There is no fixed or predetermined role for former Prime Ministers in Britain. What they do after they leave office depends on their personal choices and on circumstances. While there is therefore little in the way of a common pattern, many of the fifty-two previous occupants of Number 10 Downing Street have done plenty of worthwhile, interesting and significant things in the years after they closed the famous black door behind them for the last time.
Of course, a long life and good health are essential ingredients for a successful post-premiership. General advances in medicine and public health help explain why the average age at death of eighteenth-century Prime Ministers was just 64, of nineteenth-century premiers 74, and by the twentieth century had risen to 81. Indeed, four twentieth-century Prime Ministers (Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan, Alec Douglas-Home and James Callaghan) made it into their 90s. But seven British Prime Ministers died in office and a further nine died within two-and-a-half years of leaving Number 10. Overall since the eighteenth century, the average age of all ex-Prime Ministers on leaving Number 10 was 61, the average age at death was 73: so the average post-premiership or retirement has been 12 years long.
Since the eighteenth century as many as fourteen (one in four) Prime Ministers have ‘come back’ to serve in later governments led by others. Some of these prime-ministerial ‘retreads’ had had short tenures in Number 10. For example Douglas-Home who, after less than a year as PM, went on to serve as Foreign Secretary 1970-74; or the Duke of Wellington who, after two brief terms as PM, arguably exercised more influence as a senior party figure, Minister without Portfolio in Robert Peel’s government from 1841-46 and also as Commander-in-Chief of the Army from 1842 until his death in 1852. Arthur Balfour was PM for only three years but then went on to serve as a Cabinet minister for eleven years during and after the First World War and in the 1920s, under three different prime ministers.
Tony Blair immediately gave up his seat in the House of Commons on leaving Number 10, but David Lloyd George stayed on in the Commons for a further twenty-two years and Edward Heath for twenty-seven years. The House of Lords has provided many others with a platform, enabling them to air their views and contribute to political debate. From the mid-nineteenth century until comparatively recently a hereditary earldom was the ‘going rate’ for Prime Ministers who were not already peers. Macmillan was the last former Prime Minister to accept a hereditary earldom, in 1984, more than twenty years after leaving office. Douglas-Home was the first to go to the Lords with a life peerage, in 1974.
Meanwhile, from Sir Robert Walpole to Sir John Major, twenty-nine Prime Ministers or former Prime Ministers became Knights of the Garter – Britain’s highest order of knighthood. Indeed, so far only nine Prime Ministers have ended their days as plain ‘Mr’, without accepting either a peerage or knighthood: Henry Pelham, George Grenville, William Pitt the Younger, Spencer Perceval, George Canning, William Gladstone, Andrew Bonar Law, Ramsay MacDonald, and Neville Chamberlain.
Historically, many former Prime Ministers were privately wealthy and able to retire to their country estates. Walpole amassed a large personal fortune in office. Lords Bute in the eighteenth century and Rosebery in the nineteenth were already among the wealthiest men in the country and married fabulously rich heiresses: when Rosebery died in 1929, he left £1.7 million – the equivalent of nearly £60 million in today’s money. But some former Prime Ministers had money troubles, both in and out of office. Both William Pitt the Elder (the Earl of Chatham) and his son, William Pitt the Younger, died leaving massive debts that were eventually paid off by Parliament with public funds. Some, such as Lords North and Melbourne, had money quietly loaned to them by the monarchs of the day. Herbert Henry Asquith’s financial position was so bad that some of his friends organised an appeal for a fund to pay his debts and to give him a private pension for the last few years of his life.
Eventually pensions for former Prime Ministers were introduced in 1937 at the rate of £2,000 a year and then in 1972 the pension was linked to the previous prime-ministerial salary. This was initially set at 15/40ths then raised to half in 1991, following a recommendation from the Top Salaries Review Body. Former PMs also receive a special Public Duties Cost Allowance to help fund an office and secretarial support. Then in 2008 the Review Body proposed that former Prime Ministers should be part of the regular ministerial pension scheme, receiving three months’ severance pay and drawing a pension dependent on length of service and contributions.
The majority of former Prime Ministers in the last hundred years have put pen to paper and most (but not all) of those have written memoirs and autobiographies. But some twentieth-century former premiers wrote interesting non-political books, including Churchill’s history books, Heath’s books about his wider interests in sailing, music and travel, Major’s recent history of cricket, and Arthur James Balfour’s philosophical writings. In the nineteenth century while Gladstone wrote theological tomes, Benjamin Disraeli penned best-selling novels.
A more recent development, which may indicate the beginning of a convergence with the US model for former Presidents, is for former Prime Ministers to set up their own foundations as a base and platform for continuing involvement with political and public issues. Lady Thatcher was the first to set up her own foundation to try to secure her legacy and propagate her ideas, but it closed down in the UK in 2005. Tony Blair has set up a Sports Foundation and an Inter-faith Foundation. In a busy and hectic post-premiership, Mr Blair is also the first former British Prime Minister to take on a major international role, as the Madrid Quartet’s official envoy on the Middle East.
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