John Major. The Autobiography.

By John Major

Printed: 1999

Publisher: Harper Collins. London

Dimensions 17 × 24 × 6 cm

Language: English

Size (cminches): 17 x 24 x 6

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In the original dustsheet. Black cloth binding with gilt title on the spine.

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‘The best memoir by a senior politician for years.’ Simon Jenkins, Sunday Times

John Major’s autobiography is one of the most personal and revealing ever written by a former British Prime Minister. The account of his childhood, rise and fall is candid, scrupulous and unsparing. Major’s early life was extraordinary; his rise through Parliament meteoric. Soon a favourite of Margaret Thatcher, he became Foreign Secretary and then Chancellor of the Exchequer. When Thatcher fell, he fought and won a shrewd campaign to succeed her, and went on to win a remarkable general election victory in 1992. He brought down inflation and ushered in a solid economic recovery, yet within months of the 1992 election, his government was in troubled waters. John Major is candid about his fight to keep sterling in the ERM and his reactions to ‘Black Wednesday’. He is frank about the civil war within his party over Britain’s relationship with the EU. He is honest about what he won and what he lost, about friends and foes within his party as well as outside.

Reviews – John Major’s rise to the post of British prime minister is a puzzle of modern politics that his lengthy autobiography fails to resolve. It is clear, as we follow him from his modest origins in south London to his work as a local councillor and his remarkable ascent at Westminster under the eye of Margaret Thatcher, that he was driven by a determination to prove himself. But now that we are growing used to the messianic zeal that Tony Blair brings to the role of prime minister, it seems extraordinary that John Major should have achieved the position with such little evident vision or relish. Here is the man we thought we knew, decent, hard-working; at the mercy of events rather than their master. So we find him bowed down by the misfortunes of an ungrateful world, rendered defensive by problems with the economy, by arguments over Europe, by the intractability of politicians in Northern Ireland, by attacks from within his own party. With that same party busy airbrushing him from its history–despite his unlikely victory over Neil Kinnock in 1992–it’s as well he has got his account into print, an unstuffy telling of a fascinating story that is free of the pomposity that affects so many of his political peers and which reveals a deep-seated belief in the value of basic decency. “I will not concede possession of the recent past to the mythographers of the left or right who have every self-interest in retouching the history we made,” he says. But how sad to find him still so defensive and so bitter about the slights of others, still anxious to explain why speeches or gestures were misconstrued. “I was too conservative, too conventional. Too safe, too often. Too defensive. Too reactive,” he says. But could he have been anything else? –Kim Fletcher

From the Back Cover – The most personal and revealing autobiography to date of any British Prime Minister. The memoirs of the Right Honourable John Major, M. P., is the most eagerly awaited biography of the year. His intention in writing the book is to give as open and accurate an account of his time in office as possible; and he does not pull any punches. Major’s early life is itself extraordinary, and the opening chapters make for compelling reading in themselves. Thereafter he cut his political teeth in the hurly-burly of metropolitan local council politics in Lambeth, and after entering Parliament he became a Whip. His rise was meteoric; a favourite of Margaret Thatcher, he was soon to become Foreign Secretary and then rapidly Chancellor. When Thatcher fell he fought a brilliant campaign to become her successor, and won. Soon after came the Gulf War, then Maastricht; then he won the General Election of 1992, itself a considerable achievement. It was, of course, the events of Black Wednesday and the ensuing battles over British engagement, or otherwise, with Europe that were to prove the Major government’s most taxing challenges, and John Major will be frank about what he tried to do and about those who opposed him. But not all was darkness; the first steps on the long road to the Good Friday Agreement were taken by him, and many initiatives in foreign affairs, in the US and over Bosnia, were to prove sound. Under him, too, the economy began to recover; yet the media would have none of it, concentrating instead on the mounting tide of ‘sleaze’ stories, and confusing the central message of the ‘Back to Basics’ campaign. Faced with growing internal opposition Major routed his opponents with the 1995 leadership election and the challenge to ‘put up or shut up’; yet, as in so many things over that period, almost everything that could go wrong did so, and soon the Mad Cow beef war was upon us. In 1997 a new order was brought to power, and Major acted with a dignity seldom seen in politics; after his demise, the Conservative party collapsed into a furore of infighting, and his incumbency may be remembered as the last time for many years when the party was to look like a real power in the land. Major oversaw the ending of an era, and this book will be full of personal stories and reflections about those trying times, which were also sometimes good times and entertaining times, and which, written with a certain terse verve, make for very enjoyable, and certainly highly illuminating, reading. This is a ground-breaking book of its kind.


