Andrew Wilson: The duty of former leaders is to respect their baton carriers

Lord Lawson has recently given his opinion on pulling the UK out of Europe. Picture: PA
Lord Lawson has recently given his opinion on pulling the UK out of Europe. Picture: PA
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THE noble Lord Lawson of Blaby is entitled to his views on pulling the UK out of Europe.

His own career is littered with wrestling with government policy errors on the question so you can see his concern. He also resigned as Chancellor feeling undermined by Alan Walters, an adviser to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, so you’d also think he’d have a care for how his intervention would feel for his current successor and Prime Minister, but no.

Clearly an intelligent and thoughtful man, he had the foresight to oppose the poll tax within the loyal confines of the Cabinet room. Thatcher should have ­listened to him. Indeed all leaders should listen to all contrarian views when articulated with intelligence, before deciding on their own.

The evidence of history is strewn with examples of signals ignored by intransigent leaders in business, politics and life who ploughed on to chaos and defeat. Today’s eccentricity could be tomorrow’s article of faith. But today’s eccentricity could also be utterly bonkers. Lord Lawson’s previous major intervention was in the category of what is labelled by some “climate change denial” on which he has got religion. There is a chance (small) he is right on that too of course. But there is also a chance (large) he is calamitously wrong. On the balance of risks, where the truth is impossible to prove, it is possibly judicious to protect future generations from destruction, just in case.

“Nonsense, you cannot say with certainty that the juggernaut will hit me.” “Maybe sir, but just step on to the pavement in case.” “No, you are utterly wrong.” Smash, bang wallop. You get the point.

Lawson’s latest intervention calling for UK withdrawal from the European Union was supported by another former chancellor, Lord Lamont (just free trade agreement or leave), and a former chief secretary Michael Portillo. It is almost as if they had met up to co-ordinate it all.

This, along with a Queen’s Speech that was written for the Tory backbenches rather than the needs of the country, dominated the news last week. So, for the umpteenth time since the Tories lost their ability to win in 1997 they have allowed the debate to be dragged on to Europe and immigration at a time when the country needs leadership on growth and jobs.

Not for nothing do parties fail when they reach inside themselves and to the extremes of the debate. The public want leadership and solutions that unite, not narrow short-term populism that divides.

And it is the politics of this situation I find most baffling. For three talented former leaders like Lawson, Lamont and Portillo to intervene so wantonly in public rather than private should be, for their party, unforgivable. That it is not suggests there is substantial support for the position throughout the party, in the country and in Parliament. This, in turn, could make the Prime Minister’s position unsustainable. If so, his party will fail, again.

David Cameron’s own position on 
Europe is crystal clear. Negotiate a new settlement and put it to the test. That does not, I have to say, offend me. It may be that this is all a clever ruse to strengthen his hand in those negotiations by making the threat of departure look serious. The reality is that it makes him look unable to lead a few dozen MPs of his own, let alone a whole country.

I hold to the view that in politics former leaders at all levels have a duty to respect those to whom they have left the stage. If they seek a role and crave attention then seek a democratic mandate or job. Otherwise let your wisdom be known in private and allow the generation to whom you have handed the baton get on with the ever-difficult job of leading. It is unseemly to do otherwise and there are few examples of when it is anything other than self-destructive, self-indulgent and wrong.

It is terrific that you have the ability to cause headlines. Really well done. Enjoy the applause before your retreat to the indulgence of having no actual responsibility to administer. Reading the US political bestseller The Presidents Club gives an impressive insight into how former US presidents have almost institutionalised this courtesy and respect for the incumbent. Wisdom and support is called upon but few grenades are thrown. That is how it should be.

There are lessons here too for our own debate in Scotland and for progressives who want power to migrate north from the fractious rightward drift in London.

Clearly the challenge is enormous to gather the majority required for “Yes” to win. Far greater than the remarkable triumph of the SNP in 2011. There is a long way to go between now and decision day and to maximise support requires optimism, vision, intelligence and clarity. It also takes the same campaigning zeal, discipline and unity of purpose that took the SNP from opposition to having the power to get us here in the first place.

To secure progress and reform requires a gargantuan effort to unify a majority on the centre. Hollering at a baffled public from the extremes of the core vote never, ever, wins. «

Twitter: @AndrewWilsonAJW