Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros7The Major governments and the lim...

The Major governments and the limits of neo-liberal reform of the means of state power

Peter Scott
p. 287-307


The extent to which the state attempts to shelter its monopoly over the means of violence from the free market may be regarded as a critical case for the development of the New Right vision of the state. In this respect, the Major administrations of 1990-1997 attempted to pursue reforms which went considerably further than the preceding Thatcher governments, in extending the disciplines of New Public Management into state functions such as the police and defence. Firstly, this paper looks at the introduction of quasi-market mechanisms in the defence sector, particularly in relation to the supply of defence equipment and the expansion of involvement by the private sector. The peace dividend resulting from the end of the Cold War enabled the Major governments to progress considerably further than Margaret Thatcher in this sphere. Secondly, but more controversially, the case of the police shows how the Major governments attempted to restructure areas of state employment that had previously been largely immune to reform. Although Major’s success was uneven, these reforms provided the basis for further changes pursued, more thoroughly, by the New Labour project after 1997.

Haut de page

Texte intégral


1Traditionally, there has been a considerable tension between whether internal and external national security should be provided by private means or as a state-monopolised «public good». Public provision has been the historical exception rather than the rule (Edmonds, 1999) but, during the course of the twentieth century, it became regarded as one of the defining features of the state as a response to both domestic and international conflicts. Thus, one of the key characteristics of the modern state is that it is the sovereign power within a given territory and, as Dunleavy and O’Leary (1987, 2) characterise it:

by definition the ultimate authority for all law, i.e. binding rules supported by coercive sanctions. Public law is made by state officials and backed by a formal monopoly of force.

2In many respects, Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as Conservative Prime Minister, 1979-90, saw increasing tensions between the two views outlined above. On one hand, a monopoly of coercive state power was deployed in Northern Ireland, the Falklands, and against inner-city rioters as well as striking miners and printers. As Gamble’s (1988) influential characterisation of Thatcherism as «the strong state» enabling the creation of «the free economy» encapsulates, the Conservative «project» set in train by Thatcher’s governments comprised an uneasy mixture of economic neo-liberalism and social neo-Conservatism (Hay, 1996, 130-137). Within the latter, we can include:

aspects such as racism, the return to Victorian values, increased militarism, an emphasis on strong law and order policies, and similar, which are not strictly part of the neo-liberal reinvention. (King and Kendall, 2004, 210-211)

3On the other hand, the New Right vision of the state seemed to pose something of a challenge to the dominance of the public sphere within the security field. To economic liberals among New Right thinkers, the post- World War Two welfare state had become expansionist, overextended, and vulnerable to appeasing the self-interests of its own bureaucrats rather than the needs of the common citizen. The commercial disciplines and ethos of the private sector and the radical reduction of the reach of the state were prescribed as the remedies for the ideological and practical shortcomings of «big government». New Right pressure groups had been at the forefront of suggesting the extension of commercial principles into all state functions, including national security, during the Thatcher years. For example, the Adam Smith Institute’s comprehensive manifesto for the future of all state functions, The Omega File, argued of the police, at a time when such arguments were still outside the mainstream:

The belief that law enforcement is the sole prerogative of an arm of government, and the fear that private involvement will introduce bias into what has been regarded as a high-quality and independent police force, has militated in this expansion of a part of the public sector. But it is paramount to acknowledge that the problems that exist with government services in general – powerful bureaucracy, high and rising costs, lack of flexibility, etc. – give no indication of being absent from the police. (Butler, Pirie and Young, 1985, 241)

4In the final quarter of the twentieth century, and particularly since the 1990s, one can observe a growth in the supply of private security services for both policing (Button, 2002; Johnston, 1992; Jones and Newburn, 1998) and military (Avant, 2005) functions in the UK and worldwide, as potential competitors to the public provision of such functions. Numerous factors underlie this growth, including the increase in privately-owned public spaces, the decline in employment of occupations whose secondary roles included public security (such as park keepers and bus conductors), and increasing numbers of retired or decommissioned police and military personnel seeking continued employment. The growth of the industry has been both the cause and consequence of its public influence, particularly the lobbying power of a small number of multinational security providers.

5Although privatisation, marketisation and contracting-out of state functions developed into one of the principal guiding themes of government policy from the second Thatcher administration onwards, the security apparatus of the state remained little touched. Under the Major governments, it is generally conceded that social neo-conservatism became a less significant policy influence than economic neo-liberalism, despite – or perhaps because of the fate of – the disastrous «Back to Basics» campaign that started in 1993. Because of its rather «protected» status, therefore, the fate of a state monopoly over the means of law enforcement and violence seems to stand as a critical case for evidence of the extent to which UK Conservative administrations were able and willing to further the economic neo-liberal vision of state within such functions.

