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“Caring” John Major : portrait of a Thatcherite as a One-Nation Tory

David Haigron
p. 177-196

Abstract

When John Major came to office, the Conservatives had already been in power for eleven years and the new Prime Minister tried to strike a balance between continuity (building on the Thatcherite legacy) and change (with a return to the rhetoric of “One-Nation Toryism”). His attitude and choices were partly influenced by the context, for he stood at the helm of both a party and a government sailing in a sea of challenges : Gulf War, economic crisis, splits over Europe, sleaze scandals, rise of New Labour and setting up of Eurosceptic parties, etc. In this context, the Conservatives’ communication strategy focused on John Major’s conciliatory figure and on the “caring” Conservatism he was supposed to incarnate. This article examines the relationship between the Conservative Party’s ideological positioning and the image it tried to project through the various speeches delivered by John Major. It also analyses how John Major’s persona was created and how he constructed a first-person narrative : that of the Brixton kid who would be Prime Minister.

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Introduction

1Margaret Thatcher wrote about her Downing Street years :

My problem was the lack of a successor whom I could trust to keep my legacy secure and to build on it. I liked John Major and thought that he genuinely shared my approach. But he was relatively untested and his tendency to accept the conventional wisdom had given me pause for thought.

  • 1   Thatcher, M., The Downing Street Years, London, Harper Collins, 1993, 831.
  • 2   Adams, I., Ideology and Politics in Britain Today [1998], Manchester, Manchester University Press (...)
  • 3   Blake, R., The Conservative Party from Peel to Major, London, Heinemann, 1997, 388. Under the Maj (...)

2 Despite her doubts regarding her potential successor’s personality (or lack of it), she added : “[...] however, no other candidate found greater favour with me”1. As he took over both her positions as Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party, John Major faced a dilemma common to every designated heir : walking in his predecessor’s footsteps while leaving his own mark. On the one hand, he truly took up the torch of Thatcherism and even carried through reforms that had been aborted. On the other, he managed to build and project a personal image that was radically different from that of the Iron Lady. Because of the new leader’s modest background and personality, and on account of a shift in his political orientations (greater emphasis laid on public services, replacement of the unpopular Poll Tax, etc.), John Major’s premiership symbolizes, for some, a return to a more moderate form of Conservatism with a style perceived as “more inclusive and less dogmatic”2. Kenneth Clarke then spoke of “Thatcherism with a human face”3.

3Between 1990 and 1997, John Major was at the helm of both a government and a party facing tough challenges : the Gulf War, “Black Wednesday”, a party split over the Maastricht Treaty, the rise of New Labour and the emergence of Eurosceptic single-issue parties, etc. The reorientations that took place under his premiership may therefore, at first sight, be interpreted as an idiosyncratic response to these challenges. They actually went beyond a mere strategic and rhetorical repositioning for they affected the ideological foundations upon which the party’s identity rests, and altered its image among voters.

4In this context, the Prime Minister emerged as a conciliatory figure whose aim was to keep his party together and to guarantee the unity of the nation in the face of mounting difficulties. Communication therefore focused on the leader’s persona (his public personality and image) by drawing at once on his professional experience and on his personal life. Far from being spontaneous, this image is the product of a carefully planned process. This article examines how this image was created and projected through the various media used by the party for its inward and outward communication (memos, conference speeches, party political broadcasts, etc.). It also reflects on whether this image was coherent or at odds with the political agenda of the Conservative Party under John Major.

Thatcherism without Thatcher

  • 4   The Best Future for Britain : The Conservative Manifesto 1992.
  • 5   Speech delivered at a dinner for the fifteenth anniversary of the Adam Smith Institute, Banquetin (...)

5John Major entered Downing Street following a leadership contest within his own party, and needed to rest his authority on a more explicitly democratic legitimacy. The 1992 general election victory gave him that opportunity. The manifesto that was then published included key Thatcherite tenets4 : low taxation so as to encourage private enterprise, low inflation, privatisation, deregulation, opposition to socialism, right to own, law and order, etc. The speech that John Major delivered at the Adam Smith Institute two months after the Conservative entitled The Next Phase of Conservatism : The Privatisation of Choice and took up the themes of shareholding, property owning, private pensions, etc. while promising to further reduce State intervention and “empower the user” in an extended number of domains such as education, housing and health5.

  • 6   This is of course reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s ambition of “rolling back the frontiers of t (...)
  • 7   PPBs respectively transmitted on 20/01/93 and 4/05/93. See also the paper by party chairman (1981 (...)
  • 8   PPB transmitted on 30/04/91. This slogan can be heard in other broadcasts shown on 4/05/93, 6/04/ (...)
  • 9   See for instance the PPB shown on 19/09/91.
  • 10   PPB shown on 14/02/97. Interestingly enough, one Labour PEB (15/04/97) featured a bulldog to repr (...)

6John Major’s rhetoric reinforces this impression of continuity. In a party political broadcast (PPB) shown on 24th July 1991, he committed himself to “rolling back the power of the State” and to “helping council tenants to the dignity of home ownership”6. Over the same period, expressions such as “value for money” and “common sense” were heard in reference to public services or to oppose Conservative pragmatism to the other parties’ alleged dogma7. Even when the purpose of the televised broadcast was to introduce the new council tax meant to replace the much despised Poll Tax, the argument put forward was still reminiscent of the preceding period : “Conservative councils cost you less”8. This is equally valid as far as iconography is concerned. In the 1990s, archive footage of the “winter of discontent” was used, memories of Britain’s imperial past were evoked9, and a blood-weeping lion appeared in a PPB to represent the danger posed by Labour’s programme to the British economy10.

  • 11   Excerpts from this broadcast may be seen at : http://observatoire.univ-tln.fr (Excerpt n°1).
  • 12   Hirschman, A., The Rhetoric of Reaction : Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy [1991], Cambridge, Mass. (...)

