A Point of View: Is it better to have leaders who are too old or too young?

Winston Churchill Image copyright PA

At the start of this election campaign, none of the leaders of the main British political parties was older than 50. Some political eras favour younger leaders, and some prefer the experience of age - but which is better, asks the historian David Cannadine.

During the last few days, I've been pondering some remarks by David Brooks, an American journalist and New York Times columnist, though I haven't been thinking about their implications in quite the way he probably intended. He's just published a book entitled The Road To Character, in which he exhorts his readers to be less concerned with the achievements and the trappings of worldly success but instead to devote more time and effort to exploring and improving their inner selves.

In the course of a recent interview about his book, Brooks made this observation: "We get better at life as we get older," by which he meant that age brings with it a certain amount of maturity, perspective and thus self-knowledge, which might help us rethink and reconsider our long-term goals and priorities. Since all of us are indeed getting older, all of the time, we surely have a vested interest in hoping that Brooks may be correct. But in the context of our current general election, and of the seven party leaders who are fighting it, his words also open up some interesting perspectives and challenging thoughts.

Consider in this regard the politicians who debated the future of our country on television at the beginning of the campaign. The most venerable of them was Nigel Farage, who was born in 1964, and who celebrated his 51st birthday just a day after the magnificent seven appeared together on our screens. The youngest of them was Leanne Wood, the leader of Plaid Cymru, who was born in 1971 and who will only reach the age of 44 this December.

All the remaining five participants entered the world between 1966 and 1970 - Natalie Bennett, the leader of the Greens, is 49, both David Cameron and Nick Clegg are 48, Ed Miliband is next at 45 and Nicola Sturgeon is 44. So there we have them - seven party leaders, all them born within no more than seven years of each other. But this is more than just an extraordinary chronological coincidence, for with an average age of forty-seven, none of them can possibly be described as yet being old.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The leaders' debate, April 2015

It's also true that there are some significant precedents for British political leaders being no more than middle-aged. The aptly named Pitt the Younger became prime minister in 1783 when he was only 24, and he held the office almost continuously until his death in 1806, when he'd scarcely reached the same age that David Cameron and Nick Clegg are now. And for much of that time, Pitt's foremost opponent was Charles James Fox, who was only 10 years older than he was.

During the 1780s and 1790s, British politics was very much a young man's game, and the same was true for much of the 1960s and early 1970s, when Harold Wilson became prime minister in his late 40s and Edward Heath in his early 50s. That was indeed a turning point, for since Wilson and Heath, most British prime ministers have been on the young side. John Major and Tony Blair were in their mid-40s when they entered 10 Downing Street, while Margaret Thatcher and Gordon Brown were not all that much older.

Dates and ages of prime ministers
Prime minister Age when first entering No 10 Age when leaving No 10 for the last time
William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806) 24 46 (died in office)
William Gladstone (1809-1898) 58 84 (resigned)
Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013) 53 65 (resigned)
Tony Blair (1953-) 43 54 (resigned)

From this perspective, there's nothing particularly surprising or novel about the seven youthful figures who are currently in charge of Britain's political parties. But taking a longer view, the notion that only relatively young people can or should make it to the top in politics is a fairly recent development. For most of the 19th Century, and for the first two thirds of the 20th, public life was much more likely to be an old man's game where age counted and seniority mattered.

When Lord Palmerston died in office in 1865 at the age of 80, he had been prime minister almost continuously during the previous 10 years. Mr Gladstone may have been only in his late 50s when he formed his first administration in 1868, but he was in his early 80s when he embarked on his fourth and last premiership in 1892. When Winston Churchill first became prime minister in 1940, he was already an old age pensioner, and he was once again occupying 10 Downing Street when he celebrated his 80th birthday in November 1954.

Image copyright ALAMY
Image caption William Pitt the Younger became prime minister at the age of 24 and was dead by 46

To be sure, all three of these aging titans had their critics during their last years of office, when it seemed that they were desperately hanging on to power but to no good purpose. Palmerston appeared determined to thwart all attempts at domestic reform, and he was increasingly out of touch in the new Bismarckian world of international realpolitik. Gladstone, who was memorably denounced by Lord Randolph Churchill for being "an old man in a hurry", seemed obsessed with trying to pass Irish Home Rule, which he had not the remotest prospect of doing given the steadfast opposition of the House of Lords and of Queen Victoria.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Lord Palmerston (1784-1865)

Yet even their sternest critics also admitted that there was something heroic, perhaps noble, about such old men of power as these. In his final years, Lord Palmerston, who had been born as long ago as 1784, was one of the few surviving links to the far-off years before the French Revolution. Gladstone may have failed to carry Home Rule, but he was surely right to believe that was the best and most timely solution to Ireland's woes, as Queen Victoria's grandson, King George V, would later grudgingly concede.

And while Churchill failed to broker a detente between the US and Russia, he was undoubtedly correct in his belief that, sooner or later, the leaders of these two countries would have to do business with each other as, eventually, in the late 1980s, they did. Certainly, in the case of Gladstone and Churchill, it can be argued that old age brought with it not just experience, but also an increasingly urgent sense of what the big issues were on which they ought to focus their efforts.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption William Gladstone was prime minister in his 80s

That was also the defence of his own advancing years which Ronald Reagan, the oldest ever US president so far, famously mounted in his second presidential debate with Walter Mondale in 1984. Asked if he was not already too old to carry on doing such a demanding job, Reagan replied: "I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience." At the time, it was an unanswerable riposte, but by the end of his second term of office, Reagan was in fact visibly ageing, and there were already rumours that he was suffering from the early symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.

As an accomplished actor, Reagan just about got away with it, but one reason why we may now prefer our politicians to be middle-aged rather than elderly is that the 24-hour media is remorseless and merciless in its exposure of human frailty - as Hillary Clinton, who if elected in November 2016 would be an US president nearly as old as Ronald Reagan, may yet discover to her cost.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Ronald Reagan - the oldest ever US president

But it's a curious and unexplained paradox that in earlier times, when life expectancy was much lower than it is today, politicians were generally much older, whereas nowadays, when life expectancy is much greater, it's widely believed, at least in some quarters, that politicians ought to be younger. Yet in a country with an ageing population, and where 60 is supposed to be the new 40, it seems very odd that seniority and experience should be thought to be disqualifications for political leadership, as Menzies Campbell discovered to his cost in 2007, when he was effectively hounded from the leadership of the Liberal Democrats because he was deemed to be too old at 66.

But if we want a government to be more representative of the nation, then there should not only be more women and members of ethnic minorities appointed to it, but also more older people as well. And should all the contenders for our nation's highest political office have been born between 1964 and 1971? I'm not sure that they should. Let us hope that like the rest of us, all seven of them get better at life as they get older- and perhaps get better at politics, too.

More from the Magazine

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Earlier this year, the UK marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Winston Churchill. He is regarded by many as the greatest Briton ever, but for some he remains an intensely controversial figure.

The 10 greatest controversies of Winston Churchill's career (22 January 2015)

The nature of Churchill's depression

Did Churchill's words help win the war?

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