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The fine art of resignation

A Pakistani seller listens the address of country"s President Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad
Musharraf's words did not prove a turn off in Pakistan
As resignation speeches go it was defiant, rambling - and long. Very long.

Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf took an hour to announce his resignation on national television, giving a lengthy defence of his time in power.

"Now I am satisfied, but at the same time I am sad - and in pain as well - that Pakistan is sliding down very fast. This is my heartfelt sorrow, I am very sad," he said.

But while his political opponents have rejoiced at the news, some commentators have shaken their heads that the art of the resignation appears to have been lost on Musharraf.

Where was the shock value? The casualty-inducing revelations? The elegantly crafted speech? President Musharraf could have looked at British political history for lessons in the art of resigning with elan.


In 1976, Harold Wilson surprised the nation by announcing his resignation. It came five days after his 60th birthday.

The announcement was first made to the Cabinet on the morning of 16 March. Before he announced the news to the Cabinet, he informed Chancellor Denis Healey, Foreign Secretary James Callaghan, and his own deputy, House of Commons leader Edward Short - and formally told the Queen that morning.
Harold Wilson
I have not wavered in this decision and it is irrevocable
Harold Wilson

He insisted there were no hidden reasons for his resignation. As Geoffrey Goodman wrote in his obituary of Wilson for the Guardian newspaper: "He was not driven out by MI5 plots, real or imagined, there were no hidden mysteries about scandals, sexual or otherwise, it was not because Marcia Williams, Joe Haines and Bernard Donoghue were squabbling in an ante-room (though they were)."

In fact, Wilson was ill and by 1976, he may also have been aware of the early symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, which eventually destroyed his outstanding memory.

The Cabinet issued a statement expressing shock and "deep regret", but they also paid tribute to his leadership which they said he had carried out with "outstanding wisdom and dedication".

But as Lord Donoughue, Wilson's senior policy adviser, wrote in the Labour Dictionary of Biography, his resignation was clouded by the atmosphere of scandal surrounding his bizarre final honours list.

"The resulting clamour damaged him...It meant sadly that the final public and media view of Harold Wilson in action was besmirched and did not give credit to the remarkable achievements of his political career."


Geoffrey Howe's resignation on 1 November 1990 is widely considered to have hastened Margaret Thatcher's own downfall three weeks later.
Sir Geoffrey Howe giving his resignation speech to the House of Commons in London
It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease only for them to find, the moment the first balls are bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain
Geoffrey Howe

He told the prime minister of his decision in a cautious letter of resignation, citing the prime minister's policies towards Europe and her opposition to a single European currency.

The resignation was accepted "more in sorrow than in anger", Number 10 said and after claims that the differences between the two were minimal, Sir Geoffrey decided on a more dramatic course of action.

His famous resignation speech in the Commons on 13 November attacked the prime minister and he declared that "the time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

The Labour MP Dennis Healey once joked that being attacked by Geoffrey Howe was "like being savaged by a dead sheep". But this savaging was one which is seen as the catalyst for Michael Heseltine's leadership challenge a few days later, as well as Thatcher's subsequent resignation on 22 November 1990.


Robin Cook resigned from his post as Leader of the House of Commons and Lord President of the Council on 17 March 2003 in protest against the invasion of Iraq.

In his statement he said: "I can't accept collective responsibility for the decision to commit Britain now to military action in Iraq without international agreement or domestic support."
Robin Cook at a news conference in New Delhi in April 2000
On Iraq, I believe that the prevailing mood of the British people is sound
Robin Cook

Cook's resignation speech in the House of Commons received an unprecedented standing ovation by fellow MPs. It was described by the then political editor of the BBC Andrew Marr as "without doubt one of the most effective, brilliant, resignation speeches in modern British politics".

The BBC's Nick Assinder wrote that he was seen to have resigned without bitterness or ill-feeling and "with his integrity and standing enhanced". His actions also put him at the head of the anti-war movement - and breathed new life into it.

Robin Cook died in August 2005. The epitaph on his grave reads: "I may not have succeeded in halting the war, but I did secure the right of Parliament to decide on war."

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1976: Prime Minister Harold Wilson resigns
Tuesday, 3 December 2002, 17:12 GMT |  16
1990: Howe resigns over Europe policy
Tuesday, 26 November 2002, 10:35 GMT |  1

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