7The first part of the party election broadcast (PEB) aired on 29th April 199711 can also be quoted as an example of John Major’s dual ambition to put himself forward as a leader while paying tribute to his predecessor’s action. He is filmed in medium shot with no camera movement and his appearance on screen is introduced by a caption reading “The Prime Minister”. This presents him as the legitimate tenant of Downing Street and gives a solemn tone to his speech. John Major first defines the issues at stake (“your family’s and their country’s future”). Then he takes positive stock of the current situation (“the United Kingdom is the best country in the world in which to live”) and draws the portrait of a “Conservative Britain” where “people are better off, prices are under control, unemployment is falling”. His references to home ownership, share owning, savings and small businesses echo some of the major tenets of Thatcherism. In its construction, John Major’s speech aims at creating a “rhetorical community” that includes the party/government and the citizens/voters (“Together, you – the British people – and we – the government – [...]”) and excludes New Labour personified by Tony Blair and described as a threat. John Major suggests that not only is the leader of the opposition dishonest (he is presented as a car dealer trying to sell second-hand vehicles) and power-thirsty (“it’s your future he’s after”), but also that he would take Britain back to the chaos of the 1970s (“behind him are the trades unions, silent today just waiting”). He uses the same “jeopardy thesis”12 to condemn New Labour’s attitude towards Europe and their proposal to set up a Welsh assembly and a Scottish parliament. Both issues are addressed with the same argument :

Their [Labour’s] plans to set up a tax raising parliament in Scotland would lead, not immediately but certainly, to Scotland becoming independent. Once broken the United Kingdom will never be the same again. And Labour would take us into a federal Europe – much more power for Brussels, much less power for Britain. So, two threats : a British parliament weakened at home and weakened abroad, two irrevocable changes [...] (PEB, 29/04/97).

  • 13   Thatcher, M., “Don’t Undo My Work”, Newsweek, vol. 119, n° 17, 27/04/92, 14-15.
  • 14   The National Economic Development Council (NEDC, also nicknamed Neddy) was set up in 1962 under H (...)
  • 15   Harel, J., « La Privatisation des chemins de fer britanniques  : un gouffre financier », in Leydi (...)
  • 16   Quoted in Gilmour, I., Garnett, I, Whatever Happened to the Tories : The Conservatives since 1945(...)
  • 17   Originally coined to refer to “a return to basics in education” (party conference speech, October (...)
  • 18   “I want changes to produce across the whole of this country a genuinely classless society so peop (...)
  • 19   Interestingly enough, John Major was alternatively a member of the Blue Chips Group and an adhere (...)

8To a certain extent, this sounds like John Major’s reassuring answer to Margaret Thatcher when she demanded that her work be not undone13. In other areas the new leader even managed to push through some legislation that had to be abandoned in the preceding decade. The National Economic Development Council that Nigel Lawson had intended to shut down back in 1987 was abolished in June 199214 and the privatisation of British Rail was set on track with the 1993 Railways Act15. The then Secretary of State for Scotland and future Secretary of State for Trade and Industry Ian Lang commented at the time that John Major had been “more Thatcherite than the lady herself”16. In this respect, it is not surprising that the new leader’s speeches should echo some of the “Victorian values” that were so dear to Margaret Thatcher. However, in his wish to get “back to basics”17 and to build a “genuinely classless society”18, John Major laid greater emphasis on the social side of Conservatism, and thereby seemed to be referring to Macmillan’s or Disraeli’s Toryism rather than to Thatcherism19.

Back to Basics : Back to One-Nation Toryism?

9As John Major arrived at Downing Street, the Conservative Party issued a memorandum that set out its “guiding principles for the 1990s” and which stated :

1. That we are a national Party,

2. That we give opportunity and power to the people,

3. That we need a strong and stable economy in which the wealth that is created is owned more widely,

4. That we want a Citizen’s Charter to deliver quality in every part of the public service,

  • 20   “Guiding Principles for the 1990s”, CPA, PPB 184.

5. And that we work, not for short-term gain, but for the long-term good of the nation as a whole20.

10Out of this list, the implementation of the Citizen’s Charter was the most concrete element. It illustrated the government’s ambition to improve its image regarding public services and to meet the electorate’s demand in this domain. On the other hand, it revealed the ambiguity of the new leadership’s position vis-à-vis the Thatcher legacy. A year after the passing of the act that introduced market rules within the National Health Service (NHS and Community Care Act), John Major declared at the 1991 party conference held in Blackpool :

  • 21   CPA, PPB 146.

[...] let me say now, once and for all, and without qualification : Under this government, the National Health Service will continue to offer free hospital treatment to everyone21.

11This commitment was repeated all through the Major years. In 1997 the outgoing Prime Minister even put forward the idea that the fruits of economic growth were to be equally shared between the members of the national community, as he promised :

  • 22   This follows the excerpt that was commented upon in the previous section. John Major’s speech the (...)

[…] we’ll keep the economy strong. But what will we do with it? Let me tell you. In the next five years, I intend to help bring the have-nots into the golden circle of the haves. I’ll safeguard still further the things that matter most to you and to me : schools, police, pensions and, of course, the health service (PEB 29/04/97)22.

  • 23   Macmillan, H., The Middle Way : A Study of the Problem of Economic and Social Progress in a Free (...)
  • 24   Margaret Thatcher referred to the concept of “One Nation” in the Panorama programme aired on 8th  (...)
  • 25   Kavanagh, D., Election Campaigning : The New Marketing of Politics, Oxford, Blackwell, 1995, 66.

12The peroration of this five-minute speech, delivered in talking head shot, incorporated a series of catchphrases meant to print this idea in the voters’ memories : “Compassion without cash is empty rhetoric”, he stated and summed up : “In short, wealth and welfare hand in hand : that’s our policy”. These phrases may be interpreted as allusions to a more collectivist – or at least universalist – version of Conservatism, reminiscent of Harold Macmillan’s “Middle Way”23 or Benjamin Disraeli’s “One-Nation Toryism”. It is therefore highly significant that John Major should conclude this broadcast by claiming : “I am a One-Nation Tory”24. Besides this echoed Chris Patten’s wish as party chairman (1990-92) to introduce themes such as “caring capitalism” and “social market” in the government’s discourse25.

