John Major, the youngest and fastest-rising British prime minister of the 20th century, epitomizes the virtues of self-reliance and initiative preached by his predecessor.

Major described himself as a Thatcherite but insisted he was his own man."I am not running as `Son of Margaret Thatcher.' I am running as myself, with my own priorities and my own program," Major said over the weekend.

He reaches the highest office in the land 11 years after entering Parliament, without leaving a trail of bruised and resentful enemies. And he came all the way up from poverty without so much as a university education.

Former Defense Secretary Michael Heseltine mounted the successful challenge to Thatcher in the Conservative Party that caused the prime minister to abandon her office. But Thatcher endorsed Major to succeed her and in the three-way fight for the party leadership and the prime ministership, it was Major who had the votes to defeat Heseltine and Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd.

Softspoken, bespectacled and often referred to as "the gray man," 47-year-old Major has none of the obvious qualities associated with the political high-flyer.

But Thatcher saw in him a sharp mind, political judgment and the conciliator's talent for negotiation.

He appeals to the right wing of his party with free market economic views, and to the left wing with his sympathetic outlook toward Britain's underprivileged.

Even for the new breed of Conservative who broke into the ranks of Oxford and Cambridge-educated Tory privilege, Major has an unusual background.

The son of a sometime circus performer and actor, he left school at 16, worked as a laborer and spent eight months on welfare before he started his successful banking career as a clerk at age 18.

Tall and deliberate, Major has a quiet manner of speech nearly free of the inflections of class and geography that still pigeonhole so many Britons.

He sees increased social mobility as "one of the greatest achievements of the last 10 years," and says his goal is "a genuinely classless society in which people can rise to whatever level that their own abilities and their own good fortune may take them."

Once asked if he regretted not having gone to university, Major said "not a bit."

"It has been of immense value to me to have been on the other side of the fence and to know what it was like to face a few difficulties, and I don't regret any of that."

Besides the broad electoral appeal of his background, Major's greatest practical asset is his financial experience as a banker, chief secretary to the Treasury and lately as chancellor of the exchequer during.

Major climbed swiftly through Standard and Chartered Bank, where he was an executive for 14 years before entering national politics.

His lack of expertise in foreign affairs is regarded as a weakness - he spent only three months as foreign secretary - but he has indicated the veteran Hurd would stay on to head the Foreign Office.

Major's stance on the Persian Gulf crisis is unlikely to differ greatly from Thatcher's. On Europe, he says he is convinced Britain will be able negotiate an outcome on political and monetary union that will be acceptable to the European Community and to Parliament.

Elected to Parliament in 1979, he entered the Cabinet in 1987 as chief secretary to the Treasury. From July to October 1989 he was foreign secretary, and when Nigel Lawson resigned as chancellor of the exchequer in October, Major replaced him as the top treasury official.

Major started life in the comfortable suburb of Cheam and went to a state school for bright children.

When he was 11, his family moved to the tough south London neighborhood of Brixton following "an injudicious investment" by his father.

He speaks with affection of his father, who was 66 when John was born and soon began losing his eyesight.

"I used to walk with him a lot so he wouldn't trip over curbs and what have you," Major once said. "He was a wonderful talker. . . . I still think he was the finest raconteur I have ever heard. He had such a wealth of experience and a range of interests."

The family lived in a cramped apartment, cooked on a gas burner on the landing and shared a bathroom in the hall with other tenants.

The home was five minutes from the Oval, one of the hallowed sporting grounds of England, where Major acquired a lifelong devotion to the game of cricket.

He can no longer play, however. During a posting in Nigeria with the bank his left leg was so badly injured in a car crash that he nearly lost it.

"My leg doesn't permit me to run," he said. "If I bend it I'm likely to go base over apex."


(Additional information)

Wife hopes to carry on as usual

Four years ago, asked what she thought about the possibility of her husband becoming prime minister, Norma Major said: "That kind of thing doesn't happen to people like us."

On Tuesday, she emerged hand-in-hand with her husband John Major, 47, both smiling broadly after news of his dramatic victory in a contest to succeed Margaret Thatcher.

During the campaign Norma, 45, stayed at the family home with daughter Elizabeth, 19, and son James, 15.

In keeping with what friends say is a shy and slightly reclusive nature, she had determined to carry on as normal as John pursued his ambitions to become Britain's youngest leader this century.

"I am sure it is very naive of me, but having been through the last 18 months, which has been a difficult struggle, I would like to think we can carry on as we are," she told reporters.

She is not known as a glamorous dresser, preferring sensible clothes that some call "dowdy." But friends say she is an extraordinary woman whose qualities include strength of character, generosity and a belief in family values.

"I am fulfilled by domesticity," she once said.

In the past she has lamented her husband's meteoric rise as Thatcher's heir.

"I have sometimes been wistful for the ordinary life we might have led had John not become a politician. I have shed my tears and not always quietly into my pillows," she told one interviewer.

The Majors married in 1970 and since then Norma has channeled her great reserves of energy into work in her husband's constituency. She is also deeply involved in charitable work.