It is very easy to lapse into thinking that there was a golden age of politics at some point in the past, or that senior politicians used to be more substantial than today’s. Many people also argue that politicians are ‘too professional’ these days.
Steve Richards made some interesting (as well as very amusing) points at his Rock N’ Roll Politics event last night at King’s Place. His view is not that politicians today are too professional, but that they are not professional enough, in the sense that they would benefit from longer experience in politics.
Today’s politicians do not have the dubious benefit which many from earlier generations had of experiencing extreme poverty, fighting a war, being widowed, or even surviving for decades at the top of politics. Today’s fashion for younger leaders means that those reaching the top are often only in their forties – having had little time to be battle-hardened or to have recovered from serious personal or political set-backs. In view of the increase in life expectancy, this seems particularly perverse. Today, those who fail, often do not get a second chance to put into practice what they have learned from their mistakes.
Henry Campbell-Bannerman was 69 when he became prime minister, but led the Liberals to their greatest landslide victory in 1906. Churchill’s earlier failures certainly prepared him for his successful wartime leadership at the age of 65. William Gladstone finally relinquished the premiership at the age of 84, his tree-felling exploits (among other things) having preserved his physical strength well into old age.
However, Jim Callaghan believed that he would have been a better prime minister, had he been younger than 64 when he took office and Ming Campbell was regarded as looking too old to lead the Liberal Democrats, also at the age of 64. The evidence, although somewhat patchy, seems to suggest that experience and recovery from set-backs does enhance leadership ability and resilience.
Harriet Harman seemed to return stronger and more adept, after her temporary dismissal from the cabinet. Arguably, William Hague would make a more successful leader now, than he did in 1997. Nick Clegg, if he is given the opportunity, will probably be a wiser and more capable leader after all the lessons learned in the current coalition.
Whether we will ever get the full benefit of their suffering and aggravation remains to be seen.