Alastair Stewart: The last of the summer PMs?

Ben Wray

Is there a cult of youth in political leaders? Alastair Stewart, writer and journalist, looks at the recent spate of young Prime Ministers, and why the elder statesman theory may have something to it.

DO YOU remember Tony Blair? The prime minister with the Cheshire Cat smile who was knocking around Downing Street for a while? Or David Cameron, John Major or Gordon Brown? They’re all now sitting in the House of Lords, penning memoirs and enjoying a good few lunches (I hear the sandwiches are quite good).

Four elder statesmen, gracefully sliding into history with a respectable quasi-retirement as historians give their judgments and their successors play political hardball. So it was with their predecessors and that, as they say, is that.

Except no, not even close. Of Theresa May’s four immediate predecessors, it’s only Major who fits the traditional retirement pattern for a former premier. Instead of the Lords, it’s the cricket ground (about which he’s written several books) and the odd political speech that garners attention, if not always agreement. Somewhat astonishingly, Major also has the distinction of being the last living prime minister to be knighted.

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Gordon Brown comes a close second: he’s resigned his seat in Parliament, has no post-premiership titles, writes the occasional book and works the speaking circuit without pomp nor circumstance. He makes more regular political interventions about Brexit and Scottish independence which still get considerable press coverage but otherwise, he’s retired from frontline politics.

Mr Blair, on the other hand, has perhaps gained more criticism since leaving office over ten years ago. The public has not forgiven him for the Iraq War and he is widely seen to be cashing in on political experience for personal gain. Mr Cameron, in much the same vein, is regarded as having left in contentious circumstances after the Brexit vote yet rumours abound that he’s considering a return to politics. Both, in short, are seen to have turned their time in Number 10 into a going concern.

The debate about making money from political acumen, either through speeches or consultancy, is a consequence, and not the cause, of post-premierships losing their grandeur. Prime ministers are getting younger and need to do something when they finish their political careers. It’s a fair assumption that they coveted and strived for the highest office in the land and that energy can’t simply be turned off in their late 40s and 50s.

The average age of prime ministers, beginning with Robert Walpole in 1721 through to Theresa May, is about 54 years old. Mrs May of the Conservatives, Jeremy Corbyn of Labour and Ian Blackford of the SNP Westminster group are 62, 69 and 57 respectively. Vince Cable of the Liberal Democrats (until 2015 the traditional third largest party at Westminster) is 75.

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The higher than average age range of Westminster party leaders could well be a reaction against two-decades of middle-aged ones. With that in mind, and with the trudging process of Brexit well underway accompanied by a general feeling of ineptitude against the political class, there could be a renewed predilection towards youthful leadership on the way again.

Cameron and Blair, then, are indicative of the curious problem of what to do with a generation of younger leaders who are still at the top of their game. In Scotland, a nasty byproduct of youth is the presumption that a career in Holyrood will lead to, or can be supplemented, with a career in the House of Commons.

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, now only 40, is being touted by some as the next leader of the UK Conservative party (before even serving as the first minister of Scotland). Previous Labour first ministers, including Henry McLeish and Jack McConnell, as well as former party leaders Annabel Goldie of the Conservatives and Jim Wallace and Nicol Stephen of the Lib Dems, were elevated to the House of Lords. Some, like Labour leaders Wendy Alexander and Johann Lamont, either left politics completely or retired to the back benches.

Former SNP first minister Alex Salmond was in his late fifties when he resigned and broke the mould and ran again as an MP at the 2015 general election (only to subsequently lose in 2017). He has since embarked on a TV career, which of course, begs the question what the 48-year-old incumbent Nicola Sturgeon will do if she resigns or loses the 2021 Scottish general election.

“The higher than average age range of Westminster party leaders could well be a reaction against two-decades of middle-aged ones.”

Now, across the pond, President Ronald Reagan famously made light of his age when he said: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Fatuously, and even at the age of 73, he had a point: there is a danger that the younger the leader the more limited their formal government experience and an even bigger danger that they’re young politicos with little real-world job experience.

Youth, then, is an overrated phenomenon in politics. When talking about a heart ailment, Blair said in an interview that you could only do the job in sound physical condition; or, in other words, young. This overlooks history and ignores that some of our most distinguished prime ministers have been in the latter part of their life with even a few even dying in office (William Gladstone stepped down at 84 and Lord Palmerston died at 80). This is to say nothing of Winston Churchill who, in his mid-60s, won the Second World War and stepped down for a final time at the age of 80.

What Tony Blair and David Cameron represent is a young new breed of ex-prime minister who still has that cut and thrust drive to do something, and the only real option available to paid employment actually doing something. Of course, former prime ministers in the past have made money, but they tended to do it quietly: speaking, memoirs and the odd company directorship.

“Elder statesmen…leave, build a library in their honour and mostly keep out-of-the-way. This is how the UK used to be, and what Mr Cameron should remember looking forward.”

Older political leaders receiving the laurels and the gratitude of their country and retiring to private life or, as is more common, going to sit in the House of Lords was a distinguished, out-of-the-way send-off that avoided the backseat driver tendencies of Margaret Thatcher against John Major after her defenestration.

The office and the country deserve elder political statesmen: it aids the smooth transition of power to have your predecessor out-of-the-way in a manner that’s on par with former American presidents. They leave, build a library in their honour and mostly keep out-of-the-way. This is how the UK used to be, and what Mr Cameron should remember looking forward.

All in all, Malcolm Tucker of The Thick of It makes the point beautifully. When Nicola Murray is kicked out of her leadership job and has airs of becoming a “party grandee” he sits her down and says, “you are not a grandee, you’re a fucking blandee.”

It remains to be seen if our latest batch of former prime ministers earns the status of elder statesmen. It is by no means a guarantee, especially if you leave office young(ish).

Picture courtesy of Number 10