No country for old men?

It doesn’t seem that long ago that the trend was for younger political leaders.

We had Blair, then Cameron, Clegg and Miliband.

Our American cousins elected the youthful Barack Obama as their President.

Ming Campbell one of the Lib Dem leaders in this period was thought too old by some and his age was clearly a major factor in his stepping down.

He was 66 at the time.

Oh how things have changed.

Labour’s Corbyn is in his late sixties, in the US the President is 71 and arguably his main opponent the excellent Bernie Sanders is 75!

As Britain’s Liberal party undertakes a leadership election it looks like the septuagenarian Vince Cable may be the only runner.

So is age an issue?

Well only in that it is clear that someone in their sixties or seventies isn’t likely to be a leader for the longer term.

Given that in today’s politics leaders don’t get many chances, one bad election and they are likely to be toast it is hardly an issue at all.

What really matters is what the person stands for and their back story, in the case of the latter that is going to give potential supporters more to go on.

The aforementioned forty somethings had very little in terms of history and I believe their lack of experience showed at times.

In Vince’s case he has many of the qualities needed to be a very good liberal leader.

A long record of support for liberal causes, a man of principle and he speaks human.

Reading his autobiography made me into a Vince fan, one of the people in politics I don’t always agree with but who I genuinely like and respect.

As Lib Dem leader I believe he can revive the party’s fortunes in the months and years to come.

* David Warren is a lifetime political activist for progressive causes and a liberal.

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  • I look at the relative success of a generation of leaders in the UK and USA during the past 25 years or so: Thatcher, Reagan, Major, Bill Clinton, Blair, Salmond, Obama, Sanders (a self-confessed socialist who came close to being US President), Corbyn, Trump, even Hilary Clinton to an extent (she won the majority vote). Then I compare it with the abject failure of a generation of younger leaders: Cameron, Osborne, Milliband, Clegg, Farron. I wonder if the difference is due to the explosion in access to education following WW2 and the opportunities that it gave to the less-than-privileged to get an education and enter politics. This resulted in a couple of generations of politicians who had risen due to hard work and merit. Blair was probably the last of that generation. The politicians that I have named as failures rose in a time when educational opportunities for all were failing and the result was that those over-privileged characters rose to the top without having to compete with people who were cleverer than them but less lucky. There are flaws in that theory: Brown and the two Bushes were not a great success, Trump is old but privileged. But it might explain why Cameron, Osborne, Clegg and Milliband failed to connect with and understand the electorate. They never really had to compete against the whole of their age group. They rose without really being the best.

  • Unfortunately Vince has the baggage of tripling tuition fees.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 15th Jul '17 - 1:00pm

    Ed Shepherd

    David in his excellent piece has shown older is good, fine. You’ve agreed but picked several to praise saying they were older, then chosen younger who failed If your examples were good it would not be a good way of looking at this anyway as it stereotypes. Try as you might though your examples do not make sense.Thatcher was in very young now, we would say, middle age when leader first, Clinton one of the youngest presidents ever, Obama in young middle age and the boy from nowhere , Salmond leader since year dot.

    I think if your’e saying JFK, Blair, Macron, good, but not so good because young, is as daft as the postings on here that deride centrists, without saying they all , as with radicals and extremists, moderates, progressives, all, yes, all differ!

  • Richard Underhill 15th Jul '17 - 1:36pm

    This should not be primarily about age, but more about ability and fitness. Winston Churchill was 65 when he became Prime Minister with cross-party support, including David Lloyd-George. He later became Conservative party leader as well and won a general election in 1951 with a small overall majority. He expected his younger successor, Anthony Eden, to fail, which he did dramatically with the Suez crisis.

  • Ed Shepherd

    Thatcher, Major, Corbyn and (I think) Salmond all attended grammar schools. Perhaps bringing them back is the answer

  • Ed Shepherd 15th Jul '17 - 2:34pm

    “Try as you might though your examples do not make sense.Thatcher was in very young now, we would say, middle age when leader first, Clinton one of the youngest presidents ever, Obama in young middle age and the boy from nowhere , Salmond leader since year dot. I think if your’e saying JFK, Blair, Macron, good, but not so good because young, is as daft as the postings on here that deride centrists, without saying they all , as with radicals and extremists, moderates, progressives, all, yes, all differ!”
    I am not saying that at all. You have not read my piece properly. It is not about whether a politician is any good because they are young. It is that an earlier generation of politicians were more effective because they grew up in a time when educational opportunities meant that there was more competition that had to be faced in order to rise in politics. Since the decline in social mobility in recent decades, we have been increasingly lumbered with politicians such as Cameron who got there through privilege and did not have to face off against educated members of the working class. It’s a theory. It’s more about class than age. For instance, Trump is not very good even though he is old. The reason? He has not really had to work his way up. Whereas, Obama was a great success because he did face struggles in his life. I did not mention Macron because I do not know enough about education or the class system in France. I know a lot more about education and the class system in the UK.

