Monday, July 23, 2007

The Case for Gerontocracy


This article of mine appears on the Guardian's Comment is Free website.

I don't know about you, but I can't help feeling that Labour overlooked the obvious candidate when it came to replacing Tony Blair.

Someone who possesses not only a great intellect, humour and superb oratory skills, but most importantly in the aftermath of Blair, is a man of complete integrity. Michael Foot (above) is 94 today. What a pity the grand old man of British politics is not celebrating his birthday in No 10.

Electing a nonagenarian as their leader would have been a powerful statement from the Labour party that their pronouncements on fighting ageism were not just hot air. China, India and Israel have benefited from geriatric leaderships - why not Britain?

A 94-year-old premier would have struck a blow at the whole cult of "yoof" and
"modernity" which New Labour has propagated so shamelessly. Many would argue that Foot's physical infirmity would make him unable, as PM, to undertake too many arduous foreign journeys. Good. We surely have had enough of globetrotting PMs involving us in costly foreign adventures that were really none of our business. A PM who would only travel as far as Venice or Dubrovnik would have been a very refreshing change. The most important thing is not Foot's physical condition, but his mental state - which, judging by the last time I saw him on television, seems in immeasurably better shape than most members of the current government.
All that would have been needed for Foot to become leader was to parachute him (metaphorically speaking, of course) into a safe Labour seat, and let the voters, and then Labour party members, do the rest.

Sadly, the Labour party chose to neglect their prize asset. But however unlikely a Michael Foot premiership in 2007 might have been, the serious point is that we in Britain are far too keen to throw good people overboard too early in public life.

Since retiring from frontline politics in 1992, Michael Foot has written a masterly biography of HG Wells and several other collections of essays. All well and good, but what a scandal that the Labour party and indeed the country could not have found a place for his talents, say on a government advisory committee. It's not just Foot that we have ignored.

While Jack Straw was addressing the UN on Iraq's non-existent WMDs, Tony Benn, over 30 years his senior, was on his way to Baghdad, armed only with a flask of tea, a sack of Mars bars and a pouch of pipe tobacco, to try to avert the threat of war. If roles had been reversed, and the septuagenarian Benn had been foreign secretary, we would have been saved being embroiled in a costly and disastrous conflict.

Likewise, for the Tories, there have been few more sagacious voices on foreign affairs in recent years than Lord Carrington (88) and Lord Gilmour (81) and Sir Peter Tapsell MP (77). But few of the gung-ho young Turks on the Tory front benches have listened to their wisdom. To their great cost, the Tories elected the 39-year-old David Cameron as their leader in 2005 and not the vastly more experienced Ken Clarke (65), despite the Beast's high popularity ratings.

Lord Healey (89), who opposed both the Kosovo and Iraq interventions, is another wise old owl whose words, based on 60 years of experience, including military service, have largely been unheeded.

Instead, in our obsession with "yoof" we prefer to place our trust in the likes of the 41-year-old David Miliband, who started off his tenure at the Foreign Office by provoking a childish diplomatic spat with Russia.

Other countries don't share our perverse belief that the young know more than the old. Modern China, the country with the fastest growth rate in the world, owes much to Deng Xiaoping, who led the country until his late 80s. Germany's miraculous post-war economic recovery was presided over by Konrad Adenauer, who was 87 when he left office, while France's was led by Charles De Gaulle, who became president for the first time at the age of 68 and stayed in office for another 10 years.

Israel has benefited enormously from a succession of experienced leaders: in the country's history only three of its 12 prime ministers have been younger than 60 when taking office. The country's new president, Shimon Peres, is 85 - can anyone imagine someone of that age being considered for high office in Britain? The world's largest democracy, India, also rewards experience: Morarji Desai was 81 when becoming prime minister in 1977; he was succeeded by the comparatively youthful 76-year-old Chaudhary Charan Singh. India's current prime minister, Manmohan Singh, is 74.

When it comes to US presidents, many would rate Ronald Reagan (a month shy of 70 when first sworn into office in 1981, and 77 when he relinquished office) as one of the most effective post-war inhabitants of the Oval Office.

And in the history of post-war communist Eastern Europe, was there a country run as efficiently - and less repressively - than Hungary, whose veteran leader Janos Kadar (in office until the age of 76), impressed even ideological opponents like Margaret Thatcher with his energy and vigour.

The benefits of older, experienced leadership cuts across divisions of left and right/free-market or statist. What's good for India has been good for the free-market US, for communist Hungary and for Israel too. And it would be good for Britain as well, if only we can drop our crazy notion that young leaders make better leaders.

It never used to be like this. Britain's greatest ever prime minister, Winston Churchill, was 65 when first becoming prime minister in the darkest hours of 1940. Can anyone imagine a chain-smoking, hard-drinking politician of pensionable age getting anywhere near the corridors of power today?

Churchill left office at the age of 80 in 1955, and since that time Britain has not had a single prime minister who has been older than 70. More fool us.

Michael Foot will, alas, never become Britain's prime minister. Even so, the case for gerontocracy remains a strong one.

6 comments:

sally said...

Agreed!

Anonymous said...

Yes - bring back Michael Foot, the author of the longest suicide note in history, and a man who led the Labour Party into it's worst electoral performance since 1918. This has to be a (bad) joke.

Neil Clark said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Neil Clark said...

anonymous: my suggestion that Foot should now be PM was made with tongue firmly in cheek-but the serious point- as I say in the piece- is that we throw too many good people overboard far too early in Britain. Since 1992, Foot's talents could have been made better use of- as could the talents of Healey, Gilmour and Carrington and other experienced figures. If having older experienced leaders at the helm has worked for India, Israel and China, why can't it work here? I don't think Churchill did such a bad job in WW2 do you? -despite the fact he was 70 when it ended?

styriuk98 said...

Neil, what 'talents' of Michael Foot are you referring to?
His talent for losing elections?
As I see it Foot's main talent is writing, and he's been doing plenty of that since he left politics. So what's the problem?
(I agree with you that we could have made better use of Healey, Carrington and Gilmour though).

little red tractor said...

If having older experienced leaders at the helm has worked for India, Israel and China, why can't it work here?

Gordon Brown is older and more experienced than Tony Blair. In fact, he's the oldest new PM we've had since Jim Callaghan. And Menzies Campbell must be the oldest new party leader for aeons.

As I see it Foot's main talent is writing, and he's been doing plenty of that since he left politics. So what's the problem?

Indeed. Foot has many genuine qualities, but he was an absolute disaster as Labour leader. It takes talent of a rare order to lead the Labour party to its worst election defeat in the wake of Thatcher's evisceration of Britain's manufacturing industry and unemployment soaring to record levels.