Europe’s politicians have a bad habit of outstaying their welcome. Long after they’re out of office, they linger in post-power roles that are often disturbingly corrupt or out of date. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, and now former U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron have become synonymous with tawdry embarrassment after office. One name stands in opposition to this trend: Gordon Brown.
Serving as British prime minister from 2007 to 2010 and chancellor before that since 1997, the former Labour Party leader has emerged as a model of probity and authority since he left No. 10 Downing St. His friend, rival, and predecessor, Blair—super popular in office—has seen his image collapse and his highly paid advice to Kazakhstan and the Gulf states link him inexorably to global kleptocracy. Brown’s successor, Cameron, is mired in the fallout from the collapse of Greensill Capital, revealing his intense lobbying of government ministers and civil servants to save the company from bankruptcy.
Nobody captures this state of mind or Britain’s influence over it better than Renzi, who proudly declared about his work with Saudi Arabia, “in Italy, this is not very normal. It is normal for Tony Blair, David Cameron, all the guys, Nicolas Sarkozy, or former U.S. presidents. In Italy, I am one of the first to do it.”
In the meantime, Brown has spearheaded a global campaign to end global “vaccine apartheid” by waving drug patents. His interventions, from COVID-19 to Scottish independence, have captured both public attention and the ear of politicians. This is not merely good luck. Brown has mastered the art of post-power.
With politicians taking office younger and living longer, former premiers stay around longer. Cameron became prime minister at age 43. The average age since the 18th century for prime ministerial resignations was 61 years old and the average age of death was 73—leaving just 12 years in between. Moreover, seven British prime ministers died in office and a further nine died just two and a half years after leaving office. In contrast, if Cameron hits the average modern U.K. life expectancy of 81, he can be expected to spend 31 years post-office.
This dooms former prime ministers to long stretches of post-power: a half-life where they both are and aren’t politicians, where they both do and do not continue to represent their countries, where they both do and don’t matter. Not only is this a highly frustrating state for such hypercompetitive people, but it is one filled with temptations. These are both financial and political to either try and use accumulated connections to make money or continue to play a political role.
Or they can be psychological: Having entered into a world where the superrich were, on some level, your peers, the desire to keep up or continue to live among them can be overwhelming. Unlike in the days of former U.K. Prime Ministers Winston Churchill or James Callaghan, prime ministers on average are neither as independently wealthy nor as ideologically immune to these temptations as they once were. The globalized world is also knocking at their bored doors, inviting them to conferences, business, or global boards in a way it wasn’t in the days of Edward Heath or Alec Douglas-Home, who both stayed in Westminster.
Blair has been a sad example of the temptations of post-power. Since leaving office, Blair has focused on establishing himself in a league with the superrich, with a myriad of connections to authoritarian regimes. Cameron’s relationship with the unsuccessful U.K.-China Fund and the collapsed Greensill Capital firm offers a failed version of the same tale. As Blair and Cameron’s wealth has mounted, both men’s reputations and influence, especially in their own parties, have plummeted. Brown has eschewed, aiming to mingle with billionaires and protecting and enhancing his reputation for integrity as a result.
One key point for Brown was focus. Blair has taken on everything from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Brexit and vaccines at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. He regularly comments, takes interviews, and publishes opinion pieces—five alone in the Guardian in 2019.
Instead of spreading himself thin on a number of issues, Brown chose to be narrow but deep. This has meant on the issues he does intervene on—such as speaking out against Scottish independence in the 2014 referendum, a move widely seen as important in the campaign—he carries headline weight. In comparison, Blair’s views are often in the media but have moved causes less. Brown’s focus on global education, Scotland, newborn health, economic recovery, and now vaccine patents has paid off—moving the dial.
And more importantly Brown has enhanced, rather than diminishing, his moral authority since leaving office.
Brown’s financial choices date back to the very beginning. Not only did he refuse to take the prime minister’s pension, but his own professional choices were conservative and careful, such as joining the investment firm PIMCO’s global advisory council. Through philanthropic work from the Office of Gordon and Sarah Brown, he has raised a substantial sum for charity: $4,922,513 to date.
According to a spokesperson from the office, “the costs of the office are paid from income received by the office for consulting and paid engagement undertaken by Gordon.” The spokesperson also confirmed that neither Brown nor his wife have received any salaries, dividends, or profits from the office.
That sense of integrity has also been enhanced by his personal choices. Where Blair sold his house in Sedgefield, severing his ties to the northeast, Brown lives in North Queensferry, close to Edinburgh. Cumulatively, when it comes to moral authority, these small choices matter.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that former U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May has also avoided moral pitfalls and German Chancellor Angela Merkel likely will as well; all three are children of the manse with a strong sense of personal probity. That’s not something, alas, to be relied on in politicians. Post-power is a political state and increasingly a problem. Russia, China, Azerbaijan, Qatar, Kazakhstan, and more have all been able to find their clients in European legislatures and after high office in the way colonial Britain and France once did abroad.
In France, Sarkozy has recently been convicted of corruption. Capturing the mood of European post-power, he told an audience in the United Arab Emirates that modern democracy “destroys” leadership and the world’s greatest leaders come from undemocratic states. Meanwhile in Italy, Renzi has tarnished his reputation by taking money from Saudi Arabia while still an Italian senator, recently flying to the kingdom to host a fawning conversation with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In Germany, Schröder has sullied his name by serving on the board of Rosneft, the Kremlin’s champion state oil company, and chairing the controversial Russian-backed pipeline Nord Stream 2.
What to do? Rules are needed, especially in an age of weaponized kleptocracy and constant future political interference between adversaries when the greed of retired leaders can become a tool in the hands of great powers.
In Britain, at least, the answer lies partially in the House of Lords. First up, the arcane 796-member body, larger than the House of Commons and second only in size to the Chinese National People’s Congress, needs to be reshaped. A significantly smaller House of Lords, effectively an elected second chamber of nations and regions with a small, rotating expert-appointed dimension on time-limited terms, could be complemented with automatic seats for former prime ministers.
That can be mixed with imposing tough transparency conditions on both chambers of Parliament: no second jobs, no financial relationships with authoritarian powers, no lobbying governments—and including former premiers. A rule could be created where, for a 15-year cooling off period after being prime minister, a former leader would sit in the House of Lords and continue to serve public life. A smaller chamber would also mean each peer would get a decent sized staff, as the U.S. Senate does, instead of the current threadbare capacity.
This would retain U.K. leaders and all their accumulated knowledge in the service of the nation and ensure everything they gained serving the collective good does not get immediately privatized for corporate or authoritarian gain. Instead of being a trendsetter for corrupt organizations, Westminster should aim to set a global example of how to firewall politics from corruption in an age of kleptocrats and predatory finance. And with strong rules, the United Kingdom wouldn’t have to rely on every future officeholder of No. 10 Downing St. to have the ethics of Brown to do it.