Approach of this paper

6Our particular focus here is policy under the six and a half year premiership of John Major, 1990-97, using the case studies of the armed forces and the police. It is particularly appropriate to investigate change within these functions under the Major administrations: this paper argues that the Major governments’ approach to both of these services during the 1990s - and particularly the case of the police force - diverged somewhat from Thatcher’s. The argument advanced in this paper has three main facets to it. The first aspect of my overall thesis here is that developments were partly influenced by external changes in the policy contexts affecting these services since the Thatcher era (and so some differences would have been expected anyway). Secondly, however, we also argue that the «post-Thatcherite» Major governments actually exhibited a more zealous adherence to New Right doctrines of a shrinking, «competition» state that attempted to restructure these services in sometimes distinctly un-Thatcherite ways. The third element to the argument is the impact of the re-emergence of some more effective political opposition to government intentions, due to the weak governing majority of the 1992-97 Major administration. Major appeared to be handicapped, particularly in the case of police reform, by a greater need than Thatcher to mollify political and occupational sources of opposition to government reforms. Overall, this paper suggests that, certainly in the cases of the police and armed forces, more continuity is apparent between the policies of the Major governments and the subsequent «New Labour» Blair administrations from 1997 than the preceding Conservative Thatcher administrations, 1979-90.

7My basic approach in this paper develops previous historical work undertaken with Deborah Foster as my co-author (Foster and Scott, 1998) on the introduction of commercial imperatives into the UK state sector. Regarding public sector management under the Major governments, our basic argument, which I develop further below in relation to the police and armed forces, has been that, in terms of public management, the Major era saw the development apace of a new radicalism, albeit one that would not have been possible but for the previous Thatcherite legislative programme, particularly in relation to the privatisation of state assets and the increasingly directive programme to enable private sector firms to bid to run certain state activities. Under John Major’s premiership, neo-liberal economic views moved closer to the mainstream and found their way into government policy. A seemingly disinterested «rational choice» decision-making approach developed as to whether particular public functions should continue to be provided directly by the state sector. The decision-making methodology was well expressed in a speech in 1993 by Stephen Dorrell, then the Chief Secretary to the Treasury:

All government work should have to pass five tests: «Can it be abolished? Can it be privatized? Can it be contracted-out? Can it be market tested? Can it be given agency status?» (Speech quoted in the Daily Telegraph, 24 September, 1993, cited in Foster and Scott, 1998, 106.)

8A number of evaluations of the Major era written more or less contemporaneously (Dorey (ed.), 1999; Hay, 1996; Kavanagh, 1997; Kavanagh and Seldon (eds.), 1994) generally agree that «Majorism» (assuming we can legitimately use this term at all) consisted of a broad continuation and consolidation of Thatcherite policies, but with a greater emphasis on achieving consensus within the Conservative Party itself. If it had a distinct component, it is said, it could be found almost exclusively in the public sector, with the Citizen’s Charter and the redefinition of the citizen as a «consumer» exercising «choice» over the provision of state services but, even here, continuity was the main trend (see e.g. Kavanagh, 1997, 200-207).

9Certain of the above commentators have also highlighted that «the Major governments went further and faster [in continuing to reform the institutions of the state and its public sector] than» the Thatcher administrations (Dorey, 1999, 227). Hay’s (1996, 158-177) lengthy discussion of the emerging nature of the state within the Major period characterises it as «an ideologically deradicalized consolidation of Thatcherism» (Hay, 1996, 164): the problem here, one could argue, is that the post-Thatcherite equilibrium was a place where neo-liberal ideology unthinkable a decade previously formed the new «common sense». Indeed, Hay’s (1996, 178, footnote 6) own introduction in a footnote of a possible characterisation of Majorite policy as «pragmatic radicalism» does help to convey the extent to which a «permanent revolution’ of neo-liberal restructuring of the state sector had become the new orthodoxy.

10Thus, the view I will put forward in this paper is that the «consolidation» view does not really capture the extent to which the radical trajectory of policy development under Major led to the fragmentation and commercialisation of the state developed yet further under New Labour (cf. Doogan, 1997). In the sphere of state restructuring, the Major government was assisted by the parallel arrival during the 1990s of a recognisable explanatory intellectual framework to give coherence and an «objective» respectability to neo-liberal state reform. This was the doctrine of «new public management» (NPM), which originated in the United States, but developed its theory from numerous diverse examples of developments throughout the US, UK and western Europe (Osborne and Gaebler, 1992). NPM propounded an entrepreneurial ethos among public authorities, new freedoms for more junior public officials to make decisions and to spend budgets where they thought fit, and a greater responsiveness towards the commercial sector and to citizens as «customers» (Pollitt, 1993, esp. 180). NPM also proposed splitting responsibilities between strategic policy-setting, which would remain the preserve of politicians, and operational, executive, matters, which would be devolved to newly «empowered» public managers. In sum, NPM provided an over-arching narrative to inform the Major governments’ focus on public sector reform.

Case studies: Major’s governments and the state’s security forces

11The next part of this paper goes on to investigate the extent to which the Major governments applied the principles of NPM to the police and armed forces as public services. We can find certain commonalities, which are briefly outlined here, although the detailed nature and trajectory of restructuring is somewhat different in each case. One basic common feature is an obsessive search for increased efficiency, value for money and performance. Partly as a consequence, and also in line with the strictures of NPM, we see in each case an attempt to define which activities should remain the monopoly preserve of uniformed personnel. The status of uniformed personnel is very much a double-edged sword, which makes the choice of these two case studies particularly illuminating. In both the police and military in the UK, uniformed ranks, but not civilian staff, are excluded from many of the standard provisions of UK employment law: both groups are proscribed from joining trade unions and from going on strike. Thus, these two areas constitute the major occupations within the public sector where traditional forms of labour resistance to government policies cannot be applied in the manner frequently seen elsewhere. However, from an employer’s viewpoint, the employment of uniformed ranks is also relatively more inflexible and more expensive than of civilian staff, whether such civilians are within, or outside of, the public sector itself. Since labour costs are such a major part of total costs in the public sector, this becomes significant.

