Prompted by recent posts (don’t…mention…the…NATO…!) Ola Nordebo asked me if it was possible to put together a top-ten of the cleverest, most successful and best-timed political resignations in history.
Oh dear: History is a long time and then there is also the question of what constitutes a clever and successful resignation (and to whom?). But let’s try and find some. To make things a bit easier for myself, I’ll concentrate on heads of government. Feel free to add names.
A difficult case. As I noted in an earlier post, Danish politicians like annoying relatives tend to overstay their welcome and the only cases of voluntary resignations I could come up with were M.P. Friis in 1920 and Jens Otto Krag in 1972. Friis’ resignation was negotiated in advance as he led an interim government, so we will leave him out of consideration.
Krag’s resignation, on the other hand, merits attention. There were personal motives behind his resignation (basically, after being a top-level politician for 25 years, he was fed up) but his life ended in a personal tragedy. Politically, resigning and handing over to Anker Jørgensen may have been a smart move: Jørgensen had the connection with the party base which Krag lacked and this was useful in the chaotic 1970s, especially after the divisive EC referendum campaign. On the other hand, Jørgensen proved to be weak strategically and had a problem getting a grip on economic policy. Still, the question is: Was the 1973 earthquake avoidable and did Jørgensen perform any worse in that election that Krag would have done, or was 1973 bound to happen while Jørgensen managed to make the most of the situation. If so, the Krag-Jørgensen transition should be on the list.
Sweden is different. After holding office for an amazing 23 consecutive years, Swedish prime minister Tage Erlander stepped down in 1969 in favour of Olof Palme. The relay was well-prepared and even if Palme became a controversial figure in Sweden and he failed to win in the 1976 and 1979 elections, his terms in office could still be counted as more than acceptable. The judgement of Palme’s political performance will of course depend on you political point of view, but all things considered the transition must count as a success and well-timed in the run-up to the 1970 election.
The resignation of Ingvar Carlsson in 1995-6 in favour favour of Göran Persson is more difficult to gauge, if only because Persson wasn’t Carlsson’s choice. On the other hand, Carlsson gave his successor enough time to position himself before the 1998 election. Again, the question is: Did the Social Democrats perform worse in the 1998 election and in economic policy because of Persson or was the loss, all things considered, bound to happen. The Carlsson-Persson transition merits attention, but in my opinion isn’t top-of-the-list of successful resignations.
Norway – and the Norwegian Labour Party in particular – has a long story of relatively smooth transitions. From Gerhardsen to Torp, from Torp to Gerhardsen (yes!), from Gerhardsen to Bratteli, from Bratteli to Nordli, from Nordli to Brundtland and from Brundtland to Jagland.
In terms of success, we can count out the Gerhardsen-Torp and Brundtland-Jagland transitions and indications are that the second resignation of Gerhardsen in favour of Tryggve Bratteli wasn’t completely voluntary. On the other hand, the Bratteli-Nordli and especially the Nordli-Brundtland transitions look well-timed and successful. It is true that Gro Harlem Brundtland lost the 1981 election, but she still managed to stay in the centre of Norwegian politics for fifteen years.
In the UK, a strong candidate must be Harold Wilson who resigned in 1976 in favour of James Callaghan. Wilson’s resignation may not have been completely voluntary as he could have been in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Callaghan’s term in office was also complicated and after the Winter of Discontent ended in defeat in a vote of no confidence in March 1979, eventually leading to seventeen years of Conservative government. But as the counterfactualists point out: If Callaghan had called an election in the autumn of 1979, Mrs. Thatcher might have been a historical accident. And that leads to the question: Where does the Blair–Brown transition fit into the model? If Brown had called the Conservatives’ bluff by calling an election in the early autumn of 2007, the answer would have been easier.
To Sum Up
So here are, in no particular order, my initial cases:
- Harold Wilson – James Callaghan
- Oddvar Nordli – Gro Harlem Brundtland
- Tryggve Brattely – Oddvar Nordli
- Tage Erlander – Olof Palme
- Jens Otto Krag – Anker Jørgensen
And no: I haven’t forgotten about Germany, but I really can’t see any smooth transititions on the federal level. Perhaps if we widen the field to party leaders and state prime ministers. But feel free to add cases.
Update: That’s Nordebo, not Nordbo. All those Norwegian prime ministers got the better of me.