  • 26   These images were also used in PPBs, respectively aired on 22/01/92, 5/03/92 and 25/03/92.
  • 27   Scammell, M., Semetko, H., “Political Advertising on Television : The British Experience”, in Kai (...)

13What appears to be at odds with the Thatcherite legacy is actually the expression of the two-fold strategy deployed by the leader and his chairman. The 1992 campaign already mirrored this approach as it combined two complementary messages. The first one aimed at hammering home the idea that a Labour government would mean higher taxes. This was illustrated by a series of posters : one exposed “Labour’s Tax Bombshell” about to shatter the citizens’ wages and savings; another one displayed a boxer with oversized gloves ready to administer a “double whammy” (more taxes, higher prices) in the face of the passers-by; the third one showed three heavy metal balls (taxes up, prices up, mortgages up) fixed with chains to the legs of the ordinary voters26. Alongside this negative campaign, John Major issued a positive message and introduced himself as “caring” in order to counter the image of “moderate Labour” incarnated by Neil Kinnock27.

  • 28   Hired in March 1978 by then-Director of Communications Gordon Reece, the advertising agency worke (...)
  • 29   Kavanagh, D., Election Campaigning : The New Marketing of Politics, op. cit., p. 66.

14Though it proved a winning combination in 1992, Saatchi & Saatchi28 was doubtful about such a strategy and had warned Central Office as early as 1991 that the party ran the risk of facing a “double danger”29. On the one hand, the party might seem to be turning its back on some major aspects of Thatcherism and admitting market laws had failed to produce better social services. On the other, it was moving towards the centre of the political spectrum and setting the agenda on issues on which it did not have any “comparative advantages” (education, health, etc.). This can only be understood in the light of the context of the time.

New Labour, New Danger for the Conservatives ?

  • 30   See the opinion polls carried out by the Opinion Research Centre on behalf of the Conservative Pa (...)

15Throughout the 1980s, the Conservatives’ communication campaigns managed to draw a clear image of what the party stood for and contributed to create negative associations about the Labour Party with constant reminders of the strife-torn 1970s and of the “winter of discontent”. The Conservative Party was largely seen as the party of economic competence, low taxation, low inflation, law and order, etc. Labour were admittedly credited for genuinely making a priority of fighting against unemployment and for truly seeking to guarantee welfare provision. But their proposals would always be overshadowed by the suspicion that this would result in much higher taxes and in a risk of economic recession30.

  • 31   On Wednesday 16th September 1992, the government had to react to massive sterling sales on the fo (...)
  • 32   Tony Blair first used the expression in an interview for the BBC radio programme The World this W (...)
  • 33   See the chapter entitled “John Major and the Growth of Middle-Class Insecurity”, in Heath, A., Jo (...)

16In this respect, the 1990s clearly witnessed a radical turn and the “Black Wednesday”31 episode epitomizes this tidal shift as it dealt a long-lasting blow to the Conservatives’ reputation for sound economic management. In parallel, New Labour as it was being reshaped by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown from 1994 onwards now offered a trustworthy alternative, even as far as running the economy was concerned. This was equally true regarding law and order (as illustrated by Tony Blair’s “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” catchphrase)32, or taxation (with Labour’s “Tory Tax Timebomb” defusing the government’s “Tax Bombshell”). The opposition party was now arguing that its action in local authority councils had proved a Labour administration could provide “good value for money” (PPB shown on 3/05/94). They could therefore target the middle classes that had suffered from the economic crisis and the successive tax rises that had followed33.

17Over the same period, education and health gained salience within public opinion whereas the government’s achievements in these domains were deemed rather poor. On the other hand, with the end of the Cold War, national security ceased to be a major electoral issue contrary to what it had been during the 1987 campaign. Finally, the “back to basics” campaign, which had been commonly understood as a moral crusade, severely backfired as the last years of the Major government were marked by a general impression of “sleaze” (sex and “cash for questions” scandals).

  • 34   The Conservative PPB shown on 4/05/93 was devoted to this theme with a speech by Secretary of Sta (...)

18The party’s image was further blurred by the Liberal Democrats’ 1992 campaign when they chose the slogan “common sense” since it had long been the Conservatives’ trademark and had helped optimize the clarity of their messages. Finally the 1990s witnessed the rise or the setting up of new political parties that either shed light on the government’s faults (e.g. ecology with the Green Party)34, or drew further attention to the party’s internal divisions (i.e. European integration with the Referendum Party and the UKIP).

  • 35   Peter Lilley was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (1990-92) and then for Social Security (...)
  • 36   Adams, I., Ideology and Politics in Britain Today, op. cit., 98.
  • 37   Portillo, M., Clear Blue Water, London, Conservative Way Forward, 1994. Michael Portillo was Chie (...)
  • 38   Heffer, S., The Observer, 14/01/96, quoted in Adams, I., Ideology and Politics in Britain Today, (...)

19The party’s repositioning towards a more centrist stance and John Major’s readiness to negotiate with Brussels caused the ire of the party’s right wingers who pressed for further reforms in line with the credo of the New Right : tax reductions, cuts in public expenditure, radical opposition to further European integration, etc. Within the Cabinet, they were represented by Peter Lilley35 and Michael Portillo who famously wanted to put “clear blue water”36 between the Government and the Opposition, so their policies and images would be radically different37. In the press, their ideas were defended by Daily Mail journalist Simon Heffer for whom “One Nationalism is an anti-individualist creed that patronises, collectivises, and expropriates”38. The splits over Europe even led to the defection of several senior members (Lord McAlpine, party treasurer from 1975 to 1990; Alan Walters, former economic adviser to Margaret Thatcher) to the Referendum Party.

20This situation forced John Major to enter a leadership contest in the summer of 1995. He won against the Eurosceptic John Redwood but nevertheless found himself at the head of a party that had trouble defining its own identity. In such a context it fell to the Prime Minister to occupy the forefront of the media scene so as to incarnate a unified party and put himself forward as a head of government responsible for the nation’s cohesion in times of hardship. This explains why the communication of the Conservative Party focused to such an extent on John Major’s personality.