12We now continue by looking in turn at the trajectory of reform in the armed forces and the police. For each of these services, we consider the legacy of previous Thatcherite policy and the nature of the external environmental context that confronted the Major administrations. We then go on to look at the policy changes during the 1990-97 period and consider the nature and effectiveness of outside sources of opposition to government policy.


13The role of the UK as an independent military international power had been a major issue for the Conservative governments of the 1980s, with the Cold War at a new pitch, controversies over the independent British nuclear deterrent and the stationing of US cruise missiles and, of course, the 1982 Falklands War with Argentina. One could argue that, from British actions such as the decision in the 1981 Defence Review to reduce the Royal Navy surface fleet, the Argentines concluded that no British military response was likely to their occupation of the Falklands; certainly, the Conservative response to the Falklands conflict was the reversal of a number of planned military cuts. For Edmonds (1999, 114): «The common perception – and ironically, one the former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher actively promoted – is that defence and the armed forces are uniquely a state concern.» Thus, under the Thatcher regime, defence was relatively favourably regarded in public expenditure, attempts were made to protect defence industry from coming under foreign control, and not all tenders for military services and equipment were competitive, often being awarded to UK-based suppliers on a «cost-plus» basis. Nevertheless, the Thatcher governments placed increasing stress on achieving value for money in procurement, partly through cutting costs, such as the 2.5 per cent annual efficiency savings required within the Ministry of Defence (MoD) by the 1988 Defence Efficiency Programme. From 1983, there was also an increase in competitive tendering of military procurement, and of some ancillary activities such as cleaning and catering (Hartley, 2004, 202).

14By the time John Major took office, the international military context had changed markedly and, in retrospect, the 1990s can be seen as almost a «golden age» for the defence policy of Western governments. With the exception of the first Gulf War with Iraq in 1990-91, the Major years were characterised by very little international conflict: the «peace dividend» arising from the rapid end of the Cold War, little popular impetus or appetite for overt intervention in conflicts abroad (with the wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the rest of the former Yugoslavia being the most obvious manifestation of this), and international terrorism was merely a minor issue. In the latter two respects, the policy context of the Major years can be distinguished quite sharply from the «Blair doctrine» of humanitarian military interventions abroad (Kosovo and Sierra Leone) and the forceful response to Islamic terrorism.

15The Conservative agenda within the MoD under the Major governments unfolded both through policy initiatives specific to that ministry and through the wider public service reforms, but all of which promoted greater efficiency and relinquishment of directly-provided functions. With regard to internal MoD reforms, policy was initially framed by the Options for Change review, which had been initiated by Secretary of State for Defence Tom King in July 1990, shortly before Major assumed power. This reported in 1991 and saw implementation from 1992 onwards. In keeping with the «more for less» ethos in the public sector, Options for Change required the armed forces to meet the existing level of commitments with approximately 20 per cent fewer personnel. The Ministry of Defence developed a so-called New Manpower Strategy (NMS) in 1991, which provided the key to how it was proposed to effect such large savings: essentially, NMS devolved budgetary authority to newly empowered lower-level managers, who would be allowed greater power to buy the most cost-effective services, even if this meant purchasing services from outside providers (Braddon, Dowdall and Kendry, 1996, 112; Edmonds, 1999, 123). The impetus to contract defence support services out to external providers was broadened and strengthened by the next review, Front Line First, starting in late 1993. As part of this, a study of defence costs identified over thirty areas of support activity as candidates for contracting-out to the private sector, many of which included white-collar and professional-level jobs (Braddon et al, 1996, 112-3; Edmonds, 124).

16Two major initiatives within the Conservatives’ wider agenda of public sector reform also had significant effects on the organisation and staffing of the armed forces, and supplemented the internal initiatives discussed above. The first of these was the proposal contained in the 1988 Ibbs report, Next Steps in Government, to split government departments into semi-autonomous and self-managed Agencies, with considerably enhanced freedoms in management and staffing policies, despite remaining nominally within the public sector. Most of the impact of this policy was in fact felt in the 1990s. An increasing number of candidates were found in the MoD for agency status during the 1990s: by 1992 some parts of the MoD had been spun off to create fourteen such agencies, including the merger of a number of defence research establishments (Edmonds, 1999, 124), and by 1994 this number had increased to twenty-two (Braddon et al, 1996, 105).

