Former prime ministers like Gordon Brown and John Major should set up non-party political 'brains trust' to help the nation in times of crisis – Alastair Stewart

Gordon Brown has been enjoying something of a career comeback.

Former Prime Ministers, from left, John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown attend a Remembrance Sunday ceremony in Whitehall in 2021 (Picture: Justin Tallis/WPA pool/Getty Images)
Former Prime Ministers, from left, John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown attend a Remembrance Sunday ceremony in Whitehall in 2021 (Picture: Justin Tallis/WPA pool/Getty Images)

The broader question of Mr Brown's mainstream return is whether Britain can have a more formal use for its ex-prime ministers.

The former Labour leader has been praised for unveiling a detailed plan to help avert a winter energy bill crisis – with a swipe at politicians taking holidays while millions face financial difficulties.

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His one-off Edinburgh Festival appearance with comedian Matt Forde was equally lauded and even “belied his dour image”.

Brown was always the more socially conscious of former premiers. But his interventions, if striking, are only occasional. Imagine a semi-frequent forum of ex-prime ministers, free of political restraints, not quite a think tank, but a meeting of expertise that was above politics.

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Tony Blair set up a foundation in his name and gives periodic speeches on big-theme subjects, such as western leadership post the Ukraine invasion. Theresa May remains a Member of Parliament and delighted many by refusing to clap during Boris Johnson's last Prime Minister's Questions. David Cameron has disappeared into the ether with one lacklustre political memoir behind him and a legacy of Brexit torturing household budgets across the country.

At present, former prime ministers do not entirely retire. Post-premiership activities and employment of most of them tend only to sully their reputation. There is constant controversy about their right to make money from any connections or expertise derived from their time in office, whether it be speeches or consultancy work.

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John Major fits the traditional retirement pattern for a former premier. Until recently, he was the last living prime minister to be knighted. Brown comes a close second: he has set up a think tank, Our Future Scotland, writes the occasional book and works the speaking circuit without pomp or circumstance. Blair's appearance in the 2022 New Year's honour list provoked a hysterical dovetail to "call me Tony" 25 years earlier.

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But former prime ministers have unique expertise, whether one likes or hates them. Some may even grow to reflect and learn and use that as the basis for new policies, rather than engaging in Groundhog Day discussions about how they were right about everything.

Our system prides itself on the revolving door of prime ministers under the steadiness of a sovereign. But whatever their time in office, they have unique insider knowledge. A regular, informal forum for debate or authoring on the day's issues would be a fantastic resource.

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Radical solutions are needed to tackle an ever-growing number of converging crises. A prime ministerial group would be beyond party politics, even though a natural political divide would be present, and politicians’ natural vanity would help ensure the opinions put forward favoured being right over being loyal.

American presidents often formed surprising alliances after leaving office, transcending rivalries and political divides. Former US Presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush were well known for their partnerships on projects like the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund.

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Tonally it could do much to remedy the cancerous and toxic divisions wrecking British politics. So stormy is the sea of dangers and problems facing the country that a wartime, national government represented by all parties is needed. As that will never happen, more cross-party thinking is necessary.

Some foundation or trust which draws together former prime ministers to make recommendations and policy discussions would be a phenomenally useful tool. Brown and Major backing a Nuremberg-style international tribunal to investigate Russian President Vladimir Putin is precisely the kind of idea that would be given weight by such a forum.

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At the moment, most of our former leaders save themselves for a well-executed political intervention, usually at the expense of their wayward party and dubious successors on issues like Europe or the energy crisis.

There is something to be said for the accolade of elder statesmen. That line is now blurred. Prime ministers are getting younger and need to do something when they finish their political careers.

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From Robert Walpole in 1721 to Boris Johnson, the average age of prime ministers when they first ascend to the office is mid-50s. Older political leaders receiving the laurels and the gratitude of their country and retiring to private life or, as is more common, going to sit in the House of Lords was a distinguished, out-of-the-way send-off that avoided the backseat driver tendencies of Thatcher against Major after her defenestration in 1990.

Blair and Cameron represent a young new breed of ex-prime minister who still has that cut-and-thrust drive to do something. Brown is finding his second wind at 71 and also finding new support.

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One only wishes he would do as Harold Macmillan did in 1976 when he called for “a government of national unity” to resolve the economic crisis. Asked who could lead such a coalition, he replied: "Mr Gladstone formed his last government when he was 83. I'm only 82. You mustn't put temptation in my way." Suffice to say, the suggestion was ignored.

Many US presidents, like Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, took on official and unofficial international trips to serve their country long after they left office. It would be helpful to elevate former prime ministers to the same type of functional role as elder statesmen.

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However, Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It sitcom makes one important point beautifully. When Nicola Murray is kicked out of her opposition leadership job and has ideas of becoming a "party grandee", he sits her down and says, “you are not a grandee, you're a f***ing blandee”.

Despite that, Gordon Brown has shown there is tremendous potential for ex-prime ministers to contribute to resolving today's issues. We must welcome such suggestions and think of a way to mobilise Mr Brown and his contemporaries. It does not need to be a retread of old arguments but genuine public service.

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