Adrian Lee is a Solicitor-Advocate in London, specialising in criminal defence, and was twice a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate.
Thirty years ago, in October 1993, Conservative Party Conference representatives gathered in the Winter Garden’s Imperial Ballroom in Blackpool to hear their Leader’s speech. Behind the stage and waiting to enter the hall, John Major had no conception that the speech that he was about to deliver would haunt him for the rest of his term in office.
Major had enjoyed a successful first 18 months in government. His consensual, polite, and humble style was appreciated. He was seen as an everyman, who had left a state school at 16 and gone out to work. Many believed that this would help him to take a more practical approach to government.
The left of the party were overjoyed that the Thatcher years had ended, whilst the right were just relieved that Michael Heseltine had not seized the crown. The new prime minister also was applauded for the Allied victory in the First Gulf War, and his personal efforts to protect Iraqi Kurds.
Perhaps nothing so typified this era as the popularity of ITV’s Sunday evening adaptation of HE Bates The Darling Buds of May, which started broadcasting in April 1991. Set in the late 1950s, it transported the viewer to a make-believe world of One Nation Tory rule under Harold Macmillan where kindness, friendship, and family values prevailed.
In reality, Macmillan’s government was beset by growing industrial strife and poor economic performance, but most had forgotten this, and welcomed both their new prime minister and the television series as antidotes to the adversarial politics of Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Scargill.
At the General Election in April 1992, the Conservatives won an unexpected fourth term with an overall majority of 21. Rupert Murdoch’s press claimed that “It’s The Sun Wot Won It.”, but the party faithful were convinced that Major himself was the critical factor. Whilst Labour’s Neil Kinnock had lost his cool at the triumphalist Sheffield Rally, Major had addressed crowds in shopping centres, standing on a soapbox.
His man-of-the-ppeople image was reinforced in March 1992 by a party election broadcast directed by John Schlesinger. Here we saw the Prime Minister being chauffeured around Brixton in search of the grotty HMO where he had lived with his family in the Fifties. “Is it still there?” he said in contrived curiosity, as the vehicle approached the premises.
(Apparently, Major personally hated the film, but the only complaints that Conservative Central Office received were from folk pointing out that he wasn’t wearing his seatbelt in the car.)
The weekend after the election, the Sunday newspapers were full of commentary articles asking if Labour could ever hope to return to power. Few noticed that there was a figurative ticking bomb, installed by Major himself and labelled the “Treaty on European Union”, waiting to go off under the Government.
On 7 February 1992, Douglas Hurd and Francis Maude had signed the Treaty on European Union at Maastricht on behalf of the United Kingdom. The Treaty stated that having “resolved to continue the process of creating an ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe”, it proposed that “further steps be taken in order to advance European integration.”
The old title of European Economic Community would be dropped in favour of the new, more federalist, European Union.
“Citizenship” of the Union would be imposed on all Member State nationals, providing for free movement between countries. Economic and monetary union would be sought, and this would evolve within a few years into the establishment of a European single currency. EU competence would extend into areas of education, culture, public health, consumer protection, industry, and environment.
Finally, the European Union would impose a common foreign and security policy, including a common defence. Annexed to the Treaty was a Protocol and Agreement on Social Policy, creating certain minimum social and employment protections.
Even though the British government made much about the opt-outs from the proposed single currency and Social Chapter, there existed a general feeling within Conservative ranks that the tide was flowing in the wrong direction. With an election approaching, Eurosceptics decided to keep their powder dry, safe in the knowledge that the Treaty would have to come before Parliament in the autumn for ratification.
The Treaty’s narrow rejection in the Danish referendum in June fired the starting gun for the British Eurosceptics. Within days, Michael Spicer and Bill Cash had established the Fresh Start Group and had gained the support of both Thatcher and Norman Tebbit.
In September, following the Sterling Crisis, Britain was forced to withdraw from the Exchange Rate Mechanism, causing the public to lose faith in Major’s economic competency. Millions of homeowners were forced into negative equity.
The Major Government blustered from crisis to crisis. Not only was there an on-going parliamentary battle over Europe, but unemployment passed three million. By now, in satire, Major had become the grey man who lived on a diet of frozen peas.
His government’s unpopularity was spelt out in two by-elections: Newbury on 6th May and Christchurch on 29th July 1993. At Newbury, the Liberal Democrats achieved a swing of 28.4 per cent, whilst at Christchurch they secured a swing of 35.4 per cent.
It was therefore vital that the leader’s speech to party conference laid the foundations for a fightback.
Major’s speech on 8 October began with calls for party unity. He then changed tack and spoke of “a world that sometimes seems to be changing too fast for comfort”. Major continued:
“The old values – neighbourliness, decency, courtesy – they’re still alive, they’re still the best of Britain. They haven’t changed, and yet somehow people feel embarrassed by them. We shouldn’t be. It is time to return to those old core values, time to get back to basics, to self-discipline and respect for the law, to consideration for others, to accepting responsibility and your family and not shuffling off on other people and the state.”
Despite Major’s later denials, the media construed this speech as a lecture on personal morals. Within weeks the floodgates opened, and each Sunday the press exposed new revelations of scandals involving Conservative MPs.
One minster was alleged to have had simultaneous affairs with three different women; another had conceived a “love child” whilst proclaiming the need to reduce the number of single parent families. A backbencher admitted that he shared a hotel bed with a man on a rugby tour but denied his wife’s claims that he was gay or that he had left her for a man.
One Conservative MP was found dead on his kitchen table, dressed only in stockings and suspenders. Discovered with a rope around his neck and a satsuma in his mouth, it was believed that he died of auto-erotic asphyxiation whilst stimulating himself.
There were at least 20 more of these “sleaze” scandals, all of which were revealed in rapid succession. They rolled on in the media until the 1997 general election. The comic Viz even created a cartoon featuring an over-sexed, financially corrupt, Tory MP named Baxter Basics.
The effect was catastrophic on Conservative credibility. The public viewed the government as corrupt, hypocritical, and deceitful. “Sleaze” fuelled Labour’s “things can only get better” narrative and was a significant factor in building the scale of Labour’s 1997 majority.
Major cannot be blamed for his political colleagues’ personal affairs. But making this speech revealed serious political naivete. In 2002, Edwina Currie announced that she and Major had enjoyed a four year long extra-marital affair. Currie denounced the Back-to-Basics speech as “absolute humbug”. It is hard to disagree with her under the circumstances.