17Secondly, the Major government’s own White Paper, Competing for Quality (CfQ) (HM Treasury, 1991), encouraged competitive mechanisms and greater private sector involvement throughout the UK government apparatus, including defence, and proposed that government functions should be «market tested» (in other words, expressions of interest should be sought from private sector providers for government work). The MoD was not immune from this and, as Braddon et al (1996, 113) point out: «Under the new strategy… MoD managers were expected to identify new and imaginative functions to offer for market testing, thereby significantly broadening its scope and potential effectiveness.» Increasingly, such contracting-out involved multi-activity contracts for the management by the private sector of entire facilities rather than simply individual activities (Uttley, 1993, 273). Official claims suggested annual savings of over sixteen per cent in the thirty months to September 1994 (De Fraja and Hartley, 1996, 82) while Pickard (1997, 37), a strong supporter of CfQ, suggests a reduction of 21,000 MoD posts through 151 CfQ projects in the period 1992-97.

18Another aspect of increasing involvement of the private sector in provision of defence services concerns cases where private firms were brought in to manage government-owned defence facilities (known as «government owned, contractor operated»). In some cases, the use of private management provided merely the precursor to outright privatisation. One of the most controversial cases in the Major era is that of the management of the royal dockyards at Rosyth in Scotland and Devonport in Plymouth. As far back as 1987, the management of each of these dockyards had been turned over to a different consortium of firms as a prelude to restructuring, although neither the Conservative party nor the MoD supported full privatisation at this time. By 1992, however, the Major government proposed to move from private management to full privatisation of the two dockyards. Initially planned for privatisation in 1995, the proposals were subject to considerable political opposition and a lack of potential bidders: ultimately, the only bidder in each case was the firm who currently managed the respective dockyard (International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, 2003). These privatisations only occurred in fact as some of the final acts of the Major administration in 1997: Rosyth Dockyard was privatised in January and Devonport Dockyard in March, shortly before the general election in May. A subsequent investigation by the National Audit Office (1998) criticised the Major government for relinquishing the dockyards too cheaply in response to the entreaties of the successful contractors. Towards the end of the Major administration, private involvement in the defence sector had also moved into the area of financing construction and management of facilities, through the private finance initiative (PFI) or public - private partnerships (PPP) (Hartley, 2004, 202-203). PFI and PPP were both expanded considerably under the 1997 Labour government as means of financing and running public sector investment projects and, indeed, Avant (2005, 168) argues that defence outsourcing only successfully increased in the 2000s with PFI.

19Opposition to the pattern of outsourcing, agencification and privatisation of the military infrastructure under the Major administrations was somewhat muted, other than from – as might have been expected – the trade unions in the defence sector, who were effectively now «outsiders». Little overt opposition seems to have been evident from within military circles or the Conservative party itself during the tenure of the Major government. It is undoubtedly Major’s good fortune that no international conflict involving commitment of British forces arose to put the emerging pattern of defence sector management to the test. Indeed, concern within the defence and political establishment about defence capabilities being stretched too thinly can be mainly traced to the Blair era, in the wake of the cuts in the 1998 strategic defence review coupled with a range of new military deployments. Judgments on the success of the marketisation path pursued by the Major government remain mixed. It has been argued that success in curtailing the rise in defence procurement costs was limited (Edmonds, 1999, 124-125) and that continued government intervention was visible in the aerospace and defence exports sectors (Bishop, 1995).

Workforce reform in the police

20Definite contrasts can be drawn between official Conservative government attitudes to the police under the Thatcher administrations and much of the Major government. Thatcher had been concerned to court the police, particularly so that they would willingly assist the implementation of Conservative industrial and social policies, notably against trade unions and inner-city rioters. To that end, the Thatcher administrations increased police establishment figures and implemented the considerable wage rises that resulted from recommendations of the previous Labour Government’s 1978 Edmund-Davies’ formula on police pay.

21However, the 1980s also saw considerable unease with the performance of the police that would result in them becoming one of the final public services to be exposed to NPM. Partly as a result of a number of high-profile miscarriages of justice, the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act had imposed restrictions on how police carried out their investigations, and further cases of wrongful imprisonments resulting from the situation in Northern Ireland were exposed at the end of the 1980s. The police were also bedevilled by allegations of corruption and racism, although the latter was not to reach a climax until the case of the Metropolitan Police investigation into the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993 (Macpherson, 1999). However, it was the rise in crime figures, combined with poor detection rates, which put most political focus onto police performance by the early 1990s.

22The Thatcher governments did lay tentative foundations for the subsequent direction of police reform. Recognising the increase in expenditure on the police, it made some attempts to improve the efficiency of the service, to apply performance measures, and to encourage the greater use of civilian employees in policing functions (Button, 2002, 38-39; Johnston, 1992, 52-54). Home Office circular 114/83 addressed each of these areas, and some of its concerns were later reinforced by circular 105/88. It applied the 1983 Financial Management Initiative for public services to the police, leading to a greater focus on financial efficiency, and thereby giving the government’s Audit Commission a greater role in scrutiny of the police. «Policing by objectives» was also introduced. This was a form of target-setting for police performance, which was to be overseen by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), a quasi-independent audit body whose sphere of influence has gradually grown since the 1990s. The circular also attempted to encourage police forces to identify functions that could be transferred from uniformed personnel to civilian operatives. At the time, and still today, to a lesser extent, there existed wide disparities between different police forces in the functions performed by uniformed personnel and by civilians, and in the proportion of civilians employed in the various forces. The drive towards civilianisation is significant because the pay and conditions of police civilian personnel tend to be inferior to their uniformed counterparts. On the other hand, this tends to mean that there are greater staff retention problems among civilian staff (Johnston, 1992, 54-55).

