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In praise of older politicians

By Andrew Gimson
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Labour needs to bring “grown-ups” such as Alistair Darling and Alan Johnson into the shadow Cabinet. So says Chris Mullin, and it is worth noting why his observation prompts such immediate and heartfelt agreement.

The shadow Cabinet is callow, but in this it merely reflects the catastrophic callowness of our political class. The assumption has developed at Westminster that youth is more valuable than experience.

Politics is treated as a sprint for high office, followed by 40 years of retirement. Just as a minister begins, amid difficulties and setbacks, to gain some inkling of how the world works, or at least of how Whitehall works, he or she is supplanted by some gormless young careerist with a full head of hair and a mind unformed by adversity.

There was a time when most of our rulers had front-line experience of war as well as politics. Nowadays they have experience as backroom boys.

Which is one reason why the public finds so many politicians lacking in authenticity. We perceive that these people have served a confined and cursory apprenticeship, and are now attempting, by addressing us in opaque and abstract language, to conceal their vacuity.

One accepts that there are some political geniuses whose abilities at the age of 24 are greater than any normal person will attain at the age of 64 or indeed 84. The Cabinet and shadow Cabinet should be open to newcomers of evident ability, even those who have never done anything much except politics.

But just as Margaret Thatcher benefited from the advice of Willie Whitelaw, so it would be a good thing if someone with his length and range of service were part of the present Downing Street set-up.

It is possible that neither Mr Darling nor Mr Johnson wishes to join the shadow Cabinet. But because they have senior ministerial experience, they would be able to speak with greater authority than just about everyone who does belong to it. Mr Darling is fortunately lending the gravitas he acquired in harsh circumstances as Chancellor of the Exchequer to the campaign to preserve the Union of Scotland and England. Ten years ago, before he had been tested by the run on Northern Rock, his services would not have been so valuable.

Mr Mullin lacks the careerist mentality which might have led him to high office, but has left a brilliant description of the meaningless of low office in the volume of his diaries entitled A View from the Foothills. “Is all this rushing about strictly necessary?” he asks in his entry for 7 November 2001 - a question prompted by a manic dash by Tony Blair to Washington and back in order to have dinner with George Bush.

We find ourselves ruled by politicians who are young enough to rush about, and to attach excessive value to doing so.


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