Old Despots’ Home
Exiled tyrants need no longer fear: a luxurious afterlife awaits them in a club for failed dictators
George Washington put his money into British government stock, and the Bank of England paid his dividends to him on the nail, throughout the War of Independence. Those were gentlemanly times — and, after all, he was helping to finance the Royal Navy.
Nowadays the Privy Council would be meeting on a Sunday and seizing or freezing his assets. There would be talk of making Chesapeake Bay a no-sail zone, if we could find enough ships, and in due course of bringing him to trial, with a predictable verdict. Put like that, he might just as well go on fighting: “The same arts that did gain/ A power, must it maintain.” Gaddafi may have thought so.
A ruler in a corner — he is only the latest — may conclude that he has Hobson’s choice. If he believes that the “fight or flight dilemma” is a real one, he could think about fleeing and decide that this would suit him better, as, indeed, it might suit everybody else. It would be in the general interest to make that choice attractive. If only Saddam Hussein’s prospective enemies had offered him a safe and snug retirement, somewhere far from Baghdad! How many lives would have been saved, his own, of course, included. President George W. Bush gave him 48 hours to leave the country, and he might have found refuge in Belarus, but nothing came of it.
Brooding on this missed opportunity, I have been minded to propose a home or club for rulers who have passed their sell-by date. Dismounting from their high horse, as they always find, is the hardest part, and this would help them down. It would have suited Ben-Ali and Mubarak and might yet suit Mugabe. With their offshore wealth, the candidates would buy annuities, which would pay for life subscriptions and enable their club to offer every comfort. Golf would be available, and bridge, and shooting, within limits. An appropriate location would be St Helena, and this would be Britain’s contribution.
Over time, no doubt, the club would become overcrowded, and there might have to be a waiting list, but that would be a problem for another day. The immediate need is to apply the skills of statecraft so as to rebalance the next fight-or-flight dilemma — or indeed the current one — in favour of flight. The statesmen might then find that peace had its victories. After the War of Independence, Washington, to King George III’s surprise and admiration, laid down his command, retired to Mount Vernon and cultivated his garden.