Thursday, January 26, 2006

John Major in Pittsburgh


"Fifty years from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on country grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers, and -- as George Orwell said -- old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist. And, if we get our way, Shakespeare will still be read -- even in school. Britain will survive unamendable in all essentials." -- John Major, 1993.

Lawrence: You'd be surprised how little power politicians have actually got these days, in the end.
Gina:
Except John Major . . . Enormous sexual power.
Lawrence:
Do you think so?
Gina:
Definitely . . . Dirty, dirty, dirty John.
-- from The Girl in the Café (2005)

Americans get confused about British politicians. We try to place them somewhere within the idiosyncratic American political spectrum -- with its Evangelical Right, Reagan Democrats, Libertarians, isolationist Republicans and Populists – and frankly, we come up empty-handed.

Which is why, perhaps, people were so surprised to hear, during an address in Pittsburgh last night, Sir John Major -- former Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and former leader of British Conservatives (1990-7) -- declare that “If it is right and proper to fight and win the war against terrorism, then it is right and proper to fight and win the war against poverty.” Bless me, a conservative talking about world poverty.

When we think of British Conservatives, our minds inevitably drift first to Margaret Thatcher, Major’s political mentor, whose solidarity with our own Ronald Reagan seemed to us to be complete and unshakeable – even if the British held a different view of that same alliance. But Major ultimately represented a more moderate wing of the Conservative Party in some respects – to the point that when he was finished with his tenure at 10 Downing Street, it was the Euro-skeptical/isolationist conservative wing of the Conservative Party who beat the drum of change and ended up in control of the Party machinery. Major was, and is, no isolationist, and though he kept his options open regarding the Euro for most of his term, his vision of the world is one of a global economy.

It can be theorized that Major comes to his internationalism naturally enough. I was surprised to learn last night that Major’s father lived in Pittsburgh during his formative years, while Major’s grandfather toiled away at building Andrew Carnegie’s steel mills. (I guess I hadn’t paid attention to that particular fact before). With Pittsburgh as an ancestral second home, Major indulged the crowd at the beginning of last night’s address by declaring his support for the Steelers as they head to the Super Bowl, and waved a “Terrible Towel” to prove the point. Regarding the formation of Major’s views on globalism, no doubt a more important influence than his Pittsburgh connection was his time working in the British financial world in Africa.

Despite his background in chartered accountancy, Sir John showed himself last night to be a sharper and much wittier character than he is often portrayed to be, equipped with a collection of good Yeltsin and Gorbachev anecdotes (including a description of the first revelation to British intelligence that Yeltsin could speak any English at all, which occurred when Major suggested they have a drink at a local pub near Checquers – “Gin-and-Tonic! Gin-and-Tonic!” was allegedly Yeltsin’s enthusiastic English reply), some quite human observations about the ordeal of “Question Time” in the House of Commons (“The objective of the opposition is to make the Prime Minister look silly; the objective of the ruling party is to make the opposition look like fools who are incapable of forming a government; and the Prime Minister’s objective is to get out alive”), and a few thoughts about his long-standing friendship with Mick Jagger (“He’s older than me, as I like to remind him”; they apparently bonded over cricket).

Cricket is just one of the two passions of his life, however. Major admits to being a political junkie from adolescence, having been brought to the House of Commons to witness debates by the Labour MP from his riding, the impoverished Brixton section of South London, where his family moved when he was 10 after his father suffered a terminal financial setback. Although he grew up among Labourites, he explains that his conservatism grew out of the observation that “here was one group [Labour] that said, stay where you are and we’ll send help soon, and here was another group [Conservatives] that tried to improve conditions throughout the country and make it possible for me to pull myself out of poverty.”

That’s a classic statement of British Conservatism, just as it is a classic statement of American fiscal conservatism. But Major does belie his ideological safety zones when he begins to throw out statistics about world poverty – that, for example, 6 billion people live on Earth, and about half of them live on less than the equivalent of $2 a day; and that while the wealthy nations spend billions on helping the impoverished, they spend a multiple of that budget on agricultural subsidies, or in effect, on making food less expensive for the wealthiest people in the world. These are statistics you are likely to hear coming from the protesters outside the G8 Summit, and not so much from the former leader of the British Conservatives.

Major’s principal point, however, is that terrorism is born of poverty, particularly in a world where there is such a chasm between the wealthy and the poor. Terrorism is ultimately ineffective as a tool for political change, he says, but it does have a life of its own in the face of such economic disparity. As much as we spend our time and fortunes on military and security solutions to address the worst effects of terrorism, we must address the underlying economic issues that produce the breeding grounds for terrorists.

Major doesn’t address the economic solutions themselves to any great degree – here again is where the ideological safety zones envelope him – but he does project that refreshing, if somewhat blinkered, masculine optimism, blended with moist-eyed nostalgia, that no doubt is at the root of both of the quotes at the beginning of this post. “We will succeed -- because we must,” seems to be his message – which at least shows a greater sense of urgency over the issue of world poverty than we hear from most American politicians -- conservative, moderate or liberal.

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