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.
Tuesday, 25 August 2009
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.