Policy Papers


What next for Gordon Brown?

Kevin Theakston |

Executive Summary

  • Contemporary journalists regularly assert that British ex-prime ministers never go on to better things; their best times are behind them. They are wrong.
  • There may not be a clear or established role for former British prime ministers, but Gordon Brown can be reassured that they have done plenty of worthwhile, interesting and significant things in the years after they have left Number 10.
  • He may also be reassured that success or failure while in Number 10 does not predict what may come afterwards. Some prime ministers with short and unsuccessful stints in office have gone on to have lengthy and successful post-Number 10 careers.
  • What they do after they leave office has always depended on their personal choices and on circumstances, including the reactions and attitudes of still-active politicians and of political parties to the former political and governmental leader.
  • From the 18th century onwards fourteen prime ministers have 'come back' and served in the governments of later administrations and under other prime ministers - over a quarter of our prime ministers.
  • This role seems an unlikely one for Brown, who has said that he does not want to take up lucrative business positions and would prefer to do charity or voluntary sector work.

Introduction

Gordon Brown has just joined the small and exclusive club of living former prime ministers, increasing the current 'membership' from three (Lady Thatcher, Sir John Major and Tony Blair) to four.

There is no fixed or predetermined role for former prime ministers. What they do after they leave office depends on their personal choices and on circumstances, including the reactions and attitudes of still-active politicians and of political parties to the former political and governmental leader. There is little in the way of a common pattern. Like other ex-prime ministers, Gordon Brown will have to invent a role for himself.

The political waters can close quickly over the departed prime minister. Some largely disappear from the scene after they retire. Others have a 'second act' and find a way to play some sort of continuing role in politics and public life. Sometimes it is a constructive role, but sometimes it can be the reverse. Some former prime ministers have enhanced their reputations through their post-Number 10 activities, but others have damaged their reputations. Success or failure in Number 10 as prime minister does not predict what may come afterwards. It may comfort Brown to know that some prime ministers with short and unsuccessful stints in office have gone on to have lengthy and successful post-Number 10 careers, while those higher up the 'league table' of prime-ministerial achievement have in some cases quickly faded into the background on retirement.

Political roles

When Baldwin retired in 1937 he is said to have resolved to make no political speeches, neither to speak to the man at the wheel nor to spit on the deck. Macmillan used to warn against 'hang[ing] around the greenroom after final retirement from the stage'. 'Anyone who has played the main stage of theatre land', he said, 'shouldn't attempt to come back in provincial repertory.'

Nine 19th century premiers had two or more non-consecutive terms in the office. But only four premiers serving entirely in the 20th century managed to hang on to the party leadership after losing a general election and going into opposition, before then coming back for another term in Downing Street (Baldwin, MacDonald, Churchill and Wilson). This could conceivably happen again but changes in the media, parties and the wider politics of leadership mean that electoral defeats are now more likely to finish PMs and party leaders for good. Certainly, John Major seemed relieved to be able to fall on his sword and give up the party leadership immediately after his 1997 landslide election defeat. Brown has resigned as Labour leader with immediate effect.

Brown is reported to have decided to stay on as an MP. In contrast, Blair immediately gave up his seat in the House of Commons, just as Eden did in 1957. But Lloyd George stayed in the Commons for 22 years after quitting Number 10 (and became Father of the House, as did Callaghan in 1983), taking a peerage only in the last months of his life. Macmillan left the Commons at the 1964 general election a year after he had resigned and was without membership of either house of parliament for the next 20 years (until he went to the Lords in 1984).

Some former prime ministers do largely disappear from the political stage after they retire (such as Baldwin, Attlee, Eden and Wilson among the 20th century 'exes'). Some dream of the possibility of a comeback as prime minister: Asquith, Lloyd George, Chamberlain, Macmillan, Wilson and Heath all reportedly entertained hopes (or fantasies) of this nature. Others (such as Douglas-Home and Callaghan) seemed effortlessly to transform themselves into respected elder statesmen - making authoritative speeches in the House of Lords, occasionally advising behind the scenes, loyal to the party but also able to project something of an above-politics image.

