A life less than ordinary?;Book of the week;Reviews;Features amp; arts
John Major's public image was greyer than a dreary December day. But Gillian Shephard finds in her ex-boss's memoirs a portrait of a warm-hearted and decent man who bears few grudges.
John Major and I never fell out for long, although exasperation overtook both of us at times of strain. One spat occurred in November 1996, when I revealed my own (as opposed to government) thinking on corporal punishment on Radio 4's Today programme. It was a silly mistake on my part but the Number 10 machine, perhaps also mistakenly, whirled into overdrive and told the press I had been hauled out of an opening ceremony at a school in Surrey to be chastised by the Prime Minister on a mobile phone.
We did indeed speak, on a land line, and he asked me to make clear in the Commons later that day that I had been giving a personal view. (I have never considered corporal punishment particularly harmful.) We were both pretty furious about the amount of energy expended on not very much, and on a joint visit the following day we were stalked by photographers trying to discern hostile body language. There was none, but the cartoonists had a field day.
Before publication of John Major's book, another machine was in overdrive. This time the hype merchants were promising recriminatory revelations of an embittered politician who felt betrayed by his colleagues, the electorate and the media. Again, the reality is less dramatic - the writing reveals a measured, tolerant author, wry and mild in tone even when recounting battles with his opponents about his mistakes. Writing about his decision to promote Jonathan Aitken to the Cabinet, John Major says: "In the end, you take a judgement. I took a judgement. It was wrong." A similar clarity illuminates much of this account of an extraordinarily eventful period in international and domestic politics, ending with an election defeat of disastrous proportions for the Conservative Party.
Major's early life occupies a small section (it has already been exhaustively trawled by the press, sometimes inaccurately) but the book reveals just how profoundly his childhood and education experiences formed his views and attitudes.
His concern for the unsuccessful, those who struggle with public services, those who lack the affluence or confidence to exercise choice, and those who have had a difficult start in life, illuminated many of his social policies. He was never given the credit for them partly because, at that time, they were at odds with the party's public face. His Citizen's Charter initiative, so mercilessly and misguidedly caricatured by smart political commentators, attempted to bring people's day-to-day experiences of the services more closely in line with aspirations and expectations.
The book's broad subject headings bring home to the reader the preoccupations that gripped the Conservative government between 1990 and 1997: Europe, of course, the economy and withdrawal from the Exchange Rate Mechanism, war in the Gulf and Bosnia, Northern Ireland, the BSE crisis and, above all, the knowledge that four terms in government is a long time in politics.
Some of the writing is memorable for the insight it provides into colleagues and their motives. All of it is illuminated by the author's humanity and tolerance, on occasion tempered by that waspish exasperation which often stemmed from his understanding of the importance of public services and from his frustration, which I shared, that Conservative rhetoric had somehow rendered the party unconvincing on this issue. Under Margaret Thatcher, speaking up for public services had become a peculiarly "wet" thing to do, and some colleagues remained in a time warp.
John Major and I believed strongly that health, welfare and education were very much the responsibility of the state, and resented the accusation that we wanted only to privatise everything. Even more infuriating, this perception, reinforced by the pronouncements of Michael Portillo and others, was at odds with the investment in reforms and resources we had poured into the public services.
Major's attitudes to education were very much formed by his own experience. "I had failed at school, and while I couldn't prevent others from doing so, I could prevent the system from failing them," he writes. His sincerity is undoubted, but the very content of his autobiography, which illustrates the huge and pressing concerns office imposed upon him, also explains why his attention to educational matters, while genuine, was intermittent. It could not have been otherwise. But he was always a true supporter of the structural changes introduced by successive education ministers to enhance choice, diversity and opportunity.
I, too, strongly supported those changes. Local financial management and its logical development, the grant-maintained sector, specialist schools, independent inspection and the publication of information about the performance of schools, colleges and universities, were part of the drive to make the system more transparent and accountable. John Major recognised when he appointed me as education secretary in 1994 that, despite the fundamental importance of our policies and the fact that they would drive up standards, the public's understanding of their purpose was minimal because of the noise they engendered among education professionals and their vulnerability to caricature.
I took over at the Department for Education, as it was then, from John Patten, who had been a silkily successful minister of state at the Department of Health and the Home Office. He believed, according to John Major, that he had been expected to implement badly-thought-out legislation at the DFE, without the necessary backing. Whatever the reason, flak was flying all around.
John Patten was seriously ill - he was admitted to hospital in the summer of 1994 - and for a time Emily Blatch, his minister of state in the Lords, assisted by Ron Dearing, did a great deal of work at the DFE. The prime minister asked me to calm things down, as he believed I had at agriculture, to concentrate on the purpose of the reforms and to work with education professionals, rather than in spite of them. "I want the teachers back on side," he told me. "I want you to sell what we are doing and try to get teachers to agree." This was in tune with what I believed necessary, and on the day of my appointment I put in telephone calls to all the teachers' leaders, which seemed to cause some amazement. The teachers and I went on from there.
Commentators of the day liked to discern disagreements between the prime minister and myself on the issue of grammar schools and selection. In fact, on the basis of his own educational experience, he had little reason to support grammar schools, whereas I had every reason to do so. Some sought to present selection as the only thought in our minds. The reality at the time of the election was that there were just 125 grammars in an education system of 25,000 schools. It is interesting that John Major does not refer to selection at all in his book.
John Major: the autobiography will disappoint those who believed the pre-publication hype. It does not present a man licking his wounds after seven punishing years. But for those who knew John Major, it emerges as a careful reflection of the events over which he presided, it deals generously with those who opposed him publicly and behind his back and is a true reflection of the man.
The Rt Hon Gillian Shephard MP was education and employment secretary during the last three years of the Major government.