Why past-it politicians like Blair and Major should stop haunting modern politics

Is there any more damning legacy for your ideas than having to come back and repeat them over and over?

March 15, 2018
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This is an age of reboots, remakes and sequels—to the point that even saying this sentence is practically a remake of other statements of our current crisis of creativity. It should come as no surprise that this trend has finally reached politics, that place where fresh ideas supposedly matter a lot more than everything else.

Together again for one last more mission, former politicians rise from retirement to solve what they see as a world gone askew, begging them for intervention. This is exemplified by Tony Blair and John Major’s recent interventions on Brexit, but as the swirling rumours about Obama involved in a possible Netflix series show, it is not contained to Britain; the idea of leaving the spotlight has become less appealing across the world.

The problem with sequels, of course, is that a lot of the time nobody really wants them. Beyond a few who might see in these actions the glimmer of nostalgia politics—a return to a simpler and admittedly less fragmented times—there is something unhealthy about seeing old faces back. Politicians are defined by their legacies; they should not get to have post-scripts.

It’s easy to criticize yesterday’s men for being so; it’s harder to explain why they shouldn’t interfere.

There is no rule defining what a world leader can or cannot do after they leave power. The line is remarkably muddled. Bill Clinton became something of an international entrepreneur with the Clinton Foundation, a fact that would later haunt Hillary Clinton when she tried her own chances at the presidency. George W. Bush famously took up painting. Across the Atlantic, Gordon Brown does a mix of charity and emergency speeches; David Cameron bought a shed, but is occasionally rolled out to reassure us that the sky isn’t falling.

Partially, this is a consequence of a trend of having fairly young politicians in power during the 1990s and 2000s. Twenty-one years after Blair defeated Major, both men are still healthy enough to participate in the grueling process of public life.

It’s understandable that in times of great change people with the right connections might feel compelled to put their oar in and help steer the course.

In the case of Obama, specifically, any possible intervention is also filled with additional meaning. The country elected him as the first black president and then proceeded to choose a man whose political career was built off defying Obama’s legitimacy.

A return to the scene, then, implies an encouragement to those who felt abandoned and crushed by Trump’s rise. It is not always cynicism at the heart of politician’s actions.

Sympathetic as the impulse might be, though, it would be advised to hold on our welcomes. While politicians might become symbols of their time and of a certain type of politics, that same image acts against them once they come back to the stage.

A former politician playing opposition to current ones is usually outplayed by their inability to understand the new circumstances that evolve in usual times, let alone the sudden shifts in these volatile ones. Major mentioned he understood what was like to be in Theresa May’s shoes—referencing Thatcher’s intervention during his own premiership. But Major never had to deal with anything as strenuous as Brexit during his time.

The attempts at a 90s political reboot is always short-lived because it does not say much about the current world, but most of all, because it doesn’t quite offer a reflection on the 90s.

When we think of political figures as successes or failures, we take in consideration the ability of their ideas to carry on after they are gone. What we remember of Thatcher is how she forced her ideas into the mainstream, not her strange interventions against John Major.

The same is true for other politicians who utilized their time in office to make their ideas consensus long after they left power. If Obama’s ideas cannot be maintained in the political mainstream after he leaves office, can we see him as successful, despite all he has done?

That is the problem with political figures not being able to simply retire and disappear from the public eye. It speaks to the fact that there aren’t new politicians willing to step in and make the argument for them, having learned the lessons from previous failures. The current times are eager to throw out all that they find superfluous.

If the whole of a political strand can be reduced to one personality, no matter how charismatic or likeable they might be, that strand is barren, kept alive by artificial means. Long-running franchises can only continue to be long running if new people can find in them something relevant to the way human beings interact with the world.

The same is true for political legacies; at some point they must stand on their own. The ideas, not their figureheads, must reintroduce themselves to the public—or perish.