A personal Review: Isn’t it funny how tastes can change over the years? I’m not talking about books this time though I only started reading political memoirs over the last five years or so but I always had an interest in politics even as a kid. When I was twelve I could name every member of Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet! I grew up in a family of Labour voters with a cloud hanging over the policies of Thatcher, especially in Scotland. So when John Major was Prime Minister, everyone I knew pretty much hated the Tories and thought they didn’t do anything good for the ordinary person. It is funny that it is my political leanings that have changed over the years and that is why I love reading about the 1980’s and 1990’s. Now I can objectively see what the government was trying to do and the policies, fights, scandals…it is interesting to read and look back. In most memoirs, I don’t find much interest in the childhood years and the family tree but I have to admit that John Major’s upbringing was different from most MP’s. His parents worked as circus performers and music hall stars so it was a far from conventional family life, and he talks about his father’s children from other women in and out of his marriages. Major was the family stage name which was adopted for John and he stuck with it. He entered politics as a Conservative councillor in Brixton, fighting the infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech and standing up to racist candidates. This part of the book was interesting as it set the tone for what Major was determined to fight against. His rise through politics was very speedy and Major himself regrets that it all came about too quickly. Having secured one of the safest Conservative seats in Britain, he swept into Parliament. His jobs included PPS, working in the whip department, Social Security, Minister for the Disabled, and bringing reforms to winter fuel payments. When Major reached the Treasury, Nigel Lawson was the first MP opposing the infamous Poll Tax both economically and politically so as a Treasury official, Major was arguing against the policy. I always find it interesting to see who was for and against the policy. The chapters about these different jobs were fascinating as Major goes into detail what the job entailed, his duties and what was generally going on with the government at the time.


John Major was getting surgery for a wisdom tooth at the time the plot to unseat Margaret Thatcher was beginning so he was not at Parliament when the plotting was in full swing but he still tells what he saw and heard through visitors and phone calls. It was Thatcher who promoted him to a job he did not want as Foreign Secretary but just as he was getting settled there and starting to enjoy it, Nigel Lawson resigned as Chancellor and Major was shocked to suddenly be promoted to the job he had always wanted. He admits that he would have liked more time in both jobs before suddenly being in the frame for Prime Minister. He was chosen to lead the party and country by a lot of his peers and with the full blessing of Thatcher who believed that he would be her man and continue her policies. She was to be mistaken! There are chapters dedicated to all the main events in his years in power including the Poll Tax discussions, The first Gulf War, The Citizen’s Charter, Maastricht Treaty, 1992 General Election win, Black Wednesday, the National Lottery, the Northern Ireland peace process, the summits, Balkan War, fighting allegations of Tory sleaze, his put up or shut up challenge to his backbenchers and the 1997 loss to Labour. He details how Labour stole Tory policies and how Tony Blair copied ideas from Major’s own speeches so it seems that the popular sound bites Blair used came often from Major’s speeches! Blair was often seen as a Red Tory and I’m starting to see why! The other thing that interested me was of course Major’s love of reading, talking of books as cherished friends to be picked up again and again, a sentiment I certainly agree with. I loved the detail in this book. John Major explains each policy, what it was intended to do, how it was implemented, what went right or wrong. It gives the reader a greater understanding of the policies and the political issues that were going on. It goes very much behind the scenes of the fights and scandals and the battles with the Tory right over Europe that derailed the government and helped them to lose an election. It was fascinating from start to finish yet written so that the ordinary person can understand even the most complex financial issues. It was a brilliant read and my first five star book of the year.


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