by Ed West
Tuesday, 10
November 2020
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11:00

Who’s really being nostalgic, Sir John?

John Major's claim that nostalgia is the route to national decline has no basis
by Ed West
Sir John Major gave a speech last night about Brexit. Credit: Getty

I have a lot of nostalgia for the John Major years. Partly it’s because 1997 saw a huge culture change that was not entirely welcome, marked by three historic events – the election of Blair, the handover of Hong Kong and the death of Princess Diana (and one might add a fourth, the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone). Partly, of course, it’s because I was a teenager and so associate my own relatively happy memories with a period that for many was grim – unemployment and negative equity for some, greater intolerance for others.

But nostalgia is hard-wired into us, so that even the most difficult of times are given a rosy sheen by our memories. In time, some of you might even remember 2020 fondly.


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In politics, nostalgia is viewed as a negative — a sign of irrationality and even personal failure. Yesterday former prime minister Sir John Major gave warning that “Complacency and nostalgia are the route to national decline”.

“We are no longer a great power,” Major said: “We will never be so again. In a world of nearly eight billion people, well under 1% are British.”

Is nostalgia really associated with decline? That strikes me as one of those things you read in the FT or Economist and is taken as true, without any real evidence. Nostalgia was certainly a common political feeling among societies on the rise; both archaic Greece and Republican Rome were noted for their yearning for a simpler (and obviously imagined) past. In our own country nostalgia has been a running theme among political causes from the Puritan radicals of the 17th century to the Young England movement, none of which heralded national decline. Even Edward III’s war back in the 14th century is seen by some historians as being built on nostalgia for a lost Arthurian world of chivalry and honour; and this was a war that helped forge our national identity.

More than 17 million people voted to Leave and no doubt some were nostalgic for an age when the country was more respected, and perhaps when they were personally happier and healthier. But I’m not sure I’ve ever met a Leave supporter who thinks Britain is still a major world power, or would particularly desire either an empire of a bigger place on the world stage; that desire for global greatness seems more common among supporters of the European Union.

Brexit support was contradictory; for some it was about a Global Britain vision of free trade and closer ties with the likes of Canada, Australia and India; for others (the majority, I’d say) it was a desire to slow down the pace of globalisation, to shore up social solidarity and security, and wages.

There’s an element of nostalgia in both of these visions, just as there is in ardent Remainerism — and that’s no bad thing.

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Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
2 years ago

Sir John Major ““ what a hugely disappointing man he became. His early life shows he was a rebel at heart. John Major’s father was a circus performer. It is a tired old cliché of rebellion, that of running away from home to join the circus – but imagine Sir John, running away from the circus to become “¦.. an accountant!! and then to become the elected leader of the establishment. A far, far greater act of rebellion.

Surely that makes Major the greatest rebel we ever had in No 10.

HOWEVER, his inner greyness, once established, completely captured him and he became timid and weak. Witness his behaviour over the last 4 years – endlessly sniping from the sidelines, making unhelpful suggestions despite pleading ““ when having been in a similar position (to both Mrs May and Boris) – “Whether you agree with me or disagree with me; like me or loathe me, don’t bind my hands when I am negotiating on behalf of the British nation”

I’d be interested to know when, in his opinion ““ that stopped being good advice?

If he’d have the guts, or even the conviction, he could have offered a referendum on the Maastricht treaty. I cannot speak for all 17.4 million Leave voters but I would hazard that a very large number of them would agree that the Common Market had made sense. A group of entirely sovereign nations agreeing to cooperate on trade. Had we remained simply as that there would never have needed to be any referendum. Since Maastricht, it was the creeping usurpation of powers without a democratic mandate that was the cause of rising euroscepticism (not merely here in the UK but across all of Europe).

Sir John likes to pretend himself a democrat – at least he makes all the right noises. But any honest Democrat would have recognised that UK voters had not been given a chance to express a view on our place in the EU since its direction of travel away from a simple trading bloc and towards political and fiscal union had become apparent. Major – like Blair, Brown & Cameron all knew it was the democratic thing to do, the right thing to do, the only morally justifiable thing to do. Yet Sir John, like Blair and Brown, weaselled out of their promises and their duty, always fearful of the result.

