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What do we want from our political leaders — youthful energy, or the wisdom that flows from longevity?
Tony Blair was only a few days short of his 44th birthday when he first stepped over the threshold of 10 Downing Street as Britain’s prime minister in 1997. He later remarked that leaders were at the their most powerful when they knew the least — in the immediate aftermath of their early election victories. By the time they have learned the ropes, people have tired of them and their power is waning. This is scarcely a recipe for good government.
Voters seem to have woken up to the danger. The return to power in Malaysia of the nonagenarian Mahathir Mohamad is part of a trend. After a spell during which politics, like too many other spheres of life, was in the thrall of the cult of youth, voters have rediscovered the worth of more seasoned figures.
True, Mr Mahathir is something of an outlier. At 92, he has returned to a job he retired from some 15 years ago. Britain’s Queen Elizabeth (another sprightly 92-year-old) and Japan’s Emperor Akihito (aged 84) have been around for longer, but their roles as heads of state are largely ceremonial. And the 94-year-old Robert Mugabe thankfully has finally been pushed out of the presidency of Zimbabwe into enforced retirement.
The direction of travel, though, certainly favours those who have been around for long enough to pick up a few streaks of grey. Political leadership now more often belongs to 60- and 70-somethings than to 40-somethings. That is as it should be.
Ronald Reagan surely had a point when, campaigning for a second term in the White House at the age of 73, he defused concerns about his advancing years by promising not to exploit to his own political advantage the youth and inexperience of his opponent, Walter Mondale. Reagan holds the record as the oldest US president, though the 71-year old Donald Trump would overtake him if — heaven forfend — he were to win a second term.
The contrast with the immediate past is striking. Barack Obama completed eight years in the White House at the ripe old age of 56. Mr Blair was among a pack of 40-something leaders — his pal Bill Clinton was 46 when he first won the US presidency — who seemed to have upturned the notion that life experience was a prerequisite for the highest office.
Many may wonder whether a politician with a longer memory than Mr Blair might have hesitated before joining George W Bush’s misadventure in Iraq. The same might be said of the misplaced confidence in his own powers of persuasion that led to David Cameron’s reckless decision to hold a referendum on Britain’s EU membership.
Still only 51, Mr Cameron is now kicking his heels in the garden of his Oxfordshire home in between giving the occasional paid speech and writing what one assumes will be a fairly short a political memoir.
He is far from alone in the club of callow ex-prime ministers. Italy’s Matteo Renzi goes by the title of former prime minister even though he is yet to hit his 44th birthday.To be fair, unlike Mr Cameron, he probably hopes for another shot.
These youngsters would argue that politics is now played at a much faster speed, putting a premium on energy. Doubtless 92-year old Mr Mahathir will have to pace himself. But he will also know how to avoid wasting time on the trivial.
Students of history will recognise that presence counts for as much a physical fitness.
Winston Churchill, Britain’s most distinguished 20th century prime minister, was 65 when he stepped up in 1940 to rescue the nation from the mortal menace of Adolf Hitler. Turned out by an ungrateful electorate at the end of the war, Churchill made a comeback six years later by winning the 1951 election. He stepped down at the age of 81 in 1955, having successfully hidden the fact that two years earlier he had suffered a debilitating stroke.
Of course, there will always be exceptions to the trend line. Emmanuel Macron was only 40 when he swept into France’s Elysee Palais last year after a campaign that all but dismantled the old party system.
So far, many would say Mr Macron has shown sagacity beyond his years. However, that may be because he can rely on the counsel of the former school teacher who became his spouse. Brigitte Trogneux is a youthful 65.
Philip Stephens is the FT’s chief political commentator: firstname.lastname@example.org
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