By Taylor, Gary
Contemporary Review , Vol. 278, No. 1620
THE broadcast media play an important role in recording contemporary history and in affecting the way we view politics and the social environment. Whilst academics are often involved in uncovering the minutiae of history, broadcasters are driven by rating wars to provide the 'political public' with a concise, entertaining and informed summary of events. When they look at the history of a political administration, they tend to concentrate upon its personalities, blunders, divisions and (to a lesser extent) achievements. Once a particular government is out of office, it has (almost by definition) failed in the eyes of many. The media will often respond by concentrating upon the failings of a government.
The fall of the Major government in 1997 was greeted by sections of the media with a sigh of relief. Not only did the media have new personalities to dissect, but there was also the general feeling that the Conservative administration of 1979-1997 had outstayed its welcome. The impact of the Thatcher government had been covered extensively by the broadcast media in Thatcher: The Downing Street Years (BBC1, 1993), The Wilderness Years (BBC2, 1995) and in numerous surveys of Britain's fragile relations with Europe. Now it was the turn of the Major government. A series of programmes including Alan Clark's History of the Tory Party: Part 4 (BBC 2, 1997), Bye, Bye Blues (ch 4, 1997), Now We are One: A Night to Remember (ch 4, 1998), and The Major Years (BBC1, 1999) has left us with a picture of a Prime Minister attempting to lead a party at war with itself.
The rise of John Major was swift and unexpected. He entered Parliament in 1979 and was seen by Mrs. Thatcher as a close political ally. By the late 1980s, she was grooming him as her successor. She appointed him as Foreign Secretary in July 1989, and Chancellor of the Exchequer in October 1989. Major's challenge for the premiership was prompted by the growing unpopularity of Mrs. Thatcher and the actions of Michael Heseltine. Bolstered by the resignation of the former Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe, Michael Heseltine challenged Mrs. Thatcher for the leadership of the party. Major supported her, and seconded her nomination for the first ballot. On 22 November 1990, Mrs. Thatcher backed out of the leadership contest. Douglas Hurd (the Foreign Secretary) was considered too old and stuffy, whilst Major gained support for promising to unite the party. A MORI poll showed that the electorate preferred John Major to Michael Heseltine. This prompted many Conservative MPs to switch allegiance to Major. Although Mrs. Thatcher campaigned on behalf of John Major, her involvement was politically damaging. During the campaign, she said that she would make a good back seat driver. This led to accusations that Major was merely Thatcher's puppet. On 27 November 1990, John Major was elected leader of the Conservative Party. Although he did not have a sufficient number of votes, Heseltine and Hurd conceded defeat rather than go another round.
On his first day as Prime Minister, on the way back from his audience with the Queen, Major claims that he considered his rise to power and his humble beginnings. He is reputed to have used the back of an envelope on which to scribble his aims before meeting the media outside Number 10. In his first speech as Prime Minister, he told the media that he wanted to create a nation 'at ease with itself', in which citizens were confident and enjoyed a better quality of life. He admitted, in later years, that he felt that too many people had been marginalised during Mrs. Thatcher's premiership.
One of Major's main aims was to nurture unity within the Conservative Party following its disintegration during the closing stages of the Thatcher government. He has been described, by the Tory journalist Boris Johnson, as a 'subtle manipulator'. In his dealings with Cabinet colleagues he was diplomatic and careful not to alienate. He deliberately moved away from what is known as prime ministerial government and ensured that his Cabinet colleagues had their say and were treated fairly. …