Heath and Thatcher were examples of 'how not to do it' - the first isolating himself in his party by staging a 'great sulk', the second actively plotting against and trying to undermine her successor, helping to fuel the Tory party's civil war of the 1990s. Another negative model was the charismatic Lord Rosebery, who was thought still to have a brilliant future before him when he ceased to be prime minister in 1895 aged only 48, but who threw it away by his posturing, grandstanding, disloyalty and disengagement from the disciplines of organised party politics. Ex-prime ministers cannot have a constructive continuing role in British politics if they try to 'go it alone'. Gladstone was thinking of the difficulties caused by Peel's attempt to play an independent role in politics in the late-1840s after he left the premiership when he said, 'former prime ministers are like untethered rafts drifting around harbours - a menace to shipping.'

Rosebery once argued that to have an ex-prime minister in a Cabinet was 'a fleeting and dangerous luxury'. But it is not often realized that from the 18th century onwards fourteen prime ministers have 'come back' and served in the governments of later administrations and under other prime ministers - over a quarter of our prime ministers. In three of those cases they then went on to become prime minister for one final time, after which no other posts were held.

Some of the prime-ministerial 'retreads' had had short tenures in Number 10, like Douglas-Home who went on to serve as Foreign Secretary 1970-74, or Lord Goderich (later Earl of Ripon), prime minister for only 130 days in the 1820s, who went on to serve in Whig and Conservative Cabinets in the 1830s and 1840s. Some were stopgap prime ministers who were not as weighty or ambitious as other figures on the political chessboard, and could afterwards be moved to less senior posts with little fuss. Then there were those periods when the political kaleidoscope had been shaken. Coalitions and realignments of parliamentary blocs and factions produced a number of these cases in the 18th century. In the mid-19th century Earl Russell left Number 10 and served under the Earl of Aberdeen and then Viscount Palmerston, before becoming prime minister himself again, in a period of instability and change in the party system. The 1930s saw both Baldwin and MacDonald rotating in and out of the premiership and the office of Lord President of the Council in the 'National Government' coalition. Other cases occurred during wartime - Balfour serving under Asquith and Lloyd George in the First World War (later holding office under Baldwin 1925-29), and Neville Chamberlain, after he was overthrown, serving in an important position in Churchill's War Cabinet for five months until his death in 1940. There were only two cases of former prime ministers serving in other Cabinet positions in 'normal' peace time conditions of single-party government in the 20th century: Balfour (under Baldwin) in the 1920s and Douglas-Home (under Heath) in the 1970s.

Sometimes these former premiers served in positions like Lord President of the Council or Lord Privy Seal - without a heavy administrative burden and with scope to offer sage advice and perhaps chair committees. Four former prime ministers served as Foreign Secretary and three as Home Secretary. Wellington was Minister without Portfolio - and still a weighty voice in the Tory party - under Peel 1841-46 and, incredibly, also Commander-in-Chief of the Army from 1842 until his death in 1852. Some were more successful, more at home, and achieved more in these post-Number 10 ministerial positions than as prime minister. Balfour was a weak prime minister for three years, and much of his historical reputation rests on what he did in the eleven years he held government office after being evicted from Downing Street.

This pattern of former prime ministers serving under their successors might have been even more common for there are at least seven others who were offered ministerial posts after they had ceased to be prime minister, but refused them (Grey, Russell, Rosebery, Asquith, Lloyd George, Churchill and Wilson). Heath wanted Thatcher to make him Foreign Secretary in 1979, but she had other ideas, offering him instead a job 3,000 miles away as Ambassador to the USA; he took the message but not that job. Rosebery in 1906 and Lloyd George in 1940 also turned down the offer of the Washington embassy.

Honours

So far only nine prime ministers ended their days as plain 'Mr', and never accepted a peerage or knighthood: Henry Pelham, George Grenville, Pitt the Younger, Spencer Perceval, George Canning, William Gladstone, Andrew Bonar Law, Ramsay MacDonald, and Neville Chamberlain (four of these died in office as commoners).

