There is much to be said for elder statesmanship. John Major's performance at the Leveson inquiry was a masterclass. He was like a great batsman giving a text-book demonstration of all the shots, in the most elegant manner. As outstanding performers should, he made it seem effortless.
I found it so sad, because it filled me with a sense of loss: of what might have been. As Prime Minister, the then Mr Major defeated inflation and led the country out of recession. In the Maastricht negotiations, he negotiated the crucial opt-out from the single currency. He steered us through Gulf War One and then pressed for the no-fly zones which saved the Kurds. He began the Northern Ireland peace process that led to the Good Friday Agreement. Because of his own background, he was grimly aware that the so-called public services often failed to serve the public. He intended to tackle that problem, but was unable to do so. He ran out of political authority, because a large section of his own party was determined to destroy him.
Yet imagine if his party had united around him, so that he was able to embark on public sector reform: able, indeed, to win the 1997 election. Imagine what would have happened under this second Major Government. Public expenditure would have increased, but only on a quid pro quo basis. There would have been none of the manic excess of the later Blair/Brown years, when money was poured out, with all the usefulness of water in a leaky bucket. If John Major had been in charge, many of the Gove/Lansley/IDS reforms would already be in place, and yielding a harvest.
There would have been tax reform and dramatic tax cuts. In this second Major Government, Premier Major took some persuading, but Chancellor Hague talked him out of his doubts. To the accompaniment of the worst scenes of disorder in the Commons since the First World War, the first Hague Budget introduced a flat rate of income tax. After initial shock and awe, that has been widely imitated. The Leader of the Liberal Democrat party, Nick Clegg, recently disappointed some of his own left-wing by declaring that the flat tax had worked and ought to be retained. There are persistent rumours that the Shadow Chancellor, David Miliband, secretly agrees.
The Euro-sceptics have continued to take over the Tory party. There has been no Human Rights Act, no Equality Act. If the UK had joined the US in the second Iraq War – my guess is that we would – the preparations for post-war reconstruction would have been vastly better, thus saving a large number of lives. Sir John is a Conservative, who understands the importance of caution and scepticism. He would never have become a born-again neo-con as Tony Blair did, swept away by the exuberance of his own emotions. He would have behaved exactly as Lady Thatcher did: the harder the task, the harder you prepare.
Under him, there was no question of Britain joining the Euro. But we could not prevent it from happening. So Europe is still a mess. Prime Minister Hague, who succeeded Sir John in 2000, worked hard with Chancellor Cameron to save the Europeans from the consequences of their folly. (The euro-crisis postponed Mr Hague's retirement; it is an open secret that he too had intended to stand down after ten years, almost certainly in favour of Mr Cameron. As it is, Mr Hague has now served for longer than Mrs Thatcher did and is rapidly encroaching on Salisbury and Gladstone.)
As we near the end of this alternative history, our national debt is a couple of hundred billion lower: our GDP, ten percent higher. As Mr Hague reminded the Labour leader, Gordon Brown, at the latest Prime Minister's questions: "Despite all the difficulties around us, this country is continuing on a course first set by my illustrious predecessor. In a phrase anyone would ever associate with the Right Honourable Gentleman, Britain is a country at ease with itself."
So what prevented all this from taking place? For many of the answers, we have to turn to psychology. By disposing of Margaret Thatcher, the Tory party committed matricide. Thereafter, it was unable to forgive itself or find peace. Even today, there is poison in the bloodstream. Moreover, once Margaret Thatcher was assassinated, she was promptly mythologised. The Single European Act was forgotten, as was the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the many other examples of her ultimate pragmatism. Had she still been PM, she would not only have signed Maastricht, he would have proclaimed it as a triumph for Britain. As it was, she, embittered, incited others' folly.
1992/97 was the worst period in the history of the Conservative party. Conservative MPs succeeeded in destroying their Prime Minister and his government, while coming close to destroying their party as an instrument of government. The Tory party is the national party or it is nothing. In those benighted years, our party betrayed the nation and ensured that we would be saddled with a worthless government led by a worthless premier, who exalted meretriciousness into a governing doctrine. It was shameful. On Monday, Sir John Major reminded us just how shameful: just how much we lost.