  • Ed Shepherd 15th Jul '17 - 2:39pm

    The key to understanding my point is the phrase I used “Hard work and merit”. Politicians such as Thatcher, Kinnock, John Smith, John Major,Barka Obama, the Clintons, Gordon Brown, Jeremy Corbyn definitely showed hard work and merit. Even if I do not agree with many of the things that some of them did. I even think Tim Farron showed it and I quite admire him in many ways.

  • @ Bloke You think wrong. Wee Eck attended Linlithgow Academy – then and now the only secondary school in Linlithgow – and of course comprehensive.

    As to bringing back Grammar Schools (an English obsession), the decisive strong and stable Maybot has now wobbled into a handbrake turn pursued by a vengeful pack of fox hunting hounds.

  • Graham Evans 15th Jul '17 - 3:19pm

    Many of the leaders on the left who rose to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s did so when opportunities for working class and lower middle class children had been limited. They were predominantly grammar school boys who got into Oxbridge when competition was intense, and when few children went on to university. So they were exceptionally talented. With the expansion of universities in the 1960s and the acceleration in the 1980s and beyond it became increasingly easy to go to university. Surely therefore it should have been easier, not harder, for those from a non-privileged background to rise to the top in 2000 and beyond. Perhaps the problem is that with so many graduates it is difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff; and so it is the qualities acquired at school and in the home which determine who rises to the top these days in politics.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 15th Jul '17 - 3:33pm

    Apologies, I liked and did indeed read the comment , but disagreed because you said

    ” younger leaders” , you meant as opposed to a previous era , meaning theyre younger now, whereas what came across to me was you thought the previous lot were older , clarifying it makes it better , thanks.

  • A bit disappointed with the title, “No country for old men?” What about the old women, David, old lad ?

    Ageism is a terrible thing, especially when expressed in the confused bletherings of middle aged men who seem to have a down on the radical social Liberal trail blazers of the 1960’s. Nevertheless, it is a great comfort to know that life expectancy is going up by an average of three years every ten years. In 1931 the average male expected to live to 58.7 years, in 1951 to 66.4 years and in 2011 to over 79 years.

    Vince is a veritable babe in arms – and being nine months older than the said Twickenham Methusala – I look forward to attending a Red Guard Young Liberal Centenary Reunion in 2060. I’ll be the Saint and we know who’ll be Greavesie.

  • David Pocock 15th Jul '17 - 5:14pm

    Age don’t bother me, can be 18 or 80 so long as they are some flavour of liberal and good at the job.

  • William Ross 15th Jul '17 - 6:21pm

    Nick Clegg has just suggested that there be a second referendum on Brexit with under thirties been given two votes. What kind of mentality does this show?

    A country for old men? If you swap “young people” for “white people” I think that George Wallace could have gone for that formula. Comments?

  • David Warren 15th Jul '17 - 6:34pm

    Thanks for all the great comments guys.

    The title by the way is homage to an Oscar winning film.

  • @ William Ross CLEGG & DOUBLE VOTES “‘Nick Clegg says there should be a second referendum on Brexit – and under-30s’ votes should count twice”. reported by both the Daily Mail & Daily Express today…….

    I’m naturally suspicious of those two ‘organs, but LDV Editors, can we please have an official statement to either confirm or deny this statement.

    The consequences either way are enormous.

  • David,

    The Express (soon to be gone and not missed at all) has a video of Nick Clegg speaking, it contains a number of points on Brexit but doesn’t mention two votes for the under 30’s. They do mention it in their article but imply it was said at the Q&A session but haven’t a video of it. I suspect he may have said it as a joke but reporting that rather than showing that might be more to the tastes of a paper that refers to us as remoaners. As i said it will be a good day when they cease to exist, unfortunately the mail will be with us a lot longer.

  • Frankie,
    Where did you hear the Express was closing? I can’t find it.
    ‘Twere good news if true, ‘cept where would all the weirdos go who fill the comments section with stuff that can not be described on this family blog?

  • Palehorse,
    I’ve noted their readership numbers and the percentage decline, at the rate they are going they will be lucky to last two or three years. The one hope they have is becoming something on the internet, the problem they have is the Daily Mail exists and does a better job of being a home to the permanently confused and angry.

  • richard underhill 15th Jul '17 - 9:37pm

    Tony Blair is topical today, saying on BBC radio 4 Today that senior figures in the EU27 are willing to be flexible on freedom of movement. He does not disclose his sources, so Labour spokesmen and women are disregarding him.

  • Ed Shepherd 16th Jul '17 - 4:48am

    In the good old days, we had prime ministers who had done proper jobs and had not gone to university. Nowadays they have to have gone to Oxbridge and been professional politicos all their adult lives. Social mobility has practically stopped in the UK.

  • Philip Knowles 16th Jul '17 - 8:38am

    @John We need to scotch this myth once and for all. The Conservatives raised tuition fees – we didn’t stop them – there’s a world of difference. We have allowed the Tories to take all our good coalition policies and we have been saddled with the bad stuff. Theresa May said that they raised the income tax allowance (which we forced them to do) and David Cameron’s proudest moment was the doorman at Number 10 being able to marry his husband. We need to stop hair shirting and talk about the good things we achieved – and wouldn’t have happened if we’d not been there.

