Richard Ingrams' Week: Few former leaders have the grace to retire quietly

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The Independent Online

When Charles de Gaulle fell out of favour with the French people, he retired to his home in the village of Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises and awaited the call to return to take charge. Sure enough, that call eventually came.

The story has had a bad effect on lesser figures on the political stage, particularly in this country. Prime ministers retired or were ditched by their party and went away to write their memoirs. But with the example of de Gaulle in their minds, they never were quite rid of the idea that sooner or later they might be able to make a comeback to clear up the mess their successors had made.

In 1963, Harold Macmillan made the mistake of retiring prematurely when he thought he was dying of cancer. The diagnosis turned out to be wrong. De Gaulle had made it back; why shouldn't he do the same?

His successor as Tory leader, Edward Heath, retired de Gaulle-like to the close of Salisbury Cathedral, convinced that one day the call would come. It never did.

Most remarkable of all was the case of the fascist leader, Sir Oswald Mosley. I remember meeting him when he was over 80 and he still had the air of someone who expected the phone one day to ring and the summons be issued for him to take charge and put everything to rights.

Which leads one to the state of mind of former prime minister Tony Blair, who will be watching with mixed feelings as his successor Gordon Brown looks to be making a complete mess of everything.

Supposing things go from bad to worse. Supposing in addition to all the current troubles there is a serious economic crisis (as many experts now predict), it would be absurd for Blair to think that he could somehow return and make it all come good. But why should Blair be any different from all those others?

Why England's defeat made me laugh

My favourite cartoon by the great American Charles Addams shows a cinema audience gazing at the screen with tears streaming down their faces – all except for one little bald man in the middle whose face is wreathed in a wonderfully manic smile.

I have often identified with that little man, especially when I am being informed by the media that the entire nation is overcome with emotion – grief, anguish, fury, whatever.

It happened after the death of Diana in 1997 when we were told that every man, woman and child in the country was bowed down by grief. It happened to a lesser extent on Wednesday, when the whole English nation was reported to have been plunged into a state of despair and anguish following our 2-3 defeat at the hands of the Croats. Unusually for me, I watched much of the game. But I did so in the hope that Croatia would win and, like the man in the Addams cinema, I would have a good laugh.

I was not disappointed. After all the millions spent on the new Wembley Stadium, it turned out that the pitch was scarcely good enough to play on. Then came the first Croatian goal, quickly followed by another

It was like something in a comic film. It all culminated in the unforgettable sight of a group of elderly bald men sitting in the row at FA headquarters trying to reassure the public that steps had been taken. Given that most of those concerned are earning huge salaries it would be easy to become indignant. Better, in my view, just to have a good laugh.

* That admirable institution the London Library, to which I belong, is in something of a panic following negative publicity about its recent decision to increase the annual subscription from an already high £210 to an astronomical £375.

Such is the panic that the library's presdent, Sir Tom Stoppard OM CBE, has been prevailed on to send out a letter this week to try to pacify members.

In his most beguiling manner, Stoppard apologises for not having been present at the recent AGM where the increase was voted on. "I had a play opening in New York, which entailed the duty of attending the previews and finding fault with anything except the script." He has since received a number of letters expressing concerns about "members who might find the increase unaffordable" and the allegedly high-handed way in which it was announced.

For all his beguiling praises, the distinguished playwright fails to address the first point in any way whatsoever. That seems to suggest that it is unanswerable and that a great many members, already struggling to pay the £210, are likely to draw the line at £375.

Affordable or not, the subscription may not even make sense in simple economic terms. A correspondent in this week's Spectator rightly points out that, for many readers, it will now be cheaper to buy the books they want on Amazon.

It seems inevitable that, whatever Sir Tom may say, the library will lose a great many of its subscribers and may even suffer a loss of revenue. And so another of our fine old institutions comes a cropper.