Of Churchill, Lords & the art of retiring

The Lords makes the seniors feel grand and relevant, offers them a de facto pension for past services, and clears the deck for a new generation

In history, Sir Winston Churchill is remembered as the leader who stood up fearlessly to Hitler and rescued Great Britain from the brink of defeat. What is less remembered is that after his unexpected defeat in the general election of 1945, Churchill remained in active politics and led the Conservative Party to victory in the 1951 election.

However, his second stint in Downing Street left Britons underwhelmed. Assuming office at the ripe old age of 77, his four-year tenure was marked by grumpiness, erratic behaviour and constant speculation over his health.
Yet Churchill soldiered on, much to the exasperation of his party colleagues, prompting Lord Mountbatten to remark that “Churchill kept living and the pall bearers kept dying.”
Much to the amazement of his contemporaries who marvelled at his unending appetite for the high life, Churchill lived on till the age of 90. He refused to retire from the House of Commons till the election of 1964, barely a year before his death. His funeral became an occasion of national mourning and was certainly the grandest send-off given by Britain to a non-Royal. But those who lined the streets of London on that cold January morning and the larger numbers in the Commonwealth who heard the crackling short-wave broadcast of the memorial service, remembered the man who epitomised the doughty, bulldog spirit of a beleaguered nation during the Blitz. They blacked out images of a stubborn, senile grandee who overstayed his welcome in politics and had to be taken to the House of Commons in a wheelchair.
Churchill was always a bit of an oddball who loved to set his own rules.
In 1955, after he finally allowed his chosen successor Sir Anthony Eden to move into 10 Downing Street, the Queen offered her first Prime Minister the exalted title of Duke of London, an honour that would have matched the honour bequeathed by a grateful nation to his illustrious ancestor, the Duke of Wellington. But for some strange reason, Churchill was unwilling to relinquish his parliamentary seat and move to the House of Lords.
He was being needlessly difficult. Ever since the primacy of the House of Commons was established in the early part of the 20th century, the Upper House became the resting place of politicians who, either because of age or the vagaries of politics, had reached the proverbial glass ceiling. When Stanley Baldwin was preferred by the monarch over Lord Curzon in 1923, a new precedent took shape: the Prime Minister of the country would have to be from the House of Commons. Thus, in 1964, Lord Home was compelled to relinquish his hereditary peerage and seek election to Parliament to meet the unwritten Constitutional obligation for a Prime Minister.
The way the House of Lords has evolved over the ages is a tribute to the British system of government.
In the early-20th century, the issue was one of popular sovereignty, but after 1945, the Lords has come as a great blessing to the main political parties. It has contributed immeasurably to facilitating generational changes in the parties. Senior leaders who are in urgent need of superannuation are honoured with a grand title, elevated to the House of Lords where they can occasionally make meaningful speeches on issues that concern them, and are given some of the perks and privileges of politicians. The Lords, therefore, serves many functions: it makes the seniors feel grand and relevant, offers them a de facto pension for past services, and clears the deck for a new generation. A casual look at the membership of the House of Lords will reveal a who’s who of politicians who were prominent in public life of a preceding era. It is probably the most exclusive club of has-beens.
The British experience is relevant to India. For many years, political parties have been beset by problems centred on individuals who don’t know when they are no longer wanted. In many European countries, politicians maintain a lively interest in a world outside politics. Many are proficient writers, some have wide-ranging business contacts, and still others love gar-
dening or stamp collecting. After retirement, these non-political interests are vigorously pursued.
In India, tragically, politicians rarely have interests outside politics. Consequently, they are unwilling to leave public life where boredom is coupled with a fanatical desire to cling on to the perks and privileges the state showers on political players. The Congress, which has been in power for the longest, has traditionally shown the door of retirement by nominating people to the various Raj Bhavans. But only a few can be accommodated — and there is competitive pressure from the retired bureaucrats. The Opposition parties have no such luck and lack options to cope with those who don’t want to fade into the sunset. For some parties, the self-image of being a parivar makes life doubly difficult. You can’t discard those who have served the cause faithfully and have no other purpose in life.
The constitution of a House of Lords is a non-starter in India, because the country already has two Houses. However, the National Advisory Council offers a safe way out. A body that is a vibrant talking shop, has no powers but could be showered with resources, can easily be expanded and made sufficiently bipartisan to accommodate those who need to enjoy their retirement while appearing to be relevant.

The writer is a senior journalist

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