Since losing the referendum, Sir John spent much of the last few years advocating for a 2nd referendum, despite earlier stating (when he assumed Remain would win the referendum) “If we vote out, we are out, that’s it. It is not politically credible to go back and say that we have reconsidered, let’s have another referendum. If we vote to get out, then we are out and we will have to get on with it”.

He went one better (or worse) by going to court to fight prorogation despite having prorogued Parliament himself – for FAR MORE CYNICAL purposes – in order to avoid embarrassment over the “Cash for Questions” issue.

Truly breath-taking hypocrisy. The circus runaway turned PM has become a rebel without a cause, principle or a shred of honesty.

Kathryn Richards
Kathryn Richards
2 years ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

Well put (not sure I like his personal integrity/morals either – Edwina Curry?)

Paul
Paul
2 years ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

Indeed, the paragraph you highlighted became a boiler plate message from the majority of politicians of the hour. They really were attempting to scare us into remaining, so much so that they could not conceive we would have the bottle after Gideon threatened us with fire, damnation and an emergency budget that would squeeze the life out of us and the loss of 100’s of thousands of jobs lost literally overnight. Cameron with his best menacing face also told us it was a once only opportunity and if we took it the government would act with alacrity to enact the withdrawal. They, and Major, didnt think for a moment we would have the guts to go it alone and withdraw from the “club”. Nostalgia aint what it used to be but I still believe withdrawal will be a huge success. We would have been further down the road had the bat flu not gummed up the wheels of progress.

mark.hanson
mark.hanson
2 years ago
Reply to  Paul

And if it isn’t a “huge success” no doubt you and others like you will apologise to the British people and lead a movement to re-join.

Or will you just keep blaming someone else for this county’s failure just as you seem to blame the EU now?

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
2 years ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

If we lived in more enlightened times all four of the “weasels”, Blair, Brown, Cameron and Major would be dragged on a hurdle to Tyburn to suffer the full horror of the traitor’s death. (for full details see the late Geoffrey Moorhouse’s ‘The Pilgrimage of Grace, page 327).

Their heads would then be taken London Bridge to be feasted on by ravenous, yet appreciative, Red Kites. (thank you Hilary Mantel).

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
2 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

Well I don’t agree with capital punishment. But we could condemn them to share a bare room for the rest of the natural lives, with nothing to do but watch a livestream of proceedings at the European ‘Parliament.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
2 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Wouldn’t that constitute ‘cruel and unusual punishment’?

However it would be a most apposite alternative, I agree.

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
2 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

All our Prime Ministers since Thatcher have been disappointments – to say the very least.

Theresa May ““ As rightly famous for her personal warmth, political flexibility and persuasiveness as she is for her lithe and lissom grace on a dance floor. Like Rosa Klebb without the naïve charm. She lied throughout her premiership; to the people, to Parliament and to her closest party “allies”. She made aggressive noises towards Brussels and then backed down, similarly she made patriotic, pro-Brexit noises in her early pronouncements but secretly started backing away from all of her promises step by step as the process went on. She is a walking case-study in how NOT to be an effective PM, every facet of her premiership was a failure. Lacking any vision to see any opportunity in Brexit and thus lacking the ability to convince either side on her unpalatable compromises. Actively undermining the efforts of her own Minister in charge of Leaving the EU by secretly carrying on parallel negotiations in the shadows with a foreign power ““ all at the behest of her witch’s familiar, Olly Robbins.

Tony Blair ““ The most shameless leader we’ve ever had. Would do and say absolutely anything in the pursuit of his ultimate goal ““ that of high office within the EU. He long felt that scuppering Brexit was his best hope of achieving his dream. To that end he actively colluded with M Macron, the leader of a foreign power, trying to undermine his own country’s position in negotiations in the hope that if the EU gave us nothing we could be bullied into a humiliating capitulation. He has spent the years since leaving office selling influence and connections to help central Asian dictators and amassing a fortune from his work with, and for, some deeply unsavoury characters, all whilst strutting the world stage as the (laughably titled) Middle East Peace Envoy.
I’d no more trust his motives than I would trust Jean-Claude Juncker with the keys to the wine cellar.

