Sir John Major, always a victim of the snobs, used to have the mickey taken out of him for his “not inconsiderable” circumlocutions of speech. “Pooterish”, they called it.
He’s more the elder statesman these days. He’s sticking up for the nearly half the country who voted Remain last year – they’re not the enemies of the people, but about half of the people. Quite right, Sir John, and a deft exposure of the silliness of much of the press coverage (then again, he’s seen his fair share of ugly press coverage of himself).
In his speech on the European debate – tellingly more lively and emotional than it ever was before the referendum – he comes straight to the point. If we are going to survive a hard Brexit, then we will need a radical resetting of the British economy. In order to win in world markets and compete against substantial barriers on exporting goods and services to Europe, Britain will have to be the sort of “bargain basement” economy that Jeremy Corbyn has also spoken about (an unusual moment of perspicacity there, I’ll admit).
It means, as Sir John says, scrapping the welfare state and the NHS, burning regulations and labour market protections and slashing taxation – and public services. That’s what we need to promote enterprise and generally allow the economy to “let rip”. This is the reality of the so-called “Singapore of Europe” model.
It would be the third and final chapter in the triumph of Thatcherism, the previous two being the decade the Lady herself spent smashing the unions, privatising stuff and reforming the economy, plus her posthumous victory in getting the UK out of the EU. Scrapping the NHS in favour, one presumes of some sort of charitable safety net, would be the final victory form beyond the grave. Theresa May is merely her earthly tool. It is the heaven that Liam Fox and Michael Gove dream of.
It might work. We do need to compete, and we can’t hide inside the EU for ever. The problem with all that, of course, is that there would be riots. The very areas of the country and groups of people that would be hit hardest by an ultra-low-tax thrusting Thatcherite Britain would be the ones that voted so heavily for Brexit in the hope of a better future. OK, they may well be right about that – but any brighter future is for the very long run – if they get there. It would be the 1980s all over again – mass unemployment, blighted regions, shuttered factories, dole queues, civil disturbance, inequalities and the rest, but more so. Plus, probably, some busted banks and lost savings and pensions along the way. As Sir John says, the route to such a new Britain would be a violent and painful one, and make any of those scraps Thatcher had in the 1980s look like a tea party. Would British democracy survive the strain? Would the UK stay together? Sir John suggests not. Some Tories might actually not even be bothered if Scotland floated off, and Ireland got re-united. Price worth paying and all that.
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So is Sir John Major turning “bastard”? A quarter of a century ago, mired in a civil war with his own party about the Maastricht Treaty, the then Mr Major inadvertently let his feelings about his Conservative opponents – sworn enemies might be a better word – clear. They cordially returned the loathing, and his government and Cabinet never succeeded in persuading the public they were united. As Prime Minister in the 1990s, Mr Major appealed to his critics not to “bind his hands” in negotiations in Europe, and to “put up or shut up” when they continually briefed against him. Is Sir John Major now adopting the very truculence against the current Prime Minister that he resented so much in his own time in No 10? Is he the sort of backseat driver Mrs Thatcher was when it was Sir John was trying to steer the car?
The case is superficial. What Sir John argues for now is for Parliament to have precisely the sort of scrutiny he granted it in those long arduous months of parliamentary grind back in 1992 to 1994. Parliament then had the right to chuck his deal out, and, if wanted, to embrace more of what Brussels desired back then. It should now, as Sir John says, have the right to accept or reject the terms of exit from the EU – with the status quo of EU membership on existing terms clearly an option. As it happens, a new referendum would be appropriate, as Tony Blair argues. I am sure that will come, once people see the real alternatives. They have a right to argue and a right to change their minds. After the 1975 referendum kept us in Europe no one shut the EU’s critics up, and nor should they have. Every election is about a choice.
Sir John is looking good these days. His massive achievements were to keep the UK out of the euro, out of Schengen and out of the “social chapter”, thus endowing the UK with what amounted to major, if you’ll pardon the expression, advantages over the rest of the EU. Although so badly maligned in his time, Sir John’s stock has risen very high by comparison with his peers. His premiership was, after all, a time of almost uninterrupted economic recovery, of securing the best deal any nation had inside the EU, and ensuring that the UK was at the centre of the Venn diagram that has the EU and the US in the two big circles. It wasn’t unalloyed success, that Major government, but many now will feel it looks a lot better than what came before or after. He deserves to be listened to. Oh yes!