Brian Wilson: Political comebacks get us nowhere

The US political system allows presidents to plan for a non-political future, something that would be useful here, writes Brian Wilson

There is a great deal to be said for the American presidential system – two terms and you’re out, eight years maximum, no questions asked. So move on and find something useful to do with the rest of your life.

Such clarity of constitutional limitations might have saved a lot of grief in our own country. Margaret Thatcher would have been spared the delusion that she could go on and on and on, and thus avoided the indignity of her removal. Gordon Brown could conceivably have settled for an eight-year wait more graciously than he addressed an indeterminate one, and obsessed less damagingly in the interim.

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The other benefit of the American system is that it creates some degree of liberation in the second term. If he wins again, President Barack Obama will have four years to forge his own agenda, albeit with other constitutional constraints to contend.

In Britain, second term prime ministers only worry about surviving to become third term prime ministers. Whereas American presidents can plan ahead for their institutes and libraries, no prime minister leaves office willingly. This is what creates the difficulty with their future roles.

Ted Heath alone chose to return to the day job. He sulked ostentatiously but also remained as a committed parliamentarian who would not have dreamt of going to the House of Lords. Others, like Harold Wilson – though he was debilitated by dementia – and Jim Callaghan took the ermine but lived out the remainder of their lives with quiet dignity. John Major disappeared into the obscurity of business with the Carlyle Group.

None of the above made any serious effort to reinvent themselves as leading political figures following their loss of office. Gordon Brown remains an MP and does the lecture circuit but clearly has had some higher calling in mind. Last week’s announcement that he is to become the UN Special Envoy on Education remains to be evaluated. Some of these honorifics sound rather mightier than they actually turn out to be, and it all depends on the status and resources that are allocated.

Certainly the canvas appears broad enough and I hope he can make a difference on the kind of issues that drew him into politics in the first place, all those years ago. The aim is to find funds which will finance two million extra schoolteachers in the world and meet the UN target of every child, by 2015, having the opportunity to complete primary education. No time for plotting or fretting – just a challenge to get on with.

And then there is the interesting case of Tony Blair, who has been popping up all over the place of late, taking an interest in domestic matters and not exactly crushing speculation that he might be looking for a comeback in some political role. Arguably, indeed, he has already found one, having been asked by Ed Miliband to take charge of planning an Olympic legacy for the country on Labour’s behalf.

It’s easy to understand why Blair believes he has a political role left in him. It is quite likely that if he had remained prime minister, Labour would have won the 2010 election or at least been in a position to lead a coalition government. Contrary to the assiduous work of the myth-makers, Blair remained a relatively popular figure among the public at large and certainly had the capacity to win elections.

But even if this had been attainable, would a five-term prime minister have been desirable? I think not. The Labour government, by 2007, needed change and renewal. What it did not need was the replacement of Blair by someone who had been around even longer than him and who, even before he became prime minister, was starting to become damaged goods in public perception.

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The Blair-Brown conflict was pursued to the exclusion of all rational thought about what was best for the Labour government or the country.

When I glance at the various diaries that the great panjandrums of New Labour found time to keep with an eye to the future, I am struck by the depth of this self-indulgence. Their descriptions of episodes I knew something about are unrecognisable because they are viewed entirely through the prism of themselves and their own importance. It was past time for the courtiers as well as the princes and pretenders to be cleared out.

Indeed, in retrospect, I would cite the Blair case study as classic evidence in support of my two-term rule – or ten years at the most. Tony Blair, having left office, had choices to make. He remained a charismatic figure with a global following and a huge potential to be a force for good in the world.

It may be that, behind the scenes, he is indeed fulfilling that mission. However, it is indisputable that he has also set up an extensive commercial machine and that the two roles are sometimes difficult to unravel. That is not a great platform for a political come-back. He has made his choices.

Once again, there were lessons to be learned from the United States. When Bill Clinton left office, he had genuine money problems and went on the global lecture circuit to address them.

But at the same time, he established the Clinton Foundation with the goal of “working in the areas he cared about most and where he could make a measurable difference”.

And he has – whether through his foundation’s great work on lowering the cost of Aids treatments in the developing world or in his Haiti initiative or through his work in Harlem where he located his foundation. Enough to keep any man busy for a lifetime.

The other great example is Jimmy Carter, who lost the presidency to Ronald Reagan in 1980. Instead of licking their wounds in Georgia, he and his wife founded the Carter Centre which has been doing great work ever since – “Waging Peace, Fighting Disease, Building Hope”.

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At the age of 87, Jimmy Carter is still peace-broking around the world, unafraid to take on any challenge irrespective of how it plays in the short term with American public opinion.

For the past 25 years, the Carters have led a campaign to eradicate Guinea worm disease which affected 3.6 million people in Africa and is now 99 per cent defeated. That one task alone is more important than anything a politician usually achieves in office.

So the moral is clear – there is life beyond politics. Everyone can help at election times, but there really isn’t a place for political comebacks. Once a politician has left office he or she should move on and find the most useful roles appropriate to their skills. That is how they will be judged by those who even trouble to remember them.

Comebacks awaken more ghosts than happy memories.