As the Scottish Labour Party breaks from tradition to form the circular firing squad before the election and find itself without a leader, speculation has begun on who could replace Johann Lamont as the holder of one of British politics most coveted poisoned chalices.
I don’t pretend to be an expert on Scottish politics, so I’m not going to comment on the potential of all the candidates but one name that’s been floated has caught my attention: Gordon Brown. At least one MP is pressing the former Prime Minister to stand, and his role in the referendum campaign would make him a strong contender for the role.
However, if he were to do it, Brown would be unique amongst former British Prime Ministers in choosing to get involved at another level of politics after leaving Downing Street. of course, this is mainly due to their not being many other meaningful levels of politics in Britain that former Prime Ministers could get involved in prior to 1997, but even if we look internationally to countries with more federal systems there’s are very few similar examples.
Indeed, the only example that readily comes to mind is that of Jacques Chirac, who served as French Prime Minister from 1974-6, then became Mayor of Paris in 1977. However, the French Prime Minister is very much subordinate to the President, and the mayoralty of Paris was a newly created/restored role in 1977, making it a perfect position for someone like Chirac to stand for to keep his political prominence high.
After that, the best examples I could find were Richard Nixon, running for Governor of California after being Vice-President of the United States, and (thanks to Richard) Eduard Shevardnadze, going from Foreign Minister of the USSR to President of Georgia (though that was after the dissolution of the USSR). Even in countries with strongly federal systems, the direction of travel for politicians appears to be relentlessly upwards and towards the centre. Once one has reached the peak, there’s no stepping back to a lower role. (Another British exception, in a slightly different way is Alec Douglas-Home returning to his previous role as Foreign Secretary in Edward Heath’s government)
Of course, one major explanation for this is the question of age. Leaders tend to leave their roles at a time when most people are retiring, and they’re probably not to blame for, in the most part, deciding that a period of lecturing, memoir-writing and well-paid advising is a much better way of spending their time than getting involved in a completely different politics. However, as leaders become younger and leave office at a younger age while health improves and being 65 isn’t an end to everything, isn’t there a temptation to continue on in politics in some form if possible? In a system that now tends to throw leaders out after they’ve lost one election, rather than let them try to return to power, isn’t seeking another arena a logical choice?
All that said, I’m still not convinced that Brown becoming leader of Scottish Labour is much more than a very late silly season story, but someone has to be the first to do something, so why not let it be him?