23The main strands of police reform policy under the Major government can be classified as reform of the core workforce itself; contracting-out and civilianisation; and the development of managerialism within the police. Some of the most important of these attempted reforms were set in motion after the 1992 election victory and, in this endeavour, Kenneth Clarke’s appointment as Home Secretary after the election was key. Unlike previous Home Secretaries, Clarke’s tenure was characterised by abandoning previous traditions of consulting with police staff associations about reform. The three themes of reform identified above were tackled almost simultaneously, respectively, by the Sheehy Inquiry into police rewards and responsibilities (1992-3), the Posen Inquiry into police core and ancillary tasks (1993-5) and the 1992 White Paper on Police Reform, a somewhat revised version of which was subsequently incorporated into the 1994 Police and Magistrates’ Courts Act (PMCA).

24Of these, the inquiry chaired by Sir Patrick Sheehy (1993) into the increasingly costly police workforce was the most controversial in many respects. Sheehy, the Chairman of British American Tobacco, was appointed by Clarke despite – or, more likely, because of – having no previous experience of policing (Of course, this was certainly not the first time that « outside » industrialists had been used to develop government policy, as seen in the case of Richard Beeching’s 1963 report on the railways, for example.) Sheehy proposed, inter alia, the reduction in numbers of different police ranks, that all new recruits be put on ten year fixed-term appointments that would then be renewable every subsequent five years, starting pay levels should be reduced, removal of a number of allowances and payments additional to basic pay, and that pay determination be made both more locally flexible and performance-related. Posen’s Inquiry accelerated a process of trying to determine which tasks currently carried out by police officers required their expertise and which were « ancillary » and could therefore be transferred to less expensive civilian personnel. Earlier in the Major administration the 1991 Criminal Justice Act had allowed the transfer to private firms of court security and prisoner escort duties. With the benefit of hindsight, this could be seen as a hostage to fortune and a contributor to the Major governments’ reputation for accident-proneness. Some of the private firms who won such contracts and had been important in pushing for the liberalisation, notably Group 4, suffered relatively high levels of prisoners escaping from custody and other problems. Posen’s review, heavily influenced by the Treasury, produced twenty-six recommendations for functions it believed need no longer be directly provided by the police themselves.

25One could argue that the 1992 White Paper and the 1994 PMCA were actually the key measures in the long term. These largely concerned the governance of the police and, as had NPM in other public services, set out to create in individual police forces a strengthened managerial structure, through whom restructuring could be introduced because of its greater autonomy in budgetary and policy-making terms. As Loveday (1999, 217) puts it: « managerial accountability effectively replaced electoral accountability as a means of improving police effectiveness and performance »; in important respects, then, the PMCA could be seen as part of a process of de-democratisation. Among other measures, the Act as passed in 1994 removed the representation of local authorities on police authorities, replacing these with « independent members », increased the autonomy of chief constables, and subordinated local police authorities to governments’ nationally-determined policing targets (Jones and Newburn, 1997).

26Considerable opposition to the measures above was evident from within the police itself and, then, through their lobbying influence upon the Conservative Party. In relation to workforce reform, the Sheehy proposals provoked the greatest level of opposition from the police staff organisations representing each of the ranks: the Police Federation (PF), the Police Superintendents’ Association and the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). A public campaign included the unique spectacle of a massed rally of 17.000 police officers at Wembley on 20 July 1993, addressed by the then Shadow Home Secretary, Tony Blair. Labour had actively reached out to the police as part of its effort to woo interests among which it did not traditionally enjoy support: Blair also addressed the 1993 conference of ACPO. The police campaign was undoubtedly effective in its ability to influence the media and, in turn, a number of Conservative backbench MPs. The campaign against the Posen Inquiry assumed a lower profile, with ACPO increasingly adopting a position of trying to influence the Inquiry from the inside. As one might expect, the organisations representing the lower ranks tended to be more outspoken in their opposition than ACPO, but ultimately less influential. Ironically, therefore, an interesting consequence of the increasing managerialism of the police was enhanced success for the senior managers’ staff association, ACPO, in influencing the fate of the Conservatives’ reform agenda (Newburn, 2003, 94): « Reforms opposed by the police (especially ACPO) were largely blocked and diluted; while reforms favoured by the more powerful ACPO were left relatively unscathed » (Leishman, Cope and Starie, 1995, 36). However, as Savage (2003, 175-177) argues, the main reason for the ability of the police to neuter the most concerning aspects of the government’s restructuring proposals was the wider crisis affecting the Major government from 1992 onwards, which forced the Conservatives to try to line up in support of the police, whatever their faults.