“The Tories’ best card” : A third-person account

  • 39   Jenkins, J. (ed.), John Major : Prime Minister, London, Bloomsbury, 1990, 7.
  • 40   Kavanagh, D., Election Campaigning : The New Marketing of Politics, op. cit., 166.
  • 41   Catterall, P., “‘Imagine if Labour won the election’ : The Conservative Party’s Political Broadca (...)
  • 42   King, A., “Why Labour Won – At Last”, in King, A., et al., New Labour Triumphs : Britain at the P (...)
  • 43   MORI Poll published in The Economist, 1-7/10/94, 36.
  • 44   Interview with Jonathan Hill, London, 18th February 2004.
  • 45   Idem.

21When becoming Prime Minister, John Major promised that “the image-makers [would] not find [him] in their tutelage” and that he would remain “the same plug-ugly as [he] always was on television”39. “What you see is what you get”40, he warned and to journalists who questioned him about his relationship with public relations strategists during the 1997 campaign, he would simply answer : “I am the message”41. John Major always enjoyed better opinion poll ratings than his own party. As he entered Downing Street, the popularity of the government rose from 27% to 33% but as Prime Minister he gained 23 points compared to his predecessor (from 29% to 52%)42. In 1994, 45% of the electorate still approved of him personally when only 17% supported his policies43. In this sense, his political secretary (1992-94), Jonathan Hill, was right to say that he was “the Tories’ best card”44. As it was judicious in 1992 to “throw out the window all the kind of pre-planned stuff and the whole approach set before the election by Central Office”45 so as to wage a more spontaneous campaign centred on the Conservative leader.

  • 46   Butler, D., Kavanagh, D., The British General Election of 1992, Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1992, 30.

22As a matter of fact though, John Major had been working with Gordon Reece and Tim Bell, two of Margaret Thatcher’s closest advisers, since the 1990 leadership contest. And once Prime Minister he hired playwright Ronald Millar, who had also collaborated with the Iron Lady, as a speechwriter46. Though it may appear spontaneous and sometimes to lack panache, John Major’s public image (persona) is the result of a construction. It is meant to synthesize two sides of his personality. The first one concerns his political role : he is shown as a competent, experienced and respected head of government. The second one refers to his “natural” human qualities : he wishes to come across as honest, dynamic and close to people.

  • 47   John Major started his “soapbox tour” in Luton on Saturday 28th March 1992. Two days before, in a (...)

23The “soapbox tour”47 and the Meet John Major TV programmes are cases in point of that strategy. During the 1992 campaign, the Conservative leader made a series of public appearances in which he stood on a soapbox with a microphone and addressed the crowd that gathered around him. Jonathan Hill, who followed him during this campaign, deemed this brought the best out of him as a candidate :

  • 48   Interview with Jonathan Hill, op. cit. It is relevant to point out that Labour’s Neil Kinnock app (...)

What was clear, very quickly to me, was that, given that he was known as being a grey and not very articulate man, our campaign was thought to be boring, and this was a fair criticism. The only time he came to life was when he was with people, when he had people heckling, shouting at him, pushing, when it was all a bit on the edge. And he liked that. It brought him to life. He spoke better. His voice became better. He was more relaxed. His voice became deeper. He became animated48.

  • 49   Major, J., The Autobiography, London, Harper Collins Publishers, 1999, 290.
  • 50   Quoted in Foley, M., The Rise of the British Presidency, Manchester, Manchester University Press, (...)

24John Major himself wrote in his autobiography that he “wanted a flesh-and-blood fight” in the knowledge that “the cold fish-eye of the camera lens did [him] no favours”49. The event received good publicity and Edward Stourton reported in the News at Ten edition of 28th March : “Mr. Major today shook off the controlled style of the image-makers”50.

  • 51   Major, J., The Autobiography, op. cit., 300-301; Butler, D., Kavanagh, D., The British General El (...)

25The Meet John Major series was also designed to show the Prime Minister as accountable and close to ordinary people. Each session was shot in a different city and was edited on location to be broadcast as quickly as possible. John Major was to sit on a barstool and answer questions from the audience. But it was soon revealed that the public was made up of hand-picked supporters and the series was stopped after four “meetings”51.

  • 52   Butler, D., Kavanagh, D., The British General Election of 1992, op. cit., 175. An extract from th (...)
  • 53   “I have no doubt about the golden prospects for Britain. Of all the nations in the world, I belie (...)

26In addition to these events, the party election and political broadcasts produced between 1990 and 1997 fully played a role in moulding John Major’s image as an approachable human being as well as an authoritative leader. The PEB aired on 7th April 1992 can be given as an example. It was conceived as a portrait of John Major as Prime Minister. It showed him visiting schools, hospitals, delivering speeches and attending international summits alongside other heads of State or government (George Bush Sr., François Mitterrand, Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, etc.). These scenes were intercut with testimonials by senior members of the Cabinet stressing his “ability to put people at their ease” (Virginia Bottomley), his “negotiating skills” and courtesy (Chris Patten), his “courage and resolution” (Tom King), his “bravery” in defending Britain’s interests in Europe (Douglas Hurd), his “natural interest in people (David Mellor) and, in the end, his leadership qualities. The broadcast was edited to the music of Henry Purcell (rondo in D minor from “Abdelazer”) rearranged by Andrew Lloyd Webber for the Conservative Party52. It was written and composed as a third-person eulogy in which John Major stood out as both approachable and statesmanlike. The broadcast ended with a talking head sequence in which John Major spoke about his “ambitions” for Britain. He addressed a collective “you” (the viewers/voters) and evoked a third entity : the nation whose glorious heritage he committed himself to preserving53. But what must also be pointed out is the recurrent use of the pronoun “I” in his speech (21 times in 3’45 minutes), as if he alone represented his party and was asking the electorate to “elect” him Prime Minister.

