March 21, 2014 12:55 pm

Another outbreak of Blair Disease

‘Most ex-leaders link up with the plutocratic class while still in office. These people have been planning their careers since kindergarten’
Illustration by Luis Grañena of an ex-leader©Luis Grañena

At a reception recently I met the former president of a small post-communist country. I know that’s what he was because he told me so immediately. He then began dropping names of London-based ex-Soviet oligarchs – his friends and business associates, he implied.

This man had Blair Disease, named for ex-prime minister Tony Blair: the growing propensity of former heads of government to monetise their service. Blair Disease is damaging but easily cured.

If you are super-rich, you probably have an ex-leader working for you, like an overpaid tennis coach. Blair, for instance, has shilled for JPMorgan Chase, Qatar and Kazakhstan’s cuddly regime. Then there’s the modern ex-leader’s staple: giving paid speeches to rich people. Blair’s Queen Anne mansion outside London differs from the “museum of corruption” recently vacated by Ukraine’s ex-president Viktor Yanukovich chiefly in degree, taste and the period when the money was made. Both men got rich through running countries. It’s just that Blair’s version was legal.

Former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder and former French president Nicolas Sarkozy have terrible Blair Disease too. A year before Schröder left the chancellorship, he identified Vladimir Putin as a “flawless democrat”. Soon afterwards, as if by magic, Schröder was hired by the Russian gas company Gazprom. Last month he was chastising German media for their bias against the Sochi Olympics. He himself discerned a “wonderful atmosphere” in Sochi.

Sarkozy leapt nimbly from ruling France to speaking at banking conferences. At a Goldman Sachs do in November he announced, in English, “I am ready to run a business” – and with friends like that it won’t be a start-up in his garage.

No previous European ex-leaders made this kind of dough. Just 20 years ago the British ex-prime minister Harold Wilson was showing up at the House of Lords stricken with Alzheimer’s, led by his nurse, because he needed the daily attendance fee.

“Replenishing the ol’ coffers,” as George W Bush put it, is an older tradition for US presidents. However, none has ever made out like Bill Clinton, who earned $89m from speeches from 2001 to 2011. “I never had money until I got out of the White House,” he said, “but I’ve done reasonably well since.” In fact, through the magic of campaign funding, his ex-presidency could help buy his wife’s presidency.

If George W Bush makes less, it’s because he rarely goes out. Even Republicans in Dallas, where he lives, seldom see him. My personal theory: Bush is hiding because he feels shame. His presidency failed on his own terms: he didn’t win his wars, and then almost destroyed capitalism. Worse, his vice-president pushed him around. Yet even Bush swiftly racked up $15m from ex-presidential speechifying.

Most ex-leaders link up with the plutocratic class while still in office. These people have been planning their careers since kindergarten. They don’t leave politics and then suddenly think, “I wonder what to do?” Even while leader they’re looking ahead, and so every meeting with a rich person is a semi-conscious job interview. Furthermore, through hanging out with rich people, they start thinking of themselves as poor. The US Republican congressman Phil Gingrey spoke for struggling politicians everywhere when he grumbled: “I’m stuck here making $172,000 a year.”

And so, consciously or not, farsighted leaders behave like future employees of the rich. President Sarkozy’s services included helping Qatar get the football World Cup. After he lost office, Qatar tapped him to run a private equity fund. He hasn’t done it, probably because he plans to become president again in 2017. By then he may be rich enough not to need embarrassing campaign donations.

. . .

The sight of ex-leaders joining the 0.1 per cent is the perfect election present to populist parties. Blair, a notional leftist, is Britain’s most vivid symbol of elite self-enrichment. Populists couldn’t have made him up.

Selling out arguably damages even the ex-leaders themselves. These people care about their reputations. When Blair resigned in 2007, the House of Commons gave him an ovation. Today most Britons would agree with Greg Dyke, unseated as head of the BBC by Blair’s government, who says: “I think Blair now is a very sad man, rich, but [he] betrayed everything the Labour party was about.”

Blair after Downing Street could have helped Britain. Running a state is the sort of job that you only get your head around by the time you leave it. Shortly before resigning, Blair bowled over some visitors to Downing Street with a brilliant analysis of Putin. That’s what 10 years as PM gives you. If only he’d then become a disinterested voice in British politics. Whenever his ousted predecessor John Major spoke in parliament on his special subject, Northern Ireland, MPs actually listened. In Germany, the word Altkanzler – former chancellor – long denoted a moral institution, a servant of the nation who spoke with unmatched experience. That could have been Schröder.

It’s easy to cure Blair Disease: bar ex-leaders from doing paid work for private interests. This free measure would instantly deflate populism, keep experience inside government and attract a better class of person to the job.

simon.kuper@ft.com; Twitter @KuperSimon

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