27One reading of the outcomes of the debates over Sheehy and Posen could be to construe them as a defeat for the Major government’s attempt to introduce NPM into the police. The replacement in 1993 of Kenneth Clarke as Home Secretary by Michael Howard, who was more receptive to police concerns, signalled the slowing of attempts at reform and the abandonment of most of the Sheehy recommendations. Howard’s tenure of the office was certainly more responsive to traditional police concerns and requests for increased resources (Loveday, 1999, 214-5). Of the Posen Inquiry’s recommendations, it is notable that the only one to be actioned was that the escort of wide loads on roads need not be a police responsibility. The strength of police hostility to reform should not perhaps be surprising. Some argue that the police is a peculiarly reform-resistant service, because of the solidarity among police officers brought about by factors such as the risks they face and the wide discretion they perforce exercise (Barton, 2003). For such reasons, there may be particular problems in reforming the police in the direction of NPM (Butterfield, Edwards and Woodall, 2004, 399-400). Police lobbying on the issue of workforce reform was successful in introducing sufficient unease into Conservative ranks to ensure that much of the programme was deferred.

28However, a number of commentators argue that some NPM reforms were introduced during the 1990s by lower-profile methods, thus laying the ground for further restructuring introduced by the subsequent Labour government. These initiatives included:

A customer-focused culture change programme known as the « PLUS » programme that emphasized service to the public; « sector policing » (a form of community policing); and diversity management programmes were introduced. (Butterfield et al, 2004, 399.)

29Some of Sheehy’s proposals also percolated their way quietly into policy via the PMCA (Loveday, 1997, 214 inter alia). Most ACPO members (although not lower ranks) became subject to fixed-term employment contracts, for example. Individual Chief Constables occupy a quasi- « Chief Executive » role within their force, and the PMCA removed two of the ranks that Sheehy wished to jettison. In addition, the Audit Commission and a reinforced HMIC exert a stronger influence over local policing in matters such as performance measurement and indicators and the identification of « good practice ».


30What do these two cases tell us about the policies of the Major administrations towards the management of internal and external national security? As with other aspects of Major’s governments, it is difficult to detect any semblance of detailed proactive policy prescriptions. There did exist by Thatcher’s third term a determination to extend the general neo-liberal principles of « high Thatcherism » within the state sector. By 1990 the Conservatives no longer felt encumbered by any necessity to fight ideological battles with the Labour Party, trade unions or public servants about the general principles of commercial doctrines in the very essence of the public sector. Importantly, significant problems had not yet become apparent in the marketisation process carried forward gradually since the 1980s: one could argue that real problems with accountability (e.g. the prison service), co-ordination and safety (e.g. the privatised railways) only emerged latterly under Major and further under Blair. As some commentators have also argued of the Thatcher era (Marsh and Rhodes, 1992; Pollitt, 1993, 55), the Major governments’ progress in the implementation of general principles was irregular and opportunistic. My main argument, in each of the two cases presented above, is that the Conservatives attempted to take advantage of factors in the external policy context that were favourable to reform. In the defence sector, the sudden end of the Cold War and collapse of the traditional enemy, the Soviet Union, provided a unique opportunity to address the size of the armed forces and the much criticised cosy system of defence procurement. The police became vulnerable mainly because of the manner in which the spotlight now fell on their limited efficiency in catching increased numbers of criminals (and in apprehending the guilty rather than the innocent), but also partly because they lost the protection of Thatcher and because of their status as the only remaining segment of the core public sector yet largely unaffected by reform.

31Thus far, it might seem that the argument is one of essential continuity with Thatcherism, but this would only give a partial picture. I argue that Major attempted to take the development of a new right vision of the state, based on a « rational calculation » model of what state functions should consist of, considerably further in these services than would have been expected under Thatcher. The key word is probably attempt. The radical policies were more successful in the case of defence, largely because of the disappearance of the risks posed by the Cold War and the absence of significant perceived national security threats to the UK that might put the new model to the test. The issue of consent was not particularly significant in the case of defence, because of the nature of military discipline. Among defence contractors, little opposition could be found to changes in procurement policies; indeed, many firms and managers stood to gain from this process. In the more politically sensitive case of the police, the issue of achieving consent from the workforce to reform proved critical, despite Clarke’s initial approach. The eventual ability to achieve some measure of support from senior police personnel, whose autonomy and control over their police forces stood to increase as a result of many of the proposed Tory reforms, enabled the key interest group to be partially incorporated into the managerialist revolution. However, the acquiescence of the police force as a whole was really needed, and this failed to materialise in any overt way. Worse, the police were able to gain the ear of the influential right-wing national press, which – whatever it thought about the efficiency of the police – was susceptible to any proposal to reduce police numbers or to remove police personnel from proximity to the general public. Police support was needed to facilitate the achievement of other Conservative policies that required the enforcement of public order, against trade union militants, « new age » travellers, the urban underclass, and other enemies. In this respect, Savage’s judgment is probably correct that the essential practical and ideological weakness of the Conservative Party as an institution in the period after « Black Wednesday » (16th September 1992) led to the government’s retreat into support for the « unreformed » police. A change of Home Secretary from the reformist Kenneth Clarke to the transparent « law and order » agenda of Michael Howard was a necessary signal of the adjustment in policy direction and stance. Nevertheless it remains the case that some significant reforms to the police were made during the Major governments, albeit at the expense of the sacrifice of the most libertarian proposals for restructuring. By comparison to the case of police reform, changes of ministers made little or no difference to the conduct of Conservative policy to liberalise the defence market, and here the continuity of policy was enabled by the emergence of a uni-polar world under the protection of the United States.

