British Conservative politician; prime minister (1990–97).
The son of a music-hall performer turned designer of garden ornaments, Major was born and brought up in south London. After the collapse of the family business the Majors lived in some poverty; John left school at sixteen and worked in labouring jobs before starting a banking career in 1963. His rise to a senior position at the Standard Chartered Bank coincided with a growing interest in politics and he served in local government from the late 1960s.
Elected to parliament in 1979, he became minister of state for social security (1986–87) and chief secretary to the Treasury (1987–89). In 1989 he was unexpectedly promoted to foreign secretary, a position he held for only three months before being moved to the Exchequer on the resignation of Nigel Lawson (1932– ). As Chancellor, Major followed a tough policy of maintaining high interest rates as a measure to curb inflation. Following the enforced resignation of Margaret Thatcher in November 1990, he emerged as the candidate best able to maintain party unity and, with Mrs Thatcher's backing, was chosen as her successor.
The youngest prime minister of the century, Major had been in the Cabinet for only three years and was little known by the public. Although his diffident and apparently modest style led some detractors to label him as ‘grey’, it initially made a favourable impression in the country, especially during the Gulf War with Iraq (1991), which broke out only weeks into his premiership. Major signalled a break with Thatcherite policies by abolishing the hated poll tax, taking a more conciliatory line on Europe, and announcing the Citizen's Charter to protect the rights of individuals. In many other areas, however, notably the wholesale privatization of state-run industries, Major continued and consolidated Thatcher's agenda.
With the economy stuck in recession and a newly confident opposition, Major was widely expected to lose the 1992 general election. In the event, the Conservatives were returned to office with a much reduced majority, an outcome that was seen as a personal triumph for the prime minister. However, within months the government's key economic policy lay in ruins, when the pound was forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism despite expensive attempts to maintain its value. The impression of disarray was compounded by Conservative rebellions over the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty (1992), which committed EU states to a process of monetary and political union. The party's bitter divisions on Europe dogged the remainder of Major's premiership and his attempts to maintain unity left him looking weak and indecisive. In a desperate move to reassert his authority Major resigned the party leadership in June 1995 to force an election, which he won. By this time Major could point to a steady improvement in the economy and one outstanding political achievement – the opening of a peace process in Northern Ireland, accompanied by a ‘complete’ IRA ceasefire (1994–96; renewed 1997); this would lead eventually to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Nevertheless, public perceptions of his administration in its last years were dominated by a series of financial and sexual scandals (the so-called ‘sleaze factor’) and opinion polls regularly showed that both prime minister and government were the most unpopular since polling began. In May 1997 Major led the Conservatives to their worst general election result of the century and Labour's Tony Blair became prime minister.