14 million votes at the 1992 general election, albeit with a reduced majority in the House of Commons. Shortly after this, in what came to be known as 'Black Wednesday' (16 September 1992), his government was forced to withdraw the pound sterling from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). This event led to a loss of confidence in Conservative economic policies and Major was never able to achieve a lead in opinion polls again.

The economy eventually revived, and Major continued to push on with his reforms in education, health and criminal justice, as well as privatising British Rail and the coal industry. He also reinvigorated the Northern Ireland peace process, creating the building blocks that would lead to the Good Friday Agreement under his successor Tony Blair, and deployed British troops to Bosnia and Herzegovina. However the Conservative Party remained polarised on the issue of European integration, and by the mid-1990s it was also embroiled in a series of sexual and financial scandals involving various MPs (including cabinet ministers), given the catch-all term 'sleaze'. Criticism of Major's leadership reached such a pitch that he chose to resign as party leader in June 1995, challenging his critics to either back him or challenge him; he was duly challenged by John Redwood but was easily re-elected. By this time, the Labour Party had moved toward the centre under the leadership of Tony Blair and won several by-elections, eventually depriving Major's government of a parliamentary majority in December 1996. Major went on to lose the 1997 general election five months later, in one of the largest electoral defeats since the Great Reform Act of 1832, announcing his resignation as leader of the Conservative party shortly thereafter.

Major was succeeded by William Hague as Leader of the Conservative Party in June 1997. He went on to retire from active politics, leaving the House of Commons at the 2001 general election, and has since pursued his interests in business and charity work. By the end of his premiership Major was reviled by many in his party and the press as being a weak and unassertive leader, however his time in office has come to be reappraised in more recent years, with many pointing to his successes in the Northern Irish peace process, restoring economic growth, reforming the public sector, boosting the profile of arts and sports, and preserving British influence on the international stage. In 1999 a BBC Radio 4 poll ranked him 17th of 19 among 20th-century British prime ministers; in 2016 a University of Leeds survey ranked him 6th of 13 among post-war prime ministers.


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Published in 10/09/2020

Updated in 19/02/2021

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