32Comparing Thatcher’s tenure of the Conservative leadership with that of Major, I would argue that the latter attempted to rebalance the Conservative Party towards economic liberalism and away from Thatcher’s stress on the role of social Conservatism, which is so visible in her approach to issues of national security and defence. The change was of both style and substance. Major’s government was able to build on Thatcher’s legacy of privatisation, contracting-out and public service reform, which by the early 1990s had achieved the status of the new official « common sense » of NPM. If the whole NPM recipe could not be applied to the armed forces in exactly the same way that it could to other parts of the public sector, market testing, competition and decentralisation were still seen as having a role to play. However, my argument is that, by the 1990s, the pursuit of neo-liberal policies in the public sector had begun to move some way from the Thatcherite experiments of the 1980s to fragment much of the essence of the public sector. This momentum was partly the result of practices initiated under Thatcher, such as the development of decentralised semi-autonomous Agencies in the Civil Service, the implications of which only became fully clear under Major. The generalisation of the « rational choice » approach to the public sphere, showcased in Competing for Quality under the first Major administration, became the new orthodoxy in the state sector. The lack of coordination and accountability apparent in the new public sector added to the public discontent with the Major government and contributed in at least a minor way to Major’s defeat in 1997 at the hands of Blair’s « New Labour » project.

33Despite the Labour Party’s criticisms of the Conservatives during the 1997 general election campaign, it soon became clear that many aspects of Major’s basic approach to the management of public services would be followed by a Labour Party equally in thrall to neo-liberalism. The Labour governments continued the Conservatives’ preoccupations with the size and performance of the public sector. In the defence sector, the Blair administration continued the process set in train by the Cold War « peace dividend » to review further the armed forces in a strategic defence review in 1998. Dockyard privatisation was allowed to stand and, indeed, further parts of the public defence supply infrastructure were sold off. As one notable example, the semi-autonomous publicly-owned Defence Evaluation and Research Agency became a government owned contractor operated company in 2001, renamed Qinetiq. Two years later a one-third share in the company was sold to US private equity firm The Carlyle Group, the European Chairman of which happened to be one John Major! This part-sale, seen as a halfway house to future privatisation, albeit with some safeguards to calm concerns about UK national security, was later criticised in a National Audit Office (1998) report and by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee as poor value for money for the taxpayer. Inasmuch as there are differences between the Major and Blair regimes, « New Labour » wished to resolve problems of poor coordination and performance within public sector organisations by a greater reliance on targets and performance indicators. Another difference from the Conservatives was the new emphasis on partnerships between the public sector and outside bodies, as in the « partnership » approach to crime inaugurated by the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act (Crawford, 2003, 141).

34Blair’s original public profile as a politician lies in his promise as Shadow Home Secretary in the 1990s to be « tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime ». The subsequent Blair governments had as much opportunity as Major’s to become familiar with crime as a salient political issue. Legislation on crime and public order became extremely frequent, but it is notable that Labour also delayed until its second term of office before they attempted a concerted campaign to reform the police workforce. Again, this encountered resistance from within the police, but the combination of a sustained Labour focus after 2001 on the issue of police reform, the greater executive powers of Chief Constables and HMIC to pursue the process of change, and a stronger government will and more defensive police reaction than was the case in the 1990s have enabled a greater degree of success (Loveday, Williams and Scott, 2008). A number of the themes of the reforms begun by Kenneth Clarke can be found in Labour’s actions, including transfers from uniformed personnel to civilians and an emphasis on performance and targets. Although private involvement in policing and public security has continued to increase under Labour, partly because of the extension of the definition of « crime » to include anti-social behaviour, Labour has shown itself more willing to attempt to impose at least some regulation on this sector through the Private Security Industry Act 2001.

35Overall, my verdict in this paper is that the Major government allowed itself to be « carried away » with the neo-liberal framework it erected incrementally to marketise the public sector. Its neo-liberal interventions into the forces of internal and external security of the nation, although only partly successful, stand as critical cases of the degree to which the Major governments had moved beyond the Thatcher legacy and certainly beyond any traditional concept of Conservatism. Although Major was fortunate in facing an international situation that failed to expose his policies in the defence sector to any real risks, he fared less well in antagonising the police lobby. In the end, the attempt at radical police reform succeeded in alienating another constituency of natural support for the Conservatives to add to those whose unwillingness to vote for the continuation of Conservative government in May 1997 led to the collapse of Conservative rule – although merely the modification of many of the policies followed.

Haut de page



Thanks are due to Gill Christy for English-French translation, to Deborah Foster and to participants at the conference « 1990-97: the Major Years in the UK »1 for comments on this paper. Needless to say, I retain responsibility for the interpretation here and also for any errors.

Avant, D., The Market for Force: The Consequences of Privatizing Security, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Barton, H., « Understanding occupational (sub) culture – a precursor for reform: the case of the police service in England and Wales », International Journal of Public Sector Management, 16, 5, 346-358, 2003.

Bishop, P., « Government Policy and the Restructuring of the UK Defence Industry », Political Quarterly, 66, 2, 174-183, 1995.

