In 2007, the former MP and journalist Matthew Parris claimed that ‘no British prime minister in history has ever done anything seriously worthwhile or interesting after leaving Downing Street’. A Guardian editorial in 2008 reasserted Parris’ claim: ‘no British prime minister has ever found significance in a new role. Their best times are always behind them’.
History, however, has proved otherwise, or, in the very least, that the afterlives of British prime ministers are not predetermined in any way. In a new History & Policy paper published on Wednesday and entitled ‘What next for Gordon Brown’, Kevin Theakston (University of Leeds) argues that many British prime minsters have pursued successful careers and done ‘interesting and significant things in the years after they have left Number 10’. Moreover, success or failure as prime minister does not predict what may come afterwards.
There are now four living former prime minsters, including Lady Thatcher, Sir John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. What will Gordon Brown do now that he has joined what Theakston describes as this ‘small and exclusive club of living former prime ministers’? There is no established role for former prime ministers: some completely withdraw from the political scene; others write their memoirs; some retire to their country estates; others fall into debt; some die soon after leaving Downing Street; and others hit the bottle.
A few former prime minsters warned of the dangers of seeking a continuing role in politics and public life. When Baldwin retired in 1937 he is said to have resolved to make no political speeches; Macmillan also advised against ‘hang[ing] around the greenroom after final retirement from the stage’. Other 20th century premiers who largely disappeared from the political scene include Attlee, Eden and Wilson. It seems that as time has moved on fewer former prime ministers have stayed on as MPs or party leaders. According to Theakston, whilst nine 19th century prime ministers had two or more consecutive terms in the office, only four premiers serving entirely in the 20th century managed to hold on to the party leadership after losing a general election and came back to serve for a second term (Baldwin, MacDonald, Churchill and Wilson).
It seems unlikely that Gordon Brown will ever serve a second term; but it may also be unlikely that he ends his days as plain ‘Mr’ Brown. To date, only nine prime ministers did not accept a peerage or knighthood: Henry Pelham (1694-1754), George Grenville (1712-1770), Pitt the Younger (1759-1806), Spencer Perceval (1762-1812), George Canning (1770-1827), William Gladstone (1809-1898), Andrew Bonar Law (1858-1923), Ramsay MacDonald (1866-1937), and Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940). 29 prime ministers became Knights of the Garter and many joined the House of Lords, described by Tony Benn as ‘the British Outer Mongolia for retired politicians’.
If Brown withdraws from the political scene, he may still follow in the footsteps of the majority of former 20th century former prime ministers and write his memoirs. Brown has already written several books and may publish other historical or political works. In his post-premiership years, Balfour wrote numerous philosophy essays and Churchill completed his History of the English-Speaking People. Heath published books about his interests in sailing, music and travel before completing his autobiography entitled The Course of my Life (1998) and, following the publication of his Autobiography (1999), John Major wrote a history of cricket, More Than A Game: The Story of Cricket’s Early Years (2007).
Several prime ministers have made considerable amounts of money through the publication of their memoirs. Tony Blair has negotiated a deal worth £4.6 million for his autobiography (due to be published in September) and, in the 1930s, Lloyd George received £90,000 from the Daily Telegraph for his memoirs (equivalent to about £3 today). However, some prime ministers have struggled financially after leaving Downing Street. Pensions for former prime ministers were only introduced in 1937 at the rate of £2,000 per year (equivalent to over £70,000 today). Both William Pitt the Younger and his father died with huge debts that were paid off by parliament with public funds, King George III lent money to Lord North (1732-1792) and Queen Victoria also lent money to Viscount Melbourne (1779-1848). Attlee lived modestly off his pension, the House of Lords attendance allowance and the money he made from lectures and journalism. He left just £7,295 in his will, the smallest sum left by any former premier in the 20th century.
Lastly, it is to be hoped that Brown’s health will not suffer too much from the stress of his three years in Number 10. Theakston describes the premiership as ‘gruelling and stressful’ and claims that serving prime ministers age at two or three times the normal rate. Seven prime ministers died in office; nine died within two-and-a-half years of leaving Downing Street. 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 44. The average age of ex-premiers on leaving Downing Street is 61 and their average age at death is 73.
The release of Theakston’s paper was accompanied by an article published in the Yorkshire Post.