Tuesday 27 April 2010

The most dangerous age is now 43

How do you tell when you are getting past it? For my parents the key marker was policemen, whose increasing youthfulness caused gloomy comment every time they fired up the Ford Consul for a weekend run to Druridge Bay.

With me it is business leaders and politicians. Never mind new appointments; these days people far younger than I am are retiring as chief executives after hugely rewarding stints at the top.

As for party leaders, when Gladstone made his great comeback in the Midlothian campaign of 1879-80 he was 70 and had been in Parliament since 1832. The current head of Gladstone’s party is 43 (though he looks younger) and has been an MP for five minutes, sorry, years.

While Gladstone barnstormed to victory through a series of lengthy open-air speeches reaching maybe 90,000 people, Mr Clegg has attained pole position in this election with just two 90-minute TV appearances.

If the Young Pretender really does have the keys to Number 10 at his disposal, how will he play his hand? I think we can guess the quality of his negotiating skills from the fact that Mr Clegg is an atheist and his wife a Catholic; their three children are being raised as Catholics.

Similarly, Mrs Clegg (as she apparently prefers not to call herself) is Spanish, while Mr Clegg is at least partially British (his own website draws attention to his Dutch mother and half-Russian father); their sons are called Antonio, Alberto and Miguel.

If his evident assertiveness with his very own European partner is anything to go by, we may surely conclude that “yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir” is one of the better polished phrases in the four EU languages in which Mr Clegg prides himself in being fluent.

Yet being an accommodating “New Man” seems to be considered a sure-fire turn-on for the voters. David Cameron, also 43 and from an eerily similar privileged background, works hard to project himself as young, hip and cool, getting down with the kids and surrounding himself with babes, whether for kissing in their prams or as Tory candidates in winnable seats.

Where is the voice of experience when you need it? Oh yes, there is Gordon Brown, but then his experience was creating the mess we are all in now, which is hardly the strongest argument for giving him our support.

It seems ironic that, as the average lifespan stretches out towards 100, we apparently believe that people will do their best work before they are even halfway there. Tony Blair entered Downing Street at 43: a truly alarming precedent.

Will we ever again have an octogenarian Prime Minister like Gladstone, Palmerston or Churchill? It is certainly not the way to bet, particularly after the going-over suffered by Mr Clegg’s geriatric predecessor Sir Menzies Campbell, forcibly retired at 66. Would that be why the long-serving Sir Alan Beith (67) seems to have become more or less invisible in this campaign?

Whether you are appointing a PR man, financial adviser, chief executive or Prime Minister, choosing someone who cannot remember the last time that things went really horribly wrong greatly increases the chances of it happening again. This time, someone with experience of getting things surprisingly right should be in pole position. What a shame Kenneth Clarke is both 69 and an unabashed euro fanatic.

I must conclude with a sincere apology to Mr Clegg for my egregious error last week in suggesting that he attended the same school as that unbearable toff George Osborne. I knew that Mr Clegg went to the academically distinguished and socially exclusive Westminster School. My lazy error was to believe that Mr Osborne did, too, when he actually went to St Paul’s. Which is no doubt why his nickname in Oxford’s deeply unlovely Bullingdon Club was “Oik”.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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