From the mid-19th century until comparatively recently an hereditary earldom was the 'going rate' for prime ministers who were not already peers. From Sir Robert Walpole (who also received an earldom) to Sir John Major, 29 prime ministers or former prime ministers became Knights of the Garter. The Order of the Garter, which is limited to a group of 24, has since 1945 become almost a routine honour for former prime ministers (only Macmillan and Douglas-Home - who was a Knight of the Thistle - did not receive it), but before then it had been rather more selectively bestowed.

MacDonald refused to go to the Lords and Blair is reported to have said that the House of Lords was 'not [his] scene' (though he may one day become 'Sir Tony'). Other Labour ex-prime ministers, such as Attlee and Wilson, positively delighted in accumulating honours. Churchill was offered a dukedom when he retired in 1955 but only after discreet enquiries by the Palace confirmed he would refuse it. Macmillan was the last former prime minister to accept an hereditary earldom, in 1984, more than 20 years after stepping down. Alec Douglas-Home gave up an earldom to become Prime Minister and was the first ex-prime minister to go to the Lords with a life peerage in 1974.

Tony Benn once called the House of Lords 'the British Outer Mongolia for retired politicians', but it has had the advantage for former prime ministers of offering them a recognised platform, enabling them to air their views and contribute to political debate. Some have been conscientious and respected peers, attending regularly and making some effective interventions (e.g. Callaghan), while others did not attend or speak often or make much of a mark (e.g. Baldwin and Eden). When they reached the Lords, former prime ministers have often had a low opinion of the place. Asquith thought it was 'an impossible audience . . . like speaking by torchlight to corpses in a charnel-house'. To Balfour, it was 'like talking to a lot of tombstones'. Callaghan said it was 'heaven's waiting room'. Macmillan called it 'the morgue' and once said the Lords was 'not worth belonging to' - though he enjoyed his last chance to strut the political stage and made some witty, memorable and mischievous attacks on Mrs. Thatcher's policies.

One consequence of a move to a reformed and elected second chamber might be to remove the platform provided by the Lords for former prime ministers (and other retired office holders). But modern ex-prime ministers, like Blair, command media attention and make their voices heard whenever they want to without donning ermine robes.

Writing the memoirs

Having already written several books, ex-prime minister Brown will certainly be putting pen to paper. We can expect the now-obligatory prime-ministerial memoirs and perhaps some serious tomes on history and political ideas in the years ahead. An earlier intellectual-in-Number-10, Balfour, produced a number of heavyweight philosophical essays, papers and lectures in his post-premiership years, while Churchill put the finishing touches to his History of the English-Speaking Peoples after he retired. Before he wrote his long-delayed memoirs, Heath penned best-selling books about his interests in sailing, music and travel, and more recently Major's history of cricket was warmly reviewed.

The majority of the former 20th century prime ministers told (and sold) their stories. MacDonald and Baldwin shied away from writing memoirs, leaving the field free to their critics and enemies - a mistake not made by others. The aims are usually detailed historical self-justification, settling of scores and making money. Tony Blair negotiated a deal worth £4.6 million for his memoirs (due out in September); Thatcher's brought her in £3.5 million; Lloyd George got £90,000 for his from the Daily Telegraph in the 1930s (equivalent to about £3 million today).

Before the 20th century few former prime ministers (or indeed other politicians) wrote autobiographies or memoirs. There is only one published autobiography from an 18th century prime minister (Grafton), and that was published in 1898, nearly 90 years after he died. Gladstone had the opportunity - through the offer of a huge sum from American publishers - to become the first prime minister to make a lot of money by writing about his experiences in politics and ministerial office, but he turned down the chance. Instead, in his retirement, he wrote on theological subjects and translated Horace's Odes. His great rival Disraeli wrote novels, which Gladstone thought 'trash', but they were popular and commercial successes and they had some autobiographical elements.

