Pperhaps the nicest touch was the handwritten ordinal of the date; Oliver Dowden’s neatly typed, spaced and justified (in the sense of the layout) resignation letter to Boris Johnson had given him space to insert ’24th’ next to June, as if momentarily considering s sat there for a few days as he saw how things went, but then decided to sneak out abruptly, and certainly before he had to be on breakfast TV. The entire message from the culture secretary – as befits a former public relations officer – was a shrewd exercise in passive aggression and plausible deniability, resting on the central assertion that “someone has to take responsibility. responsibility” (but who? Who could be responsible for this mess?), paying tribute to those who “work so hard” and “deserve better” (not you, you lazy waster), and promising future loyalty (a once you’ve hooked your hook, mate). As the Dear John letters say, it wasn’t so much “it’s not you, it’s me” as “it’s definitely you”.
A resignation letter, of course, is the last place you want to draw attention to your own shortcomings, especially if there’s the slightest hint that you might jump in before being pushed. The perfect specimen may therefore include denunciation, hurt feelings, complacency, and appeals to the recipient’s sense of ethics and fair play. He may spleneticly elaborate all the reasons why the sender feels aggrieved, or he may claim to act in the name of the greater good; it can be anger or regret.
It may be none of that. Bill Shankly, for example, favored concentration when he tendered his resignation to the chairman of the board in 1974: “Dear Sir, I would like to retire as manager of Liverpool Football Club as soon as possible and I would appreciate taking the necessary steps to get my pensions started. It was signed W. Shankly. Although Shankly may have learned something about brevity from Richard Nixon, whose resignation letter to Henry Kissinger is 11 words long.
Much more fun, of course, the letters where you can almost feel the bridges burning. In 1924, when William Faulkner decided that life in government service was not suitable for a great American novelist in the making, he left his position as postmaster at the University of Mississippi: “As long as I live under the capitalist system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of wealthy people. But I’ll be damned if I offer to be available to all the itinerant scoundrels who have two cents to invest in a postage stamp. The grandeur is impressive, but it should be noted that the “demands of wealthy people” had really only been to deliver the letters on time, or not at all – an obligation that Faulkner, who regularly closed the office, undertook. he fancied a round of golf, had surprisingly failed to complete.
Others had a greater claim to moral highness. Eleanor Roosevelt’s 1939 letter to the Daughters of the American Revolution began with self-deprecation — “I have never been a very useful member,” the first lady wrote — before moving quickly to accusation. The organization, she said, had had “an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way” and had failed by enacting a whites-only performance rule on African-American opera singer Marian Anderson, preventing her from as well as singing at Constitution Hall. Roosevelt then arranged for Anderson to sing in a concert at the Lincoln Memorial before an audience of 75,000.
Political resignations are complicated beasts, in that their effects can extend far beyond the quitter. The 1989 departure of Nigel Lawson as Chancellor of the Exchequer, which revolved around the unwanted influence of Margaret Thatcher’s economic adviser Alan Walters, ceded the position to John Major; the following year, triggered by the extremely dramatic resignation of Geoffrey Howe, Major became prime minister. What is striking about Howe’s own letter is its level of detail; short to 17 paragraphs of well-reasoned commentary on the good and bad sides of the European exchange rate mechanism and monetary union, its emotional content is limited to respectful sadness. And yet that changed everything.
Will Dowden have the same effect? Too early to tell, of course, but it seems too insubstantial and obviously self-serving to be considered a turning point in the annals of conservative history. More interesting to consider is the kind of letter Johnson, apparently unwavering himself, might write if it ever came to be; one can only imagine it is an ungodly mix of fake churchillianisms and cod Latin, signed just as the movers leave with a broken child’s swing.