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John Major

John MajorBorn: 29 March 1943 in St. Helier, Carshalton, Surrey

First entered Parliament: 3 May 1979

Age he became PM: 47 years, 245 days

Maiden Speech: 13 June 1979 during the debate on the new Government’s Budget

Total time as PM: Six years, 154 days

Facts and figures

Education: Rutlish Grammar School, Wimbledon

Family: John Major is the fourth son of four children. He is married to Norma Elizabeth Johnson, and has one son and one daughter

Interests: Cricket, football, theatre, music, reading

Biography

Humble background

Although born in the Worcester Park area of Sutton, Major grew up in the much poorer Brixton where the family were forced to move after the failure of his father’s business.

Major left school at 16, largely due to his family needing the income he could earn. He continued studying at home to qualify as a banker. In the interim, he took whatever jobs were available, working as a labourer, insurance broking clerk, and even made garden ornaments with his brother.

Britain fought the First Gulf War while John Major was PMHis political career began as a Conservative councillor in the London borough of Lambeth, and continued when he won the constituency of Huntingdon for the Conservatives in 1979, at the election which brought his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, to power.

He joined the Cabinet in 1987 as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. In the summer of 1989 John Major became Foreign Secretary after Geoffrey Howe was moved from the Foreign Office to become Leader of the House of Commons and Deputy Prime Minister. Major became Chancellor of the Exchequer less than 100 days later when Nigel Lawson dramatically resigned.

It was during Major’s tenure at the Treasury that Britain joined the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in October 1990.

Increasing pressure

Thatcher’s leadership at this time was under increasing pressure, and when she was challenged, John Major supported her in the leadership election of November 1990.

When she stepped down, Major entered the contest himself, and with Thatcher’s support he went on to beat Michael Heseltine and Douglas Hurd. Major appointed both colleagues to his new Cabinet. When elected, he was the youngest Prime Minister for over a century.

Once installed in the post of PM, Major had immediately to deal with an international crisis when Kuwait was invaded by Iraq. He led Britain successfully in the short war waged by the Allies against Saddam Hussein. Early into his term, he announced the abolition of the poll tax which had caused so much controversy during Thatcher’s final years in office.

A particular personal initiative was the Citizens Charter, a code designed to introduce greater accountability to public services and to drive up standards of service. The Charter has been built on by the present Labour Government and copied around the world.

Major’s style was radically different from his predecessor. His unassuming and down-to-earth manner was considered a breath of fresh air, and a contrast to Margaret Thatcher’s forcefulness.

He established the Northern Ireland Peace Process in the early 1990s and agreed the ‘Downing Street Declaration’ and ‘Joint Frameworks Document’ with successive Irish Premiers. These formed the necessary building blocks for the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

John Major also established the National Lottery as a personal initiative which has provided billions of pounds for good causes.

Under Major the Conservatives went on to win the 1992 election with a workable majority, despite opinion polls which had predicted a hung parliament. However, over the next five years by-election losses and defections would whittle the government’s majority down to single figures.

Perhaps the lowest point of John Major’s premiership came soon after the election: the sterling crisis of September 1992 forced the pound to leave the ERM. A new economic policy was swiftly devised and led to five successive years of growth between 1992 and 1997 with falling unemployment and inflation.

In 1995 Major made a bold move to reassert his authority within the Conservative Party when he resigned as leader (but not as Prime Minister) and submitted himself for re-election.

In the subsequent contest he was challenged by the Welsh Secretary, John Redwood, whom he defeated.

However, the Conservatives were defeated by Labour in the 1997 General Election, and John Major resigned as leader, having been PM for seven of the Conservatives eighteen consecutive years in power.

John Major has now retired from the House of Commons and in 1999 published his political memoirs.

Quote unquote

“Fifty years on from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers.”

Did you know?

He was christened ‘John Roy Major’ but only the name John is shown on his birth certificate. He used the middle name Roy until the early 1980s.

Wife

Norma MajorNorma Major was as a teacher and has a strong interest in art and music. She wrote the official biography of the opera singer, Dame Joan Sutherland, and also served on the Board of Directors, Welsh National Opera for several years.

She joined the Young Conservatives but had never been very passionate about politics until she met John on polling day for the GLC elections in London. It was rather strange, she recalled, to find love and politics on the same day. They became engaged ten days later.

Aged 48 when her husband received the key to Number 10, Norma was exposed to plenty of media attention - the press had gone more than a decade without a PM’s wife to focus on. A popular hostess, she enjoyed the privilege of being at Number 10 and carrying out the demanding role of PM spouse. 

She has been a long-time supporter and fundraiser for the charity MENCAP, and became its national Vice Chairman. She used Number 10 and Chequers regularly to help raise funds for various other worthy charities.

Described as a resilient and self-sufficient women, Norma grew into her role and provided sterling support to her husband. Long-standing supporters of charity, the couple have a son and daughter. She wrote an official history of Chequers that became a bestseller. In 1999, she was awarded a DBE for her charitable work.

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