Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Making better use of Prime Ministers after office

In 2006, Tony Blair refused to immediately call for a ceasefire in the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict against the feeling of many in his own cabinet. Some think that the unrest this inaction provoked within the Labour party was the catalyst for the so called "Curry Coup" that a few weeks later led to the resignation of a number of junior members of the government and forced Blair to bring forward his retirement announcement.

The reason I am highlighting this point of history is that it is telling that many of Blair's cabinet were urging him to come up with a stronger line on Israel but his response was silent at first and then very muted later.

I wonder if one of the factors here was what Blair was going to do after he left office. Since he has, he has earned lots of money from the US lecture circuit and his close ties with the country have been beneficial to him in other ways including a directorship with US company JP Morgan Chase and a prestigious lecturing position at Yale University. I have to ask myself whether all these opportunities would have been as forthcoming if Blair had taken a much stronger line on Israel and other US related issues whilst in office.

Blair knew that he would be out of office by around 2007 or 2008. He was still our PM and should have been taking decisions and issuing statements in the best interests of the UK. And yet can we be sure this is what he was doing? He is only human and it is only natural for him not to wish to bite the hand that he hoped would eventually feed him - even if only subconsciously.

I should make clear here that I have no direct evidence for any of this, it's all circumstantial. Blair may well have taken exactly the same line even if there had been no financial or other incentive to do so for him later. The point is that we just don't know and a pretty strong potential conflict of interest was present for him to contend with amongst everything else.

This ties in with something that I have thought for a while. We do not make very good use of our ex Prime Ministers. They have been at the pinnacle of political life for in some cases (Thatcher and Blair) over a decade. They know how our political and diplomatic systems work better than almost anybody else. They have unrivalled contacts and networks and in some cases large supporter bases and yet they are effectively left to make their own arrangements post-office and all that experience is lost to the country. The days of ex-PMs serving in the cabinet under future PMs (e.g. Douglas-Home under Heath as Foreign Secretary) seem to be well and truly over.

Why can't we be better at harnessing this expertise though? I was never a fan of Margaret Thatcher when she was PM but after her defenestration she cut a very sad figure. I read an article which explained that an aide would brief her on the news and political events every day and she would give her views which he would diligently note down as if they really mattered any more and were going to have an effect. It was to create the illusion that she was still doing something useful. That seems a waste of her vast experience.

Some ex-PMs like John Major and Harold Wilson have/had a decent hinterland but even they would I am sure have wanted to continue to contribute to the political and diplomatic life of the country had they been given the opportunity instead of finding themselves in the political wilderness.

The US seems to be (a bit) better than us. They tend to find ambassadorial roles for their ex-Presidents and they often head up their own foundations that are taken quite seriously by the US establishment and contribute to the ongoing debates of the day.

I have no doubt that some use is made of former PMs through informal mechanisms, from time-to-time. However surely we can find a better use for our former leaders than largely consigning them to the scrap-heap as far as the public life of the country is concerned when they often have many years (and in some cases decades) of their useful working life still ahead of them at retirement?

Perhaps if that was the case it could be a win-win situation with the potential conflict of interest that Blair and others face in office between what is best for their country and what is best for their own future no longer existing and the country making better use of its most experienced politicians once they leave office.



This is a good piece. I am not sure I agree with your suggestion, although it is a good one.

I think Americans are very deferential towards their Presidents and they are the top people in their country (after Britney and Mickey Mouse, you understand). Our Prime Ministers are - whatever airs they may give themselves - always down and dirty politicians involved in the day to day fight over influence that is politics.

Margaret Thatcher was an estimable politician and ios worthy of respect but equally there are still people who would cheerfully dance on her grave, which doesn't really lend itself to an ambassadorial role.

Similarly, Tony Blair is still so tainted by his role in the illegal Iraq war and his supine support for all things American that his attempts when he is not making money to 'broker peace' in the Middle East are quite simply laughable.

Others might have a more useful role. I have always respected John Major and he has had some useful input since leaving office but, for me, he remains an exception to the rule that our Prime Ministers will always be tainted by their previous work.

The other factor is that we have the Royal Family which, for all its myriad faults, performs this 'ambassadorial role' fairly well.

I like the suggestion but I don't think it is right for our system.

Apologies for the rather overlong comment.

Paul Walter said...

It's not down to us as a society to decide what to do with private citizens. They're entitled to some recreation when they leave office. But I really don't think you are right in suggesting that they go on the scrap heap. Come off it. Tony Blair has established a major Foundation which I read somewhere employs at least 20 people. John Major is President of Surrey Cricket Club and on the board of the MCC. Some may snort at this but these are serious roles and no doubt very enjoyable ones. Ted Heath had a very rich life after he left office particularly in the fields of music and yacting but you may remember that he acted as informal ambassador (for example going to Baghdad to secure the release of some civilians from Saddam Hussein). Maggie Thatcher also set up and continues to head up a major foundation and shortly after leaving office she was very busy with speaking tours and her massive memoirs.

But how on earth would we use Tony Blair otherwise? Perhaps this should prompt "101 uses for A. Blair". I am glad he is out of it, frankly.

But I think you are right in circumstantially raising questions about how he behaved in office. My guess is that he is instintively a "poodle" type and was genuinely caught in the headlights of George Bush.

Paul Walter said...

Just an after-thought. It will be interesting to see how the US make use of George W Bush out of office. At the moment he is busy finding sponsors for his library. Presumably "My Pet Goat" will be in their somewhere. I would have thought that US Ambassador for Micronesia is about the best Georgie can hope for, unless of course bro' Jeb ever gets the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In which case we can expect Georgie as Chairman of the Federal Reserve or something very unfrightening like that.

Mark Thompson said...

Paul - There is no specifically defined path of making the best use of all that knowledge and experience though. I know that PMs sometimes do good things when they leave office but I just wondered if there was a better way of doing this perhaps in a more structured way.

Of course it would be up to the individual whether they wanted to but I would guess most of them would.

I don't really have any specifics though at the moment, I was hoping commenters might have some ideas.

OK, here's one idea off the top of my head. It is often said that being Prime Minister is a very lonely place to be as there are very few people who can empathise with your situation and the pressure on you. How about once a week for an hour, all former PMs are made available to the current PM for a completely off-the-record discussion on privy council terms where they can discuss anything they like and solicit advice? That would be one way of keeping them in the loop and making use of their expertise.

Brian E. said...

Which has always been my argument at to why is unwise to have a young PM.
Anyone having the job in their sixties has experience of the world and is most unlikely to be seeking a major appointment when he retires. But if he's younger, who knows whether his decisions are based on the best interests of this country, or the best interests of the PM once he retires? Were all Blair's decisions towards the EU (like giving up our rebate) in the UK's interest, or based on the possibility of him then being considered for the job of EU president?
I've had bosses like this, on a three year contract - the first year they spend learning the job, the second doing it, and the third making contacts in case the contract is not renewed. What makes a politician any different?

Paul Walter said...

Make them Earls? That's what they used to do.

I think you'll find that they talk to each other when necessary. They are grown-ups after all.

As an aside, on the Tony Blair front there is a grave danger that he will become President of the EU. That would be a disaster for the reputation of our country.

sanbikinoraion said...

Surely the obvious thing is to guarantee that every PM is made a Lord upon leaving office?

Alex said...

Erm, I hate to break it to everyone here, but Tony Blair is Middle East envoy for the EU, US, UN and Russia, and his position with Yale is to do with something called the "Faith and Globalisation Initiative", a project which not only involves Yale, but Durham Uni too.