Seizing The Baton: The Under-50’s Take The Helm Of British Politics:

Dr Samuel Johnson – the famous 18th Century English author and literary critic – once commented that: “Every old man complains of  the insolence of the rising generation”. This remark would certainly seem to apply to former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who declared at the Labour Party Conference in September 2008 that it was “No time for a novice”. In other words, that David Cameron – at that time the Leader of the Conservative Opposition  – was too young and inexperienced to run the country or resolve the UK’s economic problems. Brown may have reluctantly anticipated that Cameron might replace him in 10 Downing Street after the May 2010 General Elections. He is unlikely to have envisaged that the new Deputy Prime Minister (Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democratic Party leader) would also (like Cameron) be “only” 43 , or that another eight members of the new Cabinet would be less than 50 years old.

Gordon Brown was 59 when he submitted his resignation to Queen Elizabeth II on Tuesday 11th May. Traditionally, many Presidents and Prime Ministers around the world have been even older than that when first taking power, and quite a few have attempted (democratically or otherwise) to stay in office until well into their ‘70’s, ’80’s or even beyond. However, over the past decade or so there has been a trend in the other direction:  Barack Obama was 47 when he was elected US President in 2008.  Jose Luis Zapatero  became Prime Minister of Spain (2004) at the age of 44 – the same as Hugo Chavez when he obtained his first mandate as President of Venezuela (1998). Brian Cowen was 48 when voted in as Ireland’s Taoiseach (Prime Minister) in 2008.  However, the Republic of China’s Wen Jiabao was already 61 when he emerged as Prime Minister in 2003.

Benjamin Disraeli , who was Britain’s Prime Minister twice between 1868 – 1874, is credited with saying that “ A man who is not a Liberal at 16 has no heart; A man who is not a Conservative at 60 has no head”. Many of the recently appointed ‘Coalition Cabinet’ Ministers appear to be somewhere in between these two extremes. Among the ‘Tories’: William Hague, (Foreign Secretary) is 48; George Osborne ( Chancellor of the Exchequer ) 38; Michael Gove (Education) 42; Liam Fox (Defence) 48; Jeremy Hunt (Culture, Olympics, Media & Sport) 43. For the ‘Lib-Dems’: David Laws (Chief Secretary to the Treasury) 44; Danny Alexander (Secretary of State for Scotland) 38. The oldest member of the Cabinet is the Conservative’s Ken Clarke (Lord Chancellor & Justice Secretary) at 69. Meanwhile, four of the six contenders for the now vacant post of Labour Party Leader are also under 50: The ‘frontrunner’, David Milliband (ex- Foreign Secretary) 45, his brother Ed Milliband (ex-Energy Secretary) 41, Ed Balls (ex-Children’s Secretary) 43 and Andy Burnham (ex-Health Secretary) 40.

According to a post-election report published by the ‘Madano Partnership’ ( a communications consultancy), the new intake of MPs (Members of Parliament) are younger than their counterparts in 1997 ( when Tony Blair won a massive majority). The 20-29 age group now constitutes 5% of all MPs (up 2%) and those in their 30’s 34% (up 5%). There are, though, less from 40-59 than before, but marginally more in their 60’s. Of the 650 MPs, 139 (21.4%) are women – a “slight improvement” on the previous 126 (19.5%)  – but much fewer than in the German Bundestag (33%) or the Dutch (42%), Swedish (46%) and Rwandan (56%) Parliaments .The ‘Guardian’ newspaper has expressed particular concern that one in 8 of new MPs have a private sector background – for instance in management consultancy or banking – compared to one in 25 before. The proportion of those who have worked in education is down from 17% to 5% and “representation from the public health sector has halved from 8% to 4%”.  Madano Partnership statistics indicate that 20% of new MPs have previously been involved in politics as researchers, special advisors, press secretaries , local government officers or full-time councillors and that there has been  “ a marked increase in the number who were privately or independently educated”  (13% in 1997, 35% in 2010).

Research by the ‘Sutton Trust’, quoted in the Guardian, has shown that  “Oxford University alone has produced 102 of the MPs, Cambridge 58, the London School of Economics 25, Edinburgh 15, Manchester 14 and Durham 12”. Fourteen members of the ‘Coalition Cabinet ‘ are “Oxbridge”(Oxford or Cambridge) graduates . It is difficult , however, for the UK media ( even the ‘left-wing’ Guardian) to be too critical of this. The Sutton Trust has also concluded that 54% of the country’s principal news journalists were educated in private schools and that 56% of British journalists who went to university themselves studied at either Oxford or Cambridge.

 

Filed under: Politics | Posted on May 25th, 2010 