Braddon, D., Dowdall, P and Kendry, A., « Organizational Reform, Market Testing and Defence », in D. Braddon and D. Foster (eds.), Privatization: Social Science Themes and Perspectives, Aldershot, Dartmouth Publishing, 1996.

Butler, E., Pirie, M. and Young, P., The Omega File: A Comprehensive Review of Government Functions, London, Adam Smith Institute, 1985.

Butterfield, R., Edwards, C. and Woodall, J., « The new public management and the police service », Public Management Review, 6, 3, 395-415, 2004.

Button, M., Private Policing, Cullompton, Willan Publishing, 2002.

Crawford, A., « The Pattern of Policing in the UK: Policing beyond the Police », in T. Newburn, (ed.), Handbook of Policing, Cullompton, Willan Publishing, 2003.

De Fraja, G. and Hartley, K., « Defence procurement: theory and UK policy », Oxford Review of Economic Policy, 12, 4, 70-88, 1996.

Doogan, K., « The Marketization of Local Services and the Fragmentation of Labour Markets », International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 21, 2, 286-302, 1997.

Dorey, P., « Despair and Disillusion Abound: the Major Premiership in Perspective », in P. Dorey (ed.), The Major Premiership, 1990-1997: Policies and Politics under John Major, New York, Palgrave, 1999.

Dorey, P. (ed.), The Major Premiership, 1990-1997: Policies and Politics under John Major, New York, Palgrave, 1999.

Dunleavy, P. and O’Leary, B., Theories of the State: the Politics of Liberal Democracy, Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1987.

Edmonds, M., Defence Privatisation: From State Enterprise to Commercialism, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 13,1, 114-129, 1999.

Foster, D. and Scott, P., « Competitive Tendering of Public Services and Industrial Relations Policy: The Conservative Agenda under Thatcher and Major, 1979-97 », Historical Studies in Industrial Relations, no. 6, Autumn, 101-32, 1998.

Gamble, A., The Free Economy and the Strong State: The Politics of Thatcherism, Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1988.

Hartley, K., « The Economics of Military Outsourcing », Defence Studies, 4, 2, 199-206, 2004.

Hay, C., Re-stating Social and Political Change, Buckingham, Open University Press, 1996.

HM Treasury, Competing for Quality, Cm 1730, London, HMSO, 1991.

International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, United Kingdom (UK) Dockyard Privatization Case Study, Silver Spring MD, International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, 2003.

Johnston, L., The Rebirth of Private Policing, London, Routledge, 1992.

Jones, T. and Newburn, T., Policing after the Act, London, Policy Studies Institute, 1997.

Jones, T. and Newburn, T., Private Security and Public Policing, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1998.

Kavanagh, D., The Reordering of British Politics: Politics after Thatcher, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1997.

Kavanagh, D. and Seldon, A. (eds.), The Major Effect, Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1994.

King, R. and Kendall, G., The State, Democracy and Globalization, Basingstoke, Palgrave, 2004.

Leishman, F., Cope, S. and Starie, P., « Reforming the police in Britain: new public management, policy networks and a tough ‘old bill’ », International Journal of Public Sector Management, 8, 4, 26-37, 1995.

Loveday, B., « Managing the Police », in S. Horton and D. Farnham (eds.), Public Management in Britain, Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1999.

Loveday, B., Williams, S. and Scott, P., « Workforce Modernization in the Police Service: Prospects for Reform? », Personnel Review, 37, 4, 361-374, 2008.

Macpherson, W., The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry: Report, Cm 4262-I, London, The Stationery Office, 1999.

Marsh, D. and Rhodes, R., Implementing Thatcherite Policies: Audit of an Era, Buckingham, Open University Press, 1992.

National Audit Office, Sales of the Royal Dockyards, House of Commons Paper HC748 1997/98, London, HMSO, 1998.

Newburn, T., Policing since 1945, in T. Newburn (ed.), Handbook of Policing, Cullompton, Willan Publishing, 2003.

Osborne, D. and Gaebler, T., Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit is transforming the Public Sector, Reading, MA, Addison Wesley, 1992.

Pickard, C., « Competing for quality in defence », Economic Affairs, 17, 4, 33-38, 1997.

Pollitt, C. Managerialism and the Public Services, 2nd ed., Oxford, Blackwell, 1993.

Savage, S., « Tackling tradition: reform and modernization of the British police », Contemporary Politics, 9, 2, 171-184, 2003.

Sheehy, P., Inquiry into Police Rewards and Responsibilities, Cm 2280(I), London, HMSO, 1993.

Uttley, M., « Competition in the provision of defence support services: the UK experience », Defense Analysis, 9, 3, 271-288, 1993.

Haut de page


1  Université Européenne de Bretagne, Rennes 2, novembre 2008.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Peter Scott, « The Major governments and the limits of neo-liberal reform of the means of state power », Observatoire de la société britannique, 7 | 2009, 287-307.

Référence électronique

Peter Scott, « The Major governments and the limits of neo-liberal reform of the means of state power », Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 7 | 2009, mis en ligne le 01 février 2011, consulté le 27 janvier 2022. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Peter Scott

Enseignant à l’université de Portsmouth

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Observatoire de la société britannique

Haut de page
  • Logo Université de Toulon
  • Logo Laboratoire Babel
  • OpenEdition Journals
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search