Blair's publishers promise that his book - The Journey - will 'break new ground in prime ministerial memoirs' and will be 'frank, open and revealing'. However, Baldwin believed that 'no man can write the truth about himself'. Roy Jenkins commented on Asquith's impersonal and unrevealing memoirs that, like many top politicians, 'he had no desire to tell the world what really happened'. In truth, prime ministerial memoirs are often dull and hard-going. Attlee admitted his were 'not very good', while Wilson described his book Final Term on his 1974-76 premiership as 'boring'.

Making money

Pensions for former prime ministers were introduced only in 1937 at the rate of £2,000 per year (equivalent to over £70,000 today). In 1972 the pension was fixed at 15/40ths of the prime minister's salary and, following a recommendation from the Top Salaries Review Body in 1988, from 1991 all former Prime Ministers were entitled to a pension equal to half their ministerial salary, immediately on leaving office and however long they had served (worth £66,000 pa in 2009). Since 1991 they have also received a special allowance (currently £90,000 pa) - the 'Public Duties Cost Allowance' - to help fund an office and secretarial support. Churchill had had unique official support as an ex-PM, with a Foreign Office diplomat seconded to be his private secretary, though Churchill reimbursed the government for the cost of his salary. A government car and driver for all ex-Prime Ministers was made available from 1975.

In January 2008 the Review Body on Top Salaries suggested the special prime-ministerial pension could no longer be justified. It was introduced on the basis that, 'it would not be dignified' for the prime minister to 'seek employment after leaving office'. But - with Lady Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair clearly in mind - it was now the case that a former prime minister could 'expect to have a career, or a portfolio of earnings opportunities on leaving office' and was 'unlikely to suffer hardship'. In future, it proposed, former prime ministers should be part of the regular ministerial scheme, receiving three months' 'severance pay' and drawing a ministerial pension dependent on length of service and contributions. Legislation would be needed to give effect to these recommendations. Although he would probably forego a substantial sum of money, Gordon Brown announced he would accept the proposals and would - when his turn came - take a pension on the new basis.

Many former prime ministers were privately wealthy and able to retire to their country estates. Walpole amassed a large personal fortune in office. Bute (in the 18th century) and Rosebery (in the 19th) were among the wealthiest men in the country and married fabulously rich heiresses. When Rosebery died in 1929, he left £1.7 million - the equivalent of nearly £60 million in today's money. Lloyd George and Churchill both left public life substantially wealthier than when they entered it, helped by lucrative publishing deals and private benefactors.

But some prime ministers and former prime ministers have had money troubles. Both Pitts - father (Chatham) and son - died with massive debts that were paid off by parliament with public funds. King George III quietly lent money to Lord North (who finally inherited his estates and fortune only two years before he died), and Queen Victoria loaned money to Melbourne who was financially rather disorganised and always thought he was harder up than he really was. Neither Addington nor Russell were well off and were helped-out by being granted royal 'grace and favour' houses to live in. Disraeli's finances were dangerously rackety for much of his life but were in reasonable shape in his later years, with his literary earnings, some large bequests and help from a shadowy benefactor. Asquith's financial position was so bad that some of his friends organised an appeal for a fund to pay his debts and give him a private pension for the last few years of his life; he left only £9,345 on his death in 1928. Attlee lived modestly on his pension, the House of Lords attendance allowance and whatever he could make from lectures and journalism. He left only £7,295 in his will - the smallest sum left by any of the 20th century's former Prime Ministers.

Until Tony Blair, former Labour premiers like Attlee, Wilson and Callaghan do not seem to have acquired money-spinning directorships or business appointments as some Conservatives had. Blair is estimated to have made at least £20 million since leaving office, from his book deal, highly-paid advisory roles with JP Morgan and Citigroup, consultancy work for foreign governments and companies through 'Tony Blair Associates', and huge fees on the international lecture circuit. He has 'run Tony Blair as a business', according to a former Number 10 aide, and has attracted criticism for the complicated structure of limited partnerships and holding companies he has set up to channel and shroud his earnings. For his part, Brown has said that he does not want to take up business positions and would prefer to do charity or voluntary sector work, though John Major has successfully combined making money with being active in a wide range of charities.

