Remember old man Blair? Cheshire cat type fellow who was knocking around Downing Street for a while? Sitting in the House of Lords. Remember John Major or Gordon Brown? Sitting beside him. All three occasionally appear at special state functions or with the odd intervention on an issue of political or national importance. Three elder statesmen, graceful sliding into history with a comfortable quasi-retirement in the Lords while their successors play politics and historians make their living judgments.
No, not at all. Not even close. Perhaps of David Cameron’s three predecessors it’s Major who fits the bill the closest, although instead of the Lords it’s the cricket ground about which he’s written a book. He also has the distinction of being the last prime minister in nearly twenty years to be knighted and, for all the problems of his years in power, of still being an elder statesman with views that attract respect and attention.
Brown comes a close second. He’s resigned his seat, has no title, writes the odd book and seems to quietly work the speaking circuit without pomp.
Mr Blair, on the other hand, seems to have accumulated more critics since leaving office nearly 10 years ago, something of a rare gift. Not only is he accused of cashing in on his connections from his time in office but he’s not come close to achieving anything like elder statesman status. His intervention in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership bid was met with widespread hilarity across the board when he warned he could ruin the Labour Party (says the man who did just that, responded everyone).
What do these three men have in common? They represent a growing trend toward the younger premier. Since Winston Churchill, there have been 11 prime ministers. Before 1992 only Harold Wilson was in his late 40s when he was elected, two years after the election of President John F. Kennedy at the age of 43. Beginning with Major, not Blair, did the trend return and mostly stick with a shift towards a younger candidate (mirrored by the ousting of the respected President George H.W. Bush in favour of the 46-year-old Bill Clinton).
Now, in the 21st century, only Brown remains as the wild card having left office in his late 50s. But even that’s young compared to Harold Macmillan who was pushing 70 when he stepped down in 1963. If there’s a theory to be made it’s candidates who have previous ministerial experience are likely to be older than the modern phenomena of prime ministers who have never held a government post (albeit this doesn’t explain Wilson or Major who both did).
When talking about a heart ailment Blair said in an interview that you can only do the job in strong physical condition or, in other words, young. This overlooks history and ignores that some of our most distinguished prime ministers have been in the latter part of their life when they were elected to run one of the largest Empire’s the world has ever seen with even a few even dying in office (William Gladstone stepped down at 84 and Lord Palmerston died at 80). This is to say nothing of the fact a fat man in his late 60s won the Second World War and subsequently stepped down for a final time at the age of 80.
Once upon a time a former prime minister would retire gracefully and take on new challenges. What Tony Blair represents is a young new breed of ex-prime minister who still have that cut and thrust drive to do something and the only real option available to them is to make money. They do not take a knighthood or a peerage and refuse to go gently into that good night. In this instance, we can’t really blame Blair but rather a culture that now equates suitability for office with youth (which doesn’t always mean vitality and certainly ignores that expertise comes in many forms).
David Cameron is leaving office and isn’t even in his fifties. Gordon Brown should be considered the exception to the new rule because losing the job is different to leaving of your own accord. Elderly men taking on the compliments of their country and retiring to private life or, as is more common, going to sit in the House of Lords was a distinguished, out-of-the-way send-off that avoided the backstreet driver tendencies of Thatcher on the Commons backbenches after her defenestration.
Memoirs were the labour of love that committed their side of the story to history. Blair’s autobiography A Journey is an embarrassingly faddish non-sequitur of anecdotes that does nothing to do justice to his accomplishments and failures. He’s dodged producing a tedious account of his time in office and wonders why he’s on the defensive – history has never settled in on a verdict and he’s still too active. Brown, on the other hand, has largely fallen by the wayside because he’s never written an account of his time in office. Even Anthony Eden produced a memoir before retiring into quiet ignominy before entering the Lords in 1961.
A solution to this situation cannot be created. Much of it depends on what Cameron does with his time from now on. Further service or quiet retirement is different to gratuitously be seen to making money as a businessman. Of course, former prime ministers in the past have made money but they tended to do it in quiet fashion: speaking, memoirs and the odd directorship.
The office and the country deserve elder statesmen: it aids the smooth transition of power to have your predecessor out-of-the-way in a manner that’s on par with former American presidents. They leave, build a library in their honour and largely keep out-of-the-way. This is how the UK used to be, and what Mr Cameron should remember looking forward.
All in all, Malcolm Tucker makes the point beautifully. When Nicola Murray is kicked out of her leadership job and has airs of becoming a “party grandee” he sits her down and says, “you are not a grandee, you’re a fucking blandee.”
Be warned, elder statesman is not a de facto guarantee when you leave office, particularly if you leave young(ish).