Gordon Brown ““ Still grimly continuing to try and distance himself from any culpability even though it was he who signed the Lisbon treaty ““ knowing full well that it was essentially the same as the EU Constitution that he and Mr Blair had promised us a referendum on. Thought he’d get away with it by pushing the treaty through Parliament before it could be properly scrutinised. Though, even by his low standards, he could hardly have looked more shifty when, after all the other EU leaders had signed the Lisbon treaty in front of the cameras, he slunk in like a thief in the night – as though missing the ‘photo-op’ would absolve him of blame. Has spent the years since office glowering with his one good eye and writing pieces for the left wing press highlighting all the problems we face as a nation yet never once stopping to consider his part in creating those problems. A socialist Ted Heath – all simmering resentment in public, not doubt boiling over when behind closed doors

David Cameron ““ A PR man of unplumbed intellectual shallows who believed he was born to rule. Only agreed to hold the referendum because he was convinced he would win it and thus finally slay the Euro-dragon that had done for previous Tory leaders. Managed the unique trick (though since copied) of talking tough to his domestic audience then going to Brussels, asking for very little and getting far less, then trying to sell it as a victory for Britain. His plans didn’t work out quite as he intended, though. Despite throwing all the weight of the establishment behind the Remain cause, despite drafting in the support of foreign leaders and every international economic institution, despite spending £9million of taxpayer’s money on a propaganda leaflet, he failed to convince the country and lost the referendum.

“¦. BUT, at least Cameron had the good grace to recognise that he could not, in all honesty, lead the country towards the Brexit that he didn’t believe in and so he resigned. It was the only commendable thing he did.

The “Sage of Canning Town”, Danny Dyer, maybe had it right when he described Mr Cameron as a Tw*t but, oddly, not for the reasons he gave.

Though when compared to these 4 other recent PMs Cameron stands out as a beacon of probity, integrity and rectitude, “¦.. I guess all things are relative.

In a dung heap even a plastic bead gleams like a sapphire.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

We have long since recognised that we are a second or even third rate power. Why else would we have elected Major (and then Blair) as PM

Bob Green
Bob Green
2 years ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

Andrew Neil’s book Full Disclosure, about his life editing the Times, mentions Major a few times, indeed he opens the book with reference to him.
Seeing him from the inside and close up reveals what a complete plank Major is.
.

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
2 years ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

On your point that the Common Market made sense..and that you think many Leave voters would agree that.

I think one very under analysed aspect of the 2016 referendum is that the very cohort who were routinely called *Gammons*…which was basically one of those Brand management type lables that bedevil our deocracy these days created to signify through caricature the older, red faced, choleric, thick and bigoted demographic who stupidly voted to Leave… are the same people who voted overwhelmingly to stay in the European Common Market in 1975.

Then they/we were a large part of a massive affirmation to stay in.

In 2016 the very same people were the cohort most solidly against staying in.

I think this proves your point and the clue is in what was being voted upon… one a union of Europe, and the other a community of European independent states coming together to facilitate trade.

I feel it is the typical Remainer voter that is, as you say, more nostalgic for being a world player than any typical Leave voter.

Most people of that “in in ’75, out in ’16” generation saw through their own lived experience how the Bureaucracy, with little real political control, has continued working for an old set of instructions to create ever greater unity…the obvious end goal of which is a final political union.

That this was never overtly discussed, let alone debated on or voted on only intesified the idea of a stealth policy being advanced for little other reason than most politicians felt it too much trouble to oppose for many years.

Given the chance we voted leave, which was actually a surprise to me but a pleasant one. I do think some prominent Ultra-Remainers need to look at themselves for once and, as the saying goes, give their heads a wobble. Including Sir John Major.

Bullfrog Brown
Bullfrog Brown
2 years ago

Leave was to get the U.K. out of an organisation which had grown from a 6 nation trading group, to a 27 nation union. Run by a clique of former, and usually elder ex European politicians, unaccounted, with a gravy train between Brussels & Strasbourg, with most members in debt to Germany.

EU pushing for a federal state was untenable, and rightly so, the U.K. bailed out before it was too late.