Age and health factors

Both Major and Blair were only 54 when they left Number 10, the youngest ex-prime ministers for a century. Major later said that it took him a year to recover from the physical strain of being prime minister. Brown is 59 and although battered and exhausted after three years in Number 10 and a decade at the Treasury he can expect to remain active for some time yet, with ideas, energy and something still to prove.

Longevity and good health are essential ingredients for a successful post-premiership. The premiership is, and always has been, gruelling and stressful. It has been said that serving Prime Ministers age at two or three times the normal rate. On leaving office many are wonderfully rejuvenated, though some ex-prime ministers never really fully recover their energy levels and capabilities.

Seven British prime ministers died in office. A further nine died within two-and-a-half years of leaving Number 10. The longest-lived prime minister was Callaghan, who died a day before his 93rd birthday in 2005; the shortest-lived was the Duke of Devonshire who died in 1764 aged only 44. The average age of all ex-prime ministers on leaving Number 10 was 61, the average age at death was 73 and the average post-premiership or retirement 12 years long. Advances in health and medicine help explain why the average age at death of 18th century prime ministers was 64, of 19th century prime ministers 74, and of 20th century premiers 81. Four 20th century prime ministers made it into their nineties (Churchill, Macmillan, Home and Callaghan), and only one died in his sixties (Bonar Law).

Exhausted by work and illness, some prime ministers become old men before their time - such as Pitt the Younger and Lord Liverpool. Some hit the bottle when they leave office - such as Melbourne (who would drink three bottles of wine a day) and Asquith. But others stay remarkably vigorous into old age, such as Palmerston, Gladstone and Lloyd George. In the 20th century Macmillan stayed in good mental shape far longer than his deceptive 'old man' act might have suggested. Wilson lasted 19 years after stepping down but, sadly, was robbed of what could have been a more fruitful period in his life when he succumbed to Alzheimer's disease. A workaholic with no interests outside politics, Thatcher hated the whole idea of retirement and continued to put in long hours at her foundation and to take on speaking engagements until in 2002 her doctors called time on health grounds, after she had had a series of small strokes and suffered serious memory problems. In 2008 Carol Thatcher confirmed that her mother was suffering from dementia.

Brown's next steps?

The latest development is for former prime ministers to set up foundations to provide a base and a platform for continuing involvement with political and public issues. Thatcher was the first to set up her own foundation to try to secure her legacy and propagate her ideas, but funds ran out and it closed down in the UK in 2005. Blair set up a Sports Foundation and an Inter-faith Foundation. By seeking to operate as an active and roving figure on the world stage, Blair may also be carving out a new role for a former British prime minister, though one with some obvious contemporary international parallels.

'He's not looking for a big fat job and he's not much interested in money', a friend of the new ex-prime minister has said. Brown could well set up a charitable foundation-cum-personal think tank. A former academic at Glasgow College of Technology, offers of visiting chairs at prestigious US universities could be expected. Widely respected in the USA and on the world stage, there has also been speculation that he could be in the frame as the next head of the IMF, a post that could become vacant next year. He would certainly be the most high-profile and heavyweight figure to occupy that post, which has usually gone to former finance ministers or central bankers from European states.

The former MP and journalist Matthew Parris asserted in 2007 that 'no British prime minister in history has ever done anything seriously worthwhile or interesting after leaving Downing Street.' A Guardian editorial in 2008 echoed his claim, saying that 'No British prime minister has ever found significance in a new role. Their best times are always behind them.' Both were wrong. There may not be a clear or established role for former British prime ministers, but Gordon Brown can be reassured that they have done plenty of worthwhile, interesting and significant things in the years after they have left Number 10.

About the author


Kevin Theakston is Professor of British Government at the University of Leeds and author of After Number 10: Former Prime Ministers in British Politics, Palgrave, London, 2010. k.theakston@leeds.ac.uk

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