“I am the message” : A first-person narrative

27In 1992 John Major was taking stock of the situation and calling for a renewal of confidence :

It’s now sixteen months since I became your Prime Minister. In that time I’ve been able to lay out the policies that will take us into the future. On Thursday, you must decide whether I continue that work (PEB, 7/04/92, our emphasis).

28Five years later he suggested a direct link between personalities and major political decisions :

In six weeks’ time, the British Prime Minister – myself or Mr Blair – will go to Amsterdam to negotiate a treaty and what’s decided there will determine whether we go down the route to a federal Europe or whether we say ‘no’. I don’t believe a federal Europe is right for Britain, I shall say ‘no’. Mr Blair – Mr Blair will say ‘yes’ (PEB, 25/04/97, our emphasis).

  • 54   Hall, S., “The Great Moving Right Show” [1978], in Hall, S., The Hard Road to Renewal : Thatcheri (...)

29John Major was admittedly not the first leader or candidate to use the pronoun “I” to speak on behalf of his or her party. But he used it to blend personal experience and beliefs with political orientations and achievements. Margaret Thatcher hardly ever said “I” in a confidential tone. She would use the first person to affirm her authority, leadership and commitment. She also used that pronoun as a performative device to back the idea that she would deliver on her promises. In doing so, she addressed the people as a whole while pretending to act on its behalf and for its own good. In this respect, her discourse may be described as “populist”, or as an illustration of what Stuart Hall defined as “authoritarian populism”54.

30The PEB entitled The Journey (aired on 18th March 1992) perfectly illustrates John Major’s recourse to the first-person pronoun to construct a narrative that involves characters with whom most people may be able to identify, and situations which they are likely to have experienced themselves. The broadcast was directed by John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy, Marathon Man, etc.) and was filmed as a documentary on John Major’s metaphorical “journey” from his childhood house on Coldharbour Lane, in the working class neighbourhood of Brixton in South London, all the way up to Downing Street.

31The film shows the Prime Minister going back to Brixton, meeting people in the streets and remembering anecdotes about his passion for cricket, his marriage, his first soapbox, his years as a Lambeth councillor, etc. These scenes alternate with excerpts from an interview carried out indoors in which a casually dressed John Major defends his political beliefs about inflation, education, health, socialism, free choice and the free market economy. But as the whole discourse is based on personal anecdotes, his convictions appear to be steeped in experience rather than dogma. It is all the more evident since this experience (being unemployed, taking care of one’s parents when they fall ill, etc.) is likely to have been shared by most viewers :

I think every family has their own experiences of the NHS and will draw upon it. That’s certainly true in my case. In their later years, both my parents were ill. They needed protracted medical treatment, both in hospital from time to time and also direct through their general practitioners. And they got it, excellent treatment; treatment that we couldn’t possibly have provided for ourselves and I saw then, at a very young age and at very close quarters, the peace of mind that the availability of that treatment actually provided to my parents and to the rest of my family. I want to make sure that’s there for everyone else. The Patient’s Charter attempts to make sure that the excellent medical service is also provided as a personal service with the greatest possible dignity55.

  • 56   Cockerell, M., Live from Number 10 : The Inside Story of Prime Ministers and Television, London, (...)

32The aforequoted scene opens up on the image of an ambulance racing past with its siren wailing. In Barthes’s terms, this sequence is “anchored in the real”. The first sentence then invites the audience, though in an indirect way, to recall personal memories in relation to health and hospitals so as to further “anchor” the story to be told in the domain of shared experience. The conclusion of this narrative (the implementation of the Patients’ Charter) establishes a bridge between John Major’s personal anecdote as an ordinary citizen and his political ambitions as a Prime Minister. This obviously provides a sharp contrast to Margaret Thatcher’s statement during the 1987 campaign when she declared that, if need be, she could go to the hospital “on the day [she] want[ed], at the time [she] want[ed] and with the doctor [she] want[ed]”56.

  • 57   Major, J., The Autobiography, op. cit., 300-301.

33John Major has always claimed that he was reluctant to do this broadcast and could never watch it57. This yet illustrates one of the core beliefs of Conservatism : that the government should set the foundations of a meritocratic society in which hard working individuals, regardless of their social backgrounds, may be given the opportunity to achieve their goals, however high they are. As soon as 1991, John Major was in actual fact drawing upon his own experience to present the Conservative Party as “the Party of opportunity” :

This is the first Conference I have addressed as Leader of the Conservative Party. It is hard to explain quite how I feel about that. It is a long road from Colharbour Lane to Downing Street. It is a tribute to the Conservative Party that that road can be travelled. […] We don’t need lectures in the Conservative Party about opportunity. We are the Party of opportunity58.

  • 59   PPB shown on 11/12/96.
  • 60   Major, J., The Autobiography, op. cit., 290.

34The idea was explicitly used in 1992 when a series of posters were designed featuring a photo of John Major under the caption : “What does the Conservative Party offer a working class kid from Brixton?”. The answer was given just below : “They made him Prime Minister”. John Major himself repeated this argument in 1996 as he claimed that “[the] Conservative Party does not and never must solely concern itself with the people who are doing well” and made it clear that “smaller ambitions are just as important”59. And he would never forget about his own ambition as he wrote in his autobiography about the 1992 election : “I could not believe that I had come all the way from Coldharbour Lane to Downing Street to stay in office for only a few months”60.

Conclusion

35During the seven years of his premiership, John Major was at the head of a party that needed to reaffirm its “guiding principles for the 1990s” but became increasingly embroiled in internal disputes. His policies bore obvious signs of continuity with the preceding decade but his personality provided a sharp contrast to the flamboyance of the Iron Lady. The new leader did not possess the charisma of his predecessor, nor did his agenda have the same programmatic clarity as the Thatcherite project. He nevertheless managed to come across as less dogmatic and more “caring”.

  • 61   Interview with Jonathan Hill, op. cit.

36John Major was famously unwilling to have his conduct dictated by communication strategists. As his former political secretary concedes however : “A lot of people, of course, may say, ‘I don’t want to be packaged’ and then they don’t like what they read about themselves. And they say, ‘What do we do to change that?’”61. To a certain extent, John Major’s image of spontaneity and authenticity was no less the result of a fabrication than Neil Kinnock’s supposedly contrived and glossy image of moderation and modernity.

