Are Former Political Leaders Useless?

To say the recent re-emergence of Tony Blair into British current affairs has not been greeted with great positivity would be to brush over just how much aggression and disdain has been expressed for the former Prime Minister.

Blair has been the subject of attention surrounding his comments on the Middle East and Iraq. Given the brutal and frightening rise of ISIS in Iraq, not least stemming from the British presence within their ranks, his reappearance is as relevant to current affairs as it is ever likely to be. This return is unwelcome by those who regard Blair as a war criminal who should be transported to The Hague as quickly as possible. For those who do not entertain these claims, Blair is a former leader who has direct and recent experience in making difficult decisions regarding Iraq. So, whether one believes the decisions he made were right or wrong, or somewhere in between, surely Blair is a man who the current UK leadership can learn from by either considering his views or learning from his mistakes? It is rare that a leader has personal experience of military-based decision-making at such an important level, so surely it is all the more important to consult those who have done so before?

Unfortunately, former leaders are just that and they are quite often unwelcome in political circles. Whether or not private conversations between David Cameron and Tony Blair regarding Iraq would be possible is unclear, but public association between the current government and Blair would be a media disaster for Cameron et al. It is obvious that Labour want to disassociate themselves from New Labour in their attempts to win back old Labour voters and carve out support for Ed Miliband, so fraternising with Blair is off the table. The shadow of the charismatic former PM in the background, who often spoke with eloquence and clarity in difficult circumstances, would surely reflect poorly on Miliband, who struggles to command the authority of the former party leader.

Tony Blair recently turned 61. On June 27th it will be the seventh anniversary of his resignation as Prime Minister. While he has lectured, released a book and remained as Middle East Peace Envoy, Blair’s experience and undoubted intellect has been excluded from British politics. The picture of the obsolete former leader is not a new one, but this trend will continue to become more obvious as younger leaders become former leaders at a younger age. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is 39, while Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili will turn 32 on June 28th.  Iceland, Kosovo and Estonia all have leaders in their thirties. If the Conservatives are re-elected in the 2015 General Election and David Cameron remains Prime Minister for another five years, he will still likely leave office one year younger than Tony Blair at 53. If they lose the election, it is likely he will step down before his 50th birthday. Barack Obama will leave the White House in 2017 at the age of 55. In the private sector, many executive careers are only beginning at this age.

It is perhaps appropriate that these political leaders do not return to high office and, indeed, one would imagine that many of them do not have the will or energy to return to such a pressurised atmosphere. Still, something about consigning these individuals to frivolous diplomatic roles after they have reached the height of their profession, of public service, seems bizarre and foolhardy. Many leaders go on to roles with the UN and to sit on private sector boards, but to lose individuals to domestic politics is a disappointing reality when, whether one agrees with their political stances and records or not, they clearly possess expert political acumen.

Some politicians have enjoyed success away from domestic politics, with the obvious example of US President Jimmy Carter winning a Nobel Peace Prize. Former Irish President Mary Robinson became UN Commissioner for Human Rights, but these examples are few and far between. The current Conservative-led cabinet is an excellent example of how former leaders have been recycled through the party, with William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith both prominent members. There is no similar example in Britain of a former Prime Minister enjoying similar rebirth, however, and consideration should be given to how this can be addressed in the age of the young career politician.

Surely, these facts expose a failing in the political system if it does not allow for the reutilisation of increasingly young and energetic people who once led a country and were considered the most powerful individuals in the state. Perhaps Tony Blair is an exceptional case, and is doomed to exist outside the realms of domestic British politics for the remainder of his life, which some see as a shame, others not. However, one hopes that as political leaders become younger and leave office younger, that respective political systems can adapt and find ways in which those who have achieved so much in politics can continue to contribute to the future prosperity of a nation, if they desire to do so.