Major Achiever

November 28, 1990

John Major was chosen prime minister of Britain yesterday because he is young, a meritocrat, Margaret Thatcher's choice and acceptable to the British electorate as polled.

The move from 11 Downing Street, where the chancellor of the exchequer lives, to Number 10, next door where the prime minister resides, is not wrenching. This is a changeover the rapidity of which never ceases to amaze Americans. But, equally, it is smooth.

The United States has lost a great friend in Margaret Thatcher, deposed by her colleagues as bound to lose the next election, for a bland man of whom most Americans know nothing. There will be policy changes -- this was agreed by Mr. Major and his two opponents, Michael Heseltine and Douglas Hurd. Britain will take a more positive attitude toward the economic consolidation of Europe and seek more say in how that is achieved. The painful substitution of a poll tax for property taxes in local government will be reviewed. Beyond that, a Major government will be continuity, not change, from the Thatcher regime, especially in the Persian Gulf.

At 47, 10 years younger than Mr. Heseltine and 13 shy of Mr. Hurd, Mr. Major is someone who can rejuvenate the Conservative Party for future elections. And if he doesn't, they will chuck him out. He made his contribution at the Treasury, most recently as its chief, and enjoys the confidence of Britain's financial community. That will make up for a comparatively narrow experience of government. He entered Parliament only in 1979, on the coattails of Mrs. Thatcher's first victory.

More than his opponents, Mr. Major is a child of modest origins who made good on merit. Legendarily so. He dropped out of school at 16 and went on the dole and into banking. He is the third leader of the Conservative Party in a row, following Mrs. Thatcher and Edward Heath, who was born outside the ruling classes, to whom British society was not a set of class barriers but an open door to opportunity. He is the first of those without university education. Quite consciously, the Tories are becoming the party of merit, not inheritance.

Mr. Major was Mrs. Thatcher's favorite cabinet minister and choice for successor. His victory is her last retort to colleagues who brought her down. Two weeks ago it was certain that the Labor Party would come to power in the next election by mid-1992. Now that is most uncertain, which is why this change occurred.

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