  • 62  57 Conservative PPBs were aired between 17th January 1991 (John Major’s first Ministerial Broadcas (...)
  • 63   This was a deliberate decision made by the party strategists who wanted to present the government (...)

37Despite the Conservatives’ growing unpopularity among voters, John Major retained a certain degree of approval that accounts for his large exposure in the party’s communication. It is therefore significant that he should be present in 42.1% of all the PPBs that were produced during his premiership62. In 1997, three out of the five electoral broadcasts allocated to the party were entirely composed of a talking head by the Prime Minister. By contrast, Margaret Thatcher only appeared in 21.6% of the 88 televised broadcasts aired between the 1979 general election campaign and her departure in November 199063. John Major therefore played a key role in promoting a positive image of the party. Although he was said to be reluctant to use his social origins for political ends, his own personal “journey” from the rags of Coldharbour Lane to the riches of Downing Street is a recurrent theme in his speeches, and constructs a first-person narrative taking place in a Conservative, meritocratic Britain.

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Bibliography

CCO, The Best Future for Britain : The Conservative Manifesto 1992.

CCO, You Can Only Be Sure with the Conservatives : The Conservative Manifesto 1997.

Conservative Party Archive (CPA), New Bodleian Library, Oxford :

CCO 20/17/95-117 (1992 General Election)

CCO 20/17/117-120 (1997 General Election)

CCO 20/25/35-38 : “Saatchi & Saatchi, 1983-91”

CCO 20/25/39 : “Communications, 1994”

CCO 20/25/40 : “Presentational Strategy, 1994”

PPB 146 : “Speeches, 1991”

PPB 157 : “Speeches : Kenneth Clarke, Chris Chope, Paul Channon”

PPB 183 : “John Major’s Speeches, Oct. 1986-Dec. 1991”

PPB 184 : “John Major, 1990-1993”

Interview with Jonathan Hill, Political Secretary to John Major : “A Journey into Political Communication”, London, 18th February 2004. The transcript of this interview can be found at : www.unicaen.fr/mrsh/lisa/publications/enCours/haigron01.pdf (consulted in Dec. 2008).

Anderson, B., John Major : The Making of the Prime Minister, London, Fourth Estate, 1991, 352 p.

Catterall, P., “‘Imagine if Labour won the election’ : The Conservative Party’s Political Broadcasts”, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, vol. 17, n° 4, London, IAMHIST, October 1997, 453-458.

Dorey, P., The Major Premiership, 1990-97 : Politics and Policies under John Major, London, Palgrave/Macmillan, 1999, 296 p.

Gilmour, I., Garnett Mark, Whatever Happened to the Tories : The Conservatives since 1945, London, Fourth Estate, 1998, 440 p.

Heppell, T., The Conservative Party Leadership of John Major : 1992-1997, London, Edwin Mellen Press, 2006, 330 p.

Hogg, S., Hill, J., Too Close to Call : Power and Politics – John Major in Number Ten, London, Little, Brown and Company, 1995, 305 p.

Jones, N., Election 1992 : The Inside Story of the Campaign, London, British Broadcasting Company, 1992, 160 p.

Jones, N., Campaign 1997 : How the General Election was Won and Lost, London, Indigo, 1997, 288 p.

Junor, P., John Major : From Brixton to Downing Street, London, Penguin, 1996, 352 p.

Kandiahl, M., “The Conservative Party’s 1997 Party Election Broadcasts in Historical Context”, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, vol. 17, n° 4, London, IAMHIST, October 1997, 459-462.

Kavanagh, D., Election Campaigning : The New Marketing of Politics, Oxford, Blackwell, 1995, 272 p.

Major, J., Our Nation’s Future : Keynote Speech on the Principles and Convictions that Shape Conservative Policies, London, Conservative Political Centre, 1997, 78 p.

Major, J., The Autobiography, London, Harper Collins Publishers, 1999, 774 p.

Reitan, E., Tory Radicalism : Margaret Thatcher, John Major and the Transformation of Modern Britain, 1979-1997, London, Rowman & Littlefield, 1997, 234 p.

Reitan, E., The Thatcher Revolution : Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair, London, Rowman & Littlefield, 2002, 352 p.

Rosenbaum, M., From Soapbox to Soundbite : Party Political Campaigning in Britain since 1945, London, Macmillan, 1997, 315 p.

Scammell, M., Designer Politics : How Elections Are Won, Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1995, 342 p.

Thatcher, M., The Downing Street Years, London, Harper Collins, 1993, 914 p.

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Notes

1   Thatcher, M., The Downing Street Years, London, Harper Collins, 1993, 831.

2   Adams, I., Ideology and Politics in Britain Today [1998], Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2001, 96.

3   Blake, R., The Conservative Party from Peel to Major, London, Heinemann, 1997, 388. Under the Major premiership, Kenneth Clarke was Secretary of State for Education (1990-92), Home Secretary (1992-93), and then Chancellor of the Exchequer (1993-97). He stood for the party leadership in 1997 but was defeated by William Hague.

4   The Best Future for Britain : The Conservative Manifesto 1992.

5   Speech delivered at a dinner for the fifteenth anniversary of the Adam Smith Institute, Banqueting House, Whitehall, Tuesday 16th June 1992. Conservative Party Archive (CPA), New Bodleian Library, Oxford, PPB 184.

6   This is of course reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s ambition of “rolling back the frontiers of the state” as well as a reference to the sale of the council houses to their tenants, as initiated by the 1980 Housing Act. Home ownership is one of the key tenets of Conservatism (see Scruton, R., The Meaning of Conservatism, South Bend, Indiana, St Augustine’s Press, 2002, 87). The phrase “home-ownership democracy” can be found in the 1983 manifesto. The expression “property-owning democracy” was first used in 1924 (see Barnes, J., “Ideology and Factions”, in Seldon, A., Ball, S. (ed.), Conservative Century : The Conservative Party since 1900, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1994, 326).