  • Not only Vince for Lib Dem leader …. how about Vince Cable for PM?? He is HEAD and SHOULDERS above may or corbin to be a PM 🙂

  • The ‘problem’ with experience is that it’s very hard to have been in politics for any length of time in any kind of meaningful role, without being involved with a decision that is unpopular with at least some voters, and can be used by opponents.

    Corbyn got away with it by being in a party of government, yet never stepping up to the plate to make a difficult decision. Not always to the same scale, but larger parties will always have the advantage of having back-benchers, or junior ministers who can take time gaining experience and honing their political skills whilst being at an arm’s length to the tricky stuff.

    We don’t have that privilege, so we are left with the choice of keeping our experienced politicians in high profile roles, along with their baggage, or bring in fresh faces every few years. IMO, the latter isn’t sustainable, and is merely storing up problems for the future.

    And let’s not forget that baggage can sometimes be positive! The other day I heard Vince being introduced, not as a man to blame for tuition fees, but as the man who warned us about the financial crash.

  • Richard Underhill 16th Jul '17 - 10:54am

    Tim Farron MP said in a conference speech as leader that “I do know Jeremy Corbyn, because when Labour was in government he was often in the same lobby as us.”

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Jul '17 - 10:28am

    Philip Knowles

    We need to stop hair shirting and talk about the good things we achieved

    We need to make it clear that it was essentially a Conservative government with a little bit of Liberal Democrat influence. Enough Liberal Democrat influence to swing things our way if the Conservatives were fairly evenly divided, but not enough to make a fundamental change in the overall nature of the government.

    Because this was not done, the impression was given that we were enthusiastic supporters of everything the Coalition did. That misimpression (pushed obviously by Labour, but I am afraid also by some at the top of our party) has lived on because it was not even challenged in the 2017 election, due to the disastrous decision to out across the impression that the only reason for voting Liberal Democrat was because you opposed Brexit and thought that more important than anything else.

    So now, most of the general public have the idea that the current tuition fees system is something we initiated because it was what we really thought was a great thing. The reality is that the decision was made to accept it in order then to be able to fight for a generous loans system with payment back only when it could be afforded. That is what Coalitions are about – reaching compromises. Had there been more sticking to the grounds on the actual issue of tuition fees, the compromise the Conservatives would then have demanded would have been big cuts in university places and university funding in order to bring down costs. How come that never gets mentioned? In effect, by agreeing to the compromise, the LibDems saved the university system.

    Given that Vince Cable was at the centre of it, he is in a better position to push this point than anyone else. He needs to do so. It is just not going to work, what seems often to be in effect suggested here, (and what we did in the 2017 general election) that it is best just not to mention it in the belief that will cause people to forget about it.

    Vince Cable has himself said that following what we agreed by ending maintenance grants and imposing relatively high rates of interest on student loans makes the system untenable. Yes – and I think we should have very firmly stood our grounds on that from the start: we have reluctantly agreed to the high tuition fees balanced by generous loans system, and that’s it, we will not be pushed any further away from our true policy on this issue.

  • Guys, the coalition happened 3 elections ago now, surely time to move on!
    Vince was used as a bit of a body shield by the Tories for fees, the only lesson there is how very canny they were (liberals got many of the toxic issue to present) – and how very naive the lib dem top level was. The DUP get £1bn and to keep short money without having to budge an inch on human rights issues … how did we do 🙂

  • David Warren 17th Jul '17 - 8:02pm

    Thanks again for all the comments.

    Really pleased the article generated so much debate.

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Jul '17 - 12:32am


    Guys, the coalition happened 3 elections ago now, surely time to move on!

    So, you think Labour are going to move on and not mention it in the next general election? Or if we do get back to the point where the possibility of us being in a coalition occurs again, do you think what happened last time won’t get mentioned? I think we have no choice but to correct the misassumptions that Labour have pushed to try and destroy us.

    The DUP get £1bn and to keep short money without having to budge an inch on human rights issues

    The DUP have the advantage that their voters are very committed to them. I mean, DUP voters aren’t going to go off in a huff and vote for Sinn Fein in protest at the DUP supporting a Conservative government, are they?

    The DUP also have the advantage of coming from a small part of the UK which is separate from the rest. So they can be paid off just by dumping money in that part, and in return they can vote for policies that the rest of the UK won’t like, but won’t cause them a problem because they don’t affect their separate little bit. An extra billion in Northern Ireland to satisfy the DUP is a lot less than what it would have cost to have kept the LibDems’ pledge on tuition fees across the rest of the UK.

  • David Warren 19th Jul '17 - 6:25pm

    I think you are right Matthew the coalition is still strong is the memories of many voters which explains why the Lib Dem vote failed to recover in this years General Election.

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