JOHN MAJOR: The Autobiography

By John Major

HarperCollins. 774 pp. $35

Reviewed by Sebastian Mallaby

Strong leaders overshadow the unfortunates who follow them: President Truman was underrated by his peers because he succeeded Franklin Roosevelt; President Bush never overcame the handicap of coming after Ronald Reagan. The same is true of John Major, who became Britain's prime minister in 1990 after 11 years of Margaret Thatcher. While Major was in power, a popular television show depicted him as a puppet with an entirely gray face. The chattering classes would roll their eyes at the sound of his voice. He was considered ineffectual, bereft of ideas, and insufferably boring.

The publication of Major's autobiography has reawakened some of that contempt. Nigel Lawson, Britain's finance minister in the late 1980s, has found proof in the book that Major was "sadly miscast and out of his depth as Prime Minister." Norman Lamont, a subsequent finance minister, declares that Major was "in office but not in power." And yet there is something odd about all this invective. Major was, after all, the youngest prime minister of the century. He won an election in 1992 that many thought would be unwinnable. And his book is, by the standards of political memoirs, well written and pleasingly modest.

Moreover, Major's life story is remarkable. Britain has a reputation -- exaggerated but not totally undeserved -- as a class-ridden society. Yet Major rose to the top office from extremely humble origins. His parents were circus performers who fell on hard times. He grew up in a two-room lodging that he shared with his parents and siblings in a tough area of London. He left school at 16, with minimal academic qualifications. When he became Britain's foreign minister in 1989, he had hardly been abroad, and had never visited America.

Major's unusual origins make the early part of his book more colorful than many statesmen's biographies. Some later passages, dealing with British and continental European issues, will perhaps be skipped by readers in this country. But Americans may be intrigued by Major's musings on their nation's foreign policy. These are not always flattering.

At times Major's account suggests that the vaunted special relationship between America and Britain can indeed be very special. He got along famously with President Bush, who was the first person to congratulate him by telephone after his 1992 election victory and the first to commiserate when he was defeated in 1997. Major describes a long drive from the White House to Camp David, during which he and Bush discuss the impending Gulf War. "At the end of our car journey," Major writes, "President Bush and I were more of one mind on how to proceed than I would have believed possible."

This meeting of minds was not, however, constant. When it came to Irish policy, Major was initially infuriated by Bill Clinton, who seemed soft on the Irish Republican Army even when his own administration urged otherwise. In 1994, for example, the State Department, the Justice Department, the FBI and the U.S. Embassy in London all advised the administration not to grant a visa to Gerry Adams, the leader of the IRA's political wing. But this advice was ignored, much to Major's "astonishment and annoyance." Later Clinton changed tack, and Major had cause to be grateful.

Still, he cannot resist tweaking America for flip-flopping. The differences over Ireland paled next to those aroused by Bosnia, which provoked what Major describes as "the most serious Anglo-American disagreement since the Suez Crisis over thirty years before." In Major's view, America's unwillingness to commit ground troops to Bosnia was understandable in the wake of its Somalia debacle; besides, Bosnia lay on Europe's doorstep, and the Europeans were busy trumpeting a newly muscular foreign policy coherence. But, given America's reluctance to risk its soldiers, Major thinks that American policymakers ought not to have insisted on second-guessing Europe's handling of the Bosnia crisis.

This turns out to be more a criticism of Congress than of the administration. Prominent congressmen insisted that the West lift its arms embargo on the ex-Yugoslavia, arguing that this would give Bosnia's Muslims a chance to arm themselves against the Serb aggressors. In the British view, this was fine in theory but useless in practice: The Muslim forces were too poorly trained and organized to make much use of extra weapons.

In the end, it required American leadership to broker peace in Bosnia, and Major is forced to acknowledge that the divided Europeans could not have achieved this. But, as in the case of Ireland, he regrets that America took so long to get engaged constructively. And he seems bewildered by the Byzantine rivalries between executive and Congress, not to mention those within executive agencies, that often cause America's delayed responses. In this season of governmental gridlock, of a defeated test ban treaty and of international obligations left unpaid by Congress, Major's book serves as a reminder of how America's foreign friends see Washington: the source of indispensable leadership, certainly, but the source of infinite frustration too.

Sebastian Mallaby is a member of The Washington Post's editorial page staff.