The legacy of the quiet man

John Major
John Major Picture: Sharon Farmer/Wikipedia
Neil Coupe
Neil Coupe

ANOTHER VIEW with Neil Coupe

When asked why he was a Conservative, Gyles Brandreth responded to the effect that he was a Conservative because he liked things the way they are, or more accurately, the way things were 25 years ago.

This must have been in the back of my mind when for some reason I decided that my holiday reading would be Sir John Major’s autobiography, written in 1999 and mainly focused on his time in office as prime minister from 1990-97.

In some ways it reads as a text from a distant galaxy — a time of so-called ‘sleaze’ when political careers were destroyed for activities in MP’s personal lives that would not raise an eyebrow today. 

The concept of 24-hours-a-day news was in its infancy, and social media was still years away.  On the other hand, our current local MP, Sir John Redwood was a key player in the story, and inevitably, there was lots of talk about Europe. Plus ça change.

From a 2021 perspective, however, there are two achievements that resonate to this day.

This week we heard that our Paralympians had won their 1,000th Olympic medal since the introduction of the National Lottery.  Since winning one gold in the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, GB has won more than 100 gold medals in the subsequent six Games. 

At the time, Major wanted to use National Lottery funding to nurture talent and involvement at grassroots level throughout the country, and coming from a modest background himself, supported the idea that children from every background should have the same opportunity to participate in and enjoy arts and sport.

READ MORE: TORIES IN TURMOIL … Could John Redwood be the one to save them?

Once the lottery was up-and-running, the proceeds were spread throughout the country on new sports facilities, such as swimming pools in many different towns and specific projects such as the velodrome in Manchester. 

The subsequent targeted funding through UK Sport, aiming for excellence and success has clearly been spent in an effective way, and can be traced directly back to the introduction of the National Lottery.

If we look at how many different parts of the country have produced the successful Olympians and Paralympians, there is a clear argument that this is a fine example of ‘levelling up’ before the phrase had even been invented.

The other major achievement was the Citizens Charter, which at the time was sneered at, as being the ‘Cones Hotline’, where people could phone a number to ask why there were cones on their motorway route.   

In reality it was the medium by which the quality of public services would be properly measured, benchmarked and ultimately improved, at a time when the conventional wisdom was that the only way of improving public services was by throwing money at it.

NHS waiting list targets were introduced, the average time waiting for a passport was halved, but maybe most importantly of all, Ofsted inspections were introduced, amid great resistance from the teachers’ unions and the Department of Education.

At the time, it was felt that it was unreasonable to compare schools given that the demographics of the local areas were the most important single factor.

At the time, prospective parents would have access to more information about the toaster they were thinking of buying than the school they may consider sending their children to. 

Now schools have banners up outside their premises proclaiming their Ofsted ratings and it would be inconceivable that such inspections would subsequently be abolished.  

John Major was soundly beaten in the 1997 election and is not considered to be
a particularly distinguished prime minister,  but a quarter of a century on, his legacy lives on. 

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