Warren Alexander
Warren Alexander
2 years ago

I grew up at a time when maps at school were still coloured with red to denote our Imperial possessions. Yet even then, we all knew that as well as no longer being an imperial power, we were pretty much a middling military power (and a declining economic force) and that the US and, way back then, the USSR were the only world powers. If people of my generation have any nostalgia at all, it is for what we look back on as a politer, more cerebral political stage, with political leaders of real stature. Realistically, there is little evidence that they were any better than today’s crop but they had the veneer of seriousness that has been stripped way by the 24 news cycle and social media.

Dave Weeden
Dave Weeden
2 years ago

Agree with all this. (Even the USA is no longer a superpower, although it doesn’t seem to know this yet.) But decline came first, and even if Sir John is right that nostalgia is recent, it’s not been a cause of that decline in any way.
OTOH, the muddled thoughts of the late septuagenarian Sir John should serve as a warning to future governments not to raise the retirement age too much.

Quentin Vole
Quentin Vole
2 years ago

I’d quibble with ‘middling military power’. While not comparable with our position in 1939, and not one of the (1½?) super-powers, the UK is in the top half-dozen out of a couple of hundred nations ranked by military might. Whether we need to be, or whether this is the most effective use of our GDP, is another question.

mark.hanson
mark.hanson
2 years ago
Reply to  Quentin Vole

Actually I would compare our position to 1939. We were unprepared then , much as we are now. Hitler was beaten by US industry out-producing his and the cold-blooded sacrificing of millions of Russians by Stalin to drive the Wermacht back. We simply could not have won without them.

John Levett
John Levett
2 years ago

“Fifty years from now Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and – as George Orwell said – “old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist” and if we get our way – Shakespeare still read even in school”.

John Major – April 1993

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
2 years ago
Reply to  John Levett

Nostalgia’s not what it used to be!

Sidney Falco
Sidney Falco
2 years ago
Reply to  John Levett

If Major said that now he’d be called a white supremacist.

Derek M
Derek M
2 years ago
Reply to  John Levett

Ah yes I remember that and how mocked he was for it, almost as much as the cones hotline.

Sidney Falco
Sidney Falco
2 years ago

There is nothing more emblematic of Britain’s decline than that this utter mediocrity – and a treasonous one who prorogued parliament over Maastricht – could ever have been PM.
Any nostalgia is reserved for when the country didn’t look like a Bennetton advert, which is really not that long ago at all in spite of what they pretend.

Derek M
Derek M
2 years ago
Reply to  Sidney Falco

True, my teenage years were in the 80s but there are many things in the 90s I’m nostalgic for but John Major is not one of them, nor the economic destruction caused by his ERM delusion

Steve Gwynne
Steve Gwynne
2 years ago

These prescriptive anecdotes from grief stricken remainers is the true source of nostalgia, which is then simply projected and transfered.

Their nostalgic yearning for EU technocratic multilateralism was the true source of national decline which is why 17m people voted to leave the EU Treaties and begin the process of national renewal.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
2 years ago

Some people might even have voted leave because they could see how rotten to the core the EU political project is.

L Paw
L Paw
2 years ago

Major never got over the opposition from within the Tory party he faced over Maastricht. He called Tory rebels b******s and I seem to remember he resigned as PM in mid 90’s to get back me or sack me vote, which he survived.
He was in charge at the fag end of 18 years of Tory govt and also had a cash for questions/sleaze period that discredited Westminster.
He was/is a pigmy in comparison with Thatcher and probably feels Brexit is his last chance for his own back against those tories that rebelled against him more than 25 years ago. Sad.

tiffeyekno
tiffeyekno
2 years ago

It is not remotely surprising that Major wants to put the past behind him.

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
2 years ago

The UK’s not my country, but I was surprised at the hugely negative assessments of John Major as PM. He was, after all, the PM whose Chancellor of the Exchequer, Norman Lamont, gave the Bank of England its inflation targeting regime, which is still around. He was PM when the existing target inflation indicator was changed to include house prices through a deflation component being added to the RPI. He was not responsible for the bone-headed decision to take house prices out of the target inflation indicator with the switch to the UK HICP_that happened on Tony Blair’s watch. Sure, Thatcher was a more transformational PM than Major, but it was Major, not Thatcher, who gave Britain its current monetary policy framework.