Major in command

November 29, 1990

England's great 19th century novelist Charles Dickens had a penchant for choosing names to suit the character of the individuals he created -- Mrs. Micawber is a good example -- and we suspect that if he were around today and could have chosen a name for the British prime minister to succeed Margaret Thatcher, that name might have been John Major.

The military rank of major is a mid-level slot held by people usually in their mid-40s -- as John Major is. Only a few years ago Major was just a bright and promising young officer in the Conservative corps that the redoubtable Margaret Thatcher had assembled. So now the major is in command, a creature not of Dickens but rather of the formidable Margaret Thatcher, who plucked this self-made man from the obscurity of the back bench and in effect made him prime minister.

But Britain has never known a politician quite like John Major. He grew up in the London equivalent of South Baltimore, dropped out of school at 16 to do grunt toil to support his family, even lived on welfare in public housing for a time. With such a background Major, by all odds, might have been a firebrand TC Laborite within the British political spectrum. But despite the disadvantages of his childhood, he became self-educated, then a bootstraps banker, then went into politics, then quickly ascended to the lofty office of Chancellor of the Exchequer. In his victory this week as the Conservative choice to succeed Thatcher, he left far behind a man who just a decade ago would have embodied his party's elegant Oxfordian values, Douglas Hurd.

Major still must prove he can command, but if he can set aright the tilting ship of the British economy, he could bring about a sea-change in his nation's illustrious history. No matter how dedicated he may be to Conservative ideological values, there will always be a still, small voice in his soul telling him that the social support mechanism which put a roof over his head and food on the table during a bleak period in his life was erected by British Socialists. It is not likely that such a person would ever adopt a let-them-eat-cake attitude toward the less fortunate in a society which is still very stratified.

John Major is indeed a man of many parts, and his career could be a fascinating one to watch over the coming years.

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