John Major, the reluctant political attack dog, tries to win one on his own GENERAL ELECTION IN BRITAIN

April 05, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- When Prime Minister John Major warned of a "Nightmare on Kinnock Street" should the Labor Party be elected Thursday, he was following the successful strategy used by the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher in 1987:

Attack Neil Kinnock personally, scare everybody by describing the disarray of Britain under previous Labor governments and suggest that it could all come back, like Freddy Krueger.

The strategy hasn't varied since the start of the campaign March 11, but there is something amiss.

John Major is not a political dog of war. And while he has a soap box now and shouts to crowds in shopping malls about Labor mobs and so forth, none of this is really his style.

In fact, one could ask what Mr. Major is doing in the Conservative Party to begin with.

It is not only that he came to the leadership without a background of wealth. Previous Conservative leaders Margaret

Thatcher and Edward Heath weren't wealthy. "But Major is even more of an outsider," said Patrick J. Dunleavy of the London School of Economics. "He has little education. His childhood, it wasn't exactly deprived, but it wasn't an easy one. Not middle class like Margaret Thatcher's."

Mr. Dunleavy believes that Mr. Major has another dimension that separates him from many other Conservatives. "He is quite liberalish in his social attitudes. He probably hasn't forgotten his background."

John Major's life started 49 years ago in middle-class Worcester Park, Surrey. His father had a garden ornament business. But when John was 11, the business failed, and the family was forced to move to a two-room walk-up in the rough south London neighborhood of Brixton.

Mr. Major never finished college, described himself as an indifferent student and spent the better part of a year on welfare. He did manage to get a business degree, by correspondence, and a job in banking.

He made it into the Commons in the 1979 election that brought Mrs. Thatcher to power.

He owes virtually his entire career success to Mrs. Thatcher, who promoted him through two Cabinet posts before she was ousted in November 1990 and replaced by him.

A. John Barnes, author of a biography of between-the-wars Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, said of Mr. Major: "He is an effective prime minister. The only criticism of him is to ask if he really has got the big V? Has he got vision? Ronald Reagan had vision but no command of detail. Mrs. Thatcher had both. Major has the grasp for the detail, but does he have the vision?"

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