When British prime ministers visit Washington, DC they can stay in a government-owned townhouse called Blair House. The property is part of the bequest to the nation that includes the Pennsylvania Avenue Presidential Townhouse, the grand home once owned by the great Supreme Court judge Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr and which every former US president can use when he is in town. It is a stark illustration of the varying degrees of respect the two nations hold for the former occupants of their top post.
The British have dramatised one way of valuing their constitutional institutions over recent weeks. The pre-democratic institution of monarchy has been treated with reverence bordering on old-time deference after the death of the Duke of Edinburgh. The saga of the text messages exchanged between David Cameron and Rishi Sunak has done further damage to the democratic office of the prime minister. Beneath the surface of the Greensill imbroglio lies an attitude – and a trend – that is more characteristic of British politics than any alleged corruption.
[See also: David Cameron and the great sell-out]
Relative to the Americans, we are less than generous to our former prime ministers; we do not even grant them the title in perpetuity in the way the US does. Since the 1958 Former Presidents Act, the previous occupants of the White House have been granted lifetime protection by the secret service and the same for their children until they are 16 years of age. Former presidents are entitled to transition funding for seven months, medical treatment in military hospitals and a pension equal to the salary of a cabinet secretary, which is currently $219,200 a year. Thereafter there is money available for a private office and the foundation of a presidential library under the administrator of the General Services Administration.
By comparison, in Britain the former prime minister receives very little beyond a pension that is based on half their annual salary at the time of leaving office. Before 1991, a former premier received nothing at all. John Major took pity on his predecessor Margaret Thatcher, who found it so hard to adjust to civilian life that she started to call previous staff members from her garage, with her bodyguards helping to dial the numbers. Major’s 1991 public duty cost allowance now provides an annual entitlement for the continued role in public life of former prime ministers, currently set at a maximum of £115,000 a year.
Former prime ministers therefore have to earn a living in a way that US presidents do not. It is easier for Bill Clinton and George W Bush to devote themselves to charitable endeavours than it is for Gordon Brown and Theresa May. I can hardly imagine a less popular idea than to suggest that David Cameron should receive more money from the public coffers, but he should. Remove the money issue and then we could reasonably expect former prime ministers to give their time to either public or charitable work. Our public culture is so vitriolic that it is difficult for a former prime minister to participate in the debate. John Major and Tony Blair thrust their way into the Brexit argument by force of eloquence. Gordon Brown does the same in favour of the Union.
Cameron has become a non-person, and it is both to his detriment and that of our politics that such experienced people should stay entirely silent. He would, in fact, have been well advised to have taken the job of the government’s adviser to the forthcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference. It can be hard for a person who has held the top job to accept a demotion, especially when someone you didn’t rate at school is now your boss. But Cameron would be a lot better off with a reputation as a man who takes on a crucial issue than one who takes on a financier and spends his time failing to be an effective lobbyist.
The problem has become that much greater because politics is now a race between the quick and the dead. David Cameron left office aged 49; the median age at which British prime ministers take office is 53-54. Robert Walpole was 65 and so was the Duke of Wellington. Lord John Russell was 73 and Lord Palmerston was 70. Benjamin Disraeli was 75 when he left office and Gladstone was 82 when he became prime minister for the fourth and final time, leaving Downing Street at the age of 84. Baldwin left office at 69, Chamberlain at 71, Churchill at 80 and Attlee at 68. These politicians would be thought of as Methuselah these days, sitting on the back benches of the Lords or collecting unwanted board appointments.
Most of these prime ministers also lived through an era in which life expectancy was considerably shorter than it is today. Most British prime ministers will not be like Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who died two weeks or so after leaving office in 1908. Ramsay Macdonald only lived for two years after leaving Downing Street and Chamberlain lasted 183 days. Churchill had nine years left after his final premiership ended in April 1955 and Attlee had 15 years. Major, at 78, has been retired nearly 24 years and is as sharp as ever. Cameron, at 54, is already more than four years retired. By the time he is 65, his post-political life will already have been longer than his entire political career, which ended in humiliation after he lost the Brexit referendum.
Some former prime ministers have made bad judgements, to be sure. Ted Heath sulked in parliament for three decades after he lost the leadership of the Conservative Party to Thatcher, and Blair took money from some shocking regimes. Yet some of that would be avoidable if we paid homage, as the Americans do, to the office. We have shown how everything can stop for the death of a royal. It would be helpful if we showed just a little more regard for the democratic as well as the ceremonial part of our constitution.
This article appears in the 21 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The unlikely radical