John Major

(1943- ), British politician and prime minister of Great Britain (1990-1997). Atypically for a Conservative Party leader, Major was born into a working-class family in London and left school at the age of 16. He worked as a banker for nearly two decades until elected to Parliament in 1979. A protégé of Margaret Thatcher, he rose rapidly through the ranks, serving as foreign secretary (1989) and chancellor of the Exchequer (1989-1990) before succeeding Thatcher as prime minister and party leader in November 1990. Like Thatcher, he maintained excellent relations with the United States and wholeheartedly supported the U.S.-led effort to expel Iraq from Kuwait in the Persian Gulf War (1991), but he expressed a greater willingness than she did to commit Britain to political and economic integration with Europe.He led the Conservatives to victory in a hard-fought parliamentary election in April 1992. Major’s government then faced a growing financial crisis compounded by high inflation and unemployment, and a nationwide recession. As a result, Major’s approval rating dropped to 14 percent, the lowest of any prime minister in British history. In July 1995, in an attempt to solidify his party, Major resigned as leader of the Conservatives, forcing an election for a new leader. Major won again, but one-third of the party voted against him or abstained. In April 1996 the Conservatives suffered a huge loss at the polls to the opposition Labour Party, headed by Tony Blair. This loss trimmed the Conservative majority to just one seat. Despite Major’s efforts to increase Conservative popularity and to solidify his party, support continued to wane. In May 1997 Major and the Conservatives were soundly defeated by the Labour Party in national elections. After this defeat, Major announced his resignation as leader of the Conservative Party.Major’s major achievement in office was the establishment of a peaceful dialogue with the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Talks with Irish prime minister Albert Reynolds in 1993 led to an IRA cease-fire in August 1994. Negotiations later stalled and the IRA resumed violence in February 1996, but a framework for the peace process had been established. Although talks were scheduled to resume in June 1997, progress depended on the IRA’s willingness to restore their cease-fire before negotiations could begin.