7   PPBs respectively transmitted on 20/01/93 and 4/05/93. See also the paper by party chairman (1981-1983) Cecil Parkinson, “The Conservative Campaign –‘Just Plain Common Sense’”, in Crewe, I., Harrop, M. (eds.), Political Communications : The General Campaign of 1983, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1986, 59-64.

8   PPB transmitted on 30/04/91. This slogan can be heard in other broadcasts shown on 4/05/93, 6/04/94, 4/05/94 and 1/05/96.

9   See for instance the PPB shown on 19/09/91.

10   PPB shown on 14/02/97. Interestingly enough, one Labour PEB (15/04/97) featured a bulldog to represent Britain as a country kept on leach by “the same masters [...] for 18 years”.

11   Excerpts from this broadcast may be seen at : http://observatoire.univ-tln.fr (Excerpt n°1).

12   Hirschman, A., The Rhetoric of Reaction : Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy [1991], Cambridge, Mass., The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003, 7.

13   Thatcher, M., “Don’t Undo My Work”, Newsweek, vol. 119, n° 17, 27/04/92, 14-15.

14   The National Economic Development Council (NEDC, also nicknamed Neddy) was set up in 1962 under Harold Macmillan’s premiership to advice the government on economic policy. It was based on a tripartite collaboration between business, unions and government (after the model of the French Commissariat général au plan). Its main purpose was to boost economic growth. Gilmour, I., Garnett, M., Whatever Happened to the Tories : The Conservatives since 1945, London, Fourth Estate, 1998, 167-168; Jones, B., Dictionary of British Politics, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 283-284; Sergeant, J.-C., La Grande-Bretagne de Margaret Thatcher, 1979-1990, Paris, PUF, 1994, 11-12.

15   Harel, J., « La Privatisation des chemins de fer britanniques  : un gouffre financier », in Leydier, G. (dir.), Les Services publics britanniques, Rennes, PUR, 2004, 215-228.

16   Quoted in Gilmour, I., Garnett, I, Whatever Happened to the Tories : The Conservatives since 1945, op. cit., 368.

17   Originally coined to refer to “a return to basics in education” (party conference speech, October 1991), the expression “back to basics” was then given a broader meaning : “It is time [...] to get back to basics, to self-discipline and respect for the law, to consideration for others, to accepting responsibility for yourself and your family and not shuffling off on other people and the State” (party conference speech, October 1993). See http://www.johnmajor.co.uk/speechconf1993.html (consulted in Dec. 2008).

18   “I want changes to produce across the whole of this country a genuinely classless society so people can rise to whatever level from whatever level they started” (1990). See www.johnmajor.co.uk/quotations.html (consulted in Dec. 2008). See also the article by John Major published in Today on 24/11/90, quoted in Butler, D. and G., Twentieth-Century British Political Facts, 1900-2000, London, Palgrave/Macmillan, 2000, 296.

19   Interestingly enough, John Major was alternatively a member of the Blue Chips Group and an adherent of the Guy Fawkes Group. Both were founded in 1979 by Conservatives newly elected to Parliament. The former counted Chris Patten among its members and had an intellectual, centrist profile. The latter, formed in reaction, gathered business-minded right-wingers. Barberis, P., et al., Encyclopedia of British and Irish Political Organizations, London, Pinter, 2000, 45 and 57.

20   “Guiding Principles for the 1990s”, CPA, PPB 184.

21   CPA, PPB 146.

22   This follows the excerpt that was commented upon in the previous section. John Major’s speech therefore strikes a balance between fear (New Labour’s threat and the irrevocability of change) and reassurance (echoed in the campaign slogan “You can only be sure with the Conservatives”). The extract mentioned above can also be seen at http ://observatoire.univ-tln.fr (Excerpt n°2).

23   Macmillan, H., The Middle Way : A Study of the Problem of Economic and Social Progress in a Free and Democratic Society, London, Macmillan, 1938. See also The Middle Way : Twenty Years After, London, Macmillan, 1958.

24   Margaret Thatcher referred to the concept of “One Nation” in the Panorama programme aired on 8th June 1987 but the phrase “One-Nation Toryism” was only heard in one PPB shown on 17th January 1979.

25   Kavanagh, D., Election Campaigning : The New Marketing of Politics, Oxford, Blackwell, 1995, 66.

26   These images were also used in PPBs, respectively aired on 22/01/92, 5/03/92 and 25/03/92.

27   Scammell, M., Semetko, H., “Political Advertising on Television : The British Experience”, in Kaid, L., Holtz-Bacha, C. (eds.), Political Advertising in Western Democracies : Parties and Candidates on Television, London, Sage Publications, 1995, 30.

28   Hired in March 1978 by then-Director of Communications Gordon Reece, the advertising agency worked closely with the Conservatives, leading all their election campaigns until 1988 when Margaret Thatcher, out of distrust in the agency’s planning, put an end to the collaboration. Saatchi was nevertheless hired again in 1991 and was given full responsibility for running the Conservative campaigns (Saatchi & Saatchi until 1994, then M&C Saatchi from 1995 onwards when the founding brothers, Maurice and Charles, were ousted from the company and started their own agency). See, for example, Fallon, I., The Brothers : The Rise & Rise of Saatchi & Saatchi, London, Arrow Books, 1988, 461 p. and Goldman, K., Conflicting Accounts : The Creation and Crash of the Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising Empire, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1997, 384 p.

29   Kavanagh, D., Election Campaigning : The New Marketing of Politics, op. cit., p. 66.

30   See the opinion polls carried out by the Opinion Research Centre on behalf of the Conservative Party. CPA, CCO 180/26/1/6-12 and CCO 180/26/2/1-18. See also Scammell, M., Designer Politics : How Elections Are Won, Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1995, 154 and The Independent on Sunday dated 28/04/91.

31   On Wednesday 16th September 1992, the government had to react to massive sterling sales on the foreign exchange markets. The Bank of England raised the interest rates up to 15% and started to buy sterling massively but failed to prevent the British currency from losing value. Chancellor Norman Lamont therefore had to take the pound out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), which subsequently led to a 20% devaluation. Jones, B., Dictionary of British Politics, op. cit., 17.

32   Tony Blair first used the expression in an interview for the BBC radio programme The World this Weekend aired on 12th May 1993. He was then Shadow Home Secretary.

33   See the chapter entitled “John Major and the Growth of Middle-Class Insecurity”, in Heath, A., Jowell, R., Curtice, J., The Rise of New Labour : Party Policies and Voter Choices, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001, 132-134.

34   The Conservative PPB shown on 4/05/93 was devoted to this theme with a speech by Secretary of State for the Environment Michael Howard. This may be seen as an answer to the Green Party’s own broadcasts.

35   Peter Lilley was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (1990-92) and then for Social Security (1992-97).

36   Adams, I., Ideology and Politics in Britain Today, op. cit., 98.

37   Portillo, M., Clear Blue Water, London, Conservative Way Forward, 1994. Michael Portillo was Chief Secretary (1992-94), Secretary of State for Employment (1994-95) before moving to Defence (1995-97).

38   Heffer, S., The Observer, 14/01/96, quoted in Adams, I., Ideology and Politics in Britain Today, op. cit., 98.

39   Jenkins, J. (ed.), John Major : Prime Minister, London, Bloomsbury, 1990, 7.

40   Kavanagh, D., Election Campaigning : The New Marketing of Politics, op. cit., 166.

41   Catterall, P., “‘Imagine if Labour won the election’ : The Conservative Party’s Political Broadcasts”, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, vol. 17, n° 4, London, IAMHIST, October 1997, 456; Butler, D., Kavanagh, D., The British General Election of 1997, Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1997, 40.

42   King, A., “Why Labour Won – At Last”, in King, A., et al., New Labour Triumphs : Britain at the Polls, Chatham, NJ, Chatham House Publishers Inc., 1998, 182.

43   MORI Poll published in The Economist, 1-7/10/94, 36.

44   Interview with Jonathan Hill, London, 18th February 2004.

45   Idem.

46   Butler, D., Kavanagh, D., The British General Election of 1992, Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1992, 30.

47   John Major started his “soapbox tour” in Luton on Saturday 28th March 1992. Two days before, in an interview for This Week (ITV), Robin Day had invited him to erect the soapbox that he mentioned in a Party Election Broadcast in which he spoke about his youth in Brixton (18/03/92). Images of the “soapbox tour” can be seen in the PEB shown on 7/04/92. Butler, D., Kavanagh, D., The British General Election of 1992, op. cit., 124; Rosenbaum, M., From Soapbox to Soundbite : Party Political Campaigning in Britain since 1945, London, Macmillan, 1997, 272.

48   Interview with Jonathan Hill, op. cit. It is relevant to point out that Labour’s Neil Kinnock appeared in massive rallies taking place in stadiums.

49   Major, J., The Autobiography, London, Harper Collins Publishers, 1999, 290.

50   Quoted in Foley, M., The Rise of the British Presidency, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1993, 244.

51   Major, J., The Autobiography, op. cit., 300-301; Butler, D., Kavanagh, D., The British General Election of 1992, op. cit., 102 and 130; Kavanagh, D., Election Campaigning : The New Marketing of Politics, op. cit., 73 and 245.

52   Butler, D., Kavanagh, D., The British General Election of 1992, op. cit., 175. An extract from this broadcast can be seen at http ://observatoire.univ-tln.fr (Excerpt n°3).

53   “I have no doubt about the golden prospects for Britain. Of all the nations in the world, I believe none is more respected than ours. Its language has been borrowed, its culture followed, its literature read, and its Parliament copied.”, PEB shown on 7/04/92. See http ://observatoire.univ-tln.fr (Excerpt n°4).

54   Hall, S., “The Great Moving Right Show” [1978], in Hall, S., The Hard Road to Renewal : Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left, London, Verso, 1988, 39-56. See also Jessop, B., et al., “Authoritarian Populism, Two Nations, and Thatcherism”, New Left Review, n° 147, 1984, 32-60; Hall, S., “Authoritarian Populism : A Reply to Jessop et al.”, New Left Review, n° 151, 1985, 115-24.

55   This excerpt can be seen at http ://observatoire.univ-tln.fr (Excerpt n°5).

56   Cockerell, M., Live from Number 10 : The Inside Story of Prime Ministers and Television, London, Faber & Faber, 1988, 327.

57   Major, J., The Autobiography, op. cit., 300-301.

58   Speech at the Blackpool party conference, October 1991. CPA, PPB 146.See also www.johnmajor.co.uk/speechconf1991.html.

59   PPB shown on 11/12/96.

60   Major, J., The Autobiography, op. cit., 290.

61   Interview with Jonathan Hill, op. cit.

62  57 Conservative PPBs were aired between 17th January 1991 (John Major’s first Ministerial Broadcast) and 29th April 1997 (last broadcast of the general election campaign).

63   This was a deliberate decision made by the party strategists who wanted to present the government as a team. This was especially true in 1983 when Margaret Thatcher appeared in many programmes, be they devoted to politics and current affairs or be they entertainment shows. Gordon Reece also wanted to increase her “televisual rarity value” and avoid the “wear-out factor”. Cockerell, M., Live from Number 10 : The Inside Story of Prime Ministers and Television, op. cit., 253; Butler, D., Kavanagh, D., The British General Election of 1983, London, Macmillan, 1984, 151.

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References

Bibliographical reference

David Haigron, « “Caring” John Major : portrait of a Thatcherite as a One-Nation Tory », Observatoire de la société britannique, 7 | 2009, 177-196.

Electronic reference

David Haigron, « “Caring” John Major : portrait of a Thatcherite as a One-Nation Tory », Observatoire de la société britannique [Online], 7 | 2009, Online since 01 February 2011, connection on 18 August 2017. URL : http://osb.revues.org/781 ; DOI : 10.4000/osb.781

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About the author

David Haigron

Maître de Conférences à l’Université de Caen

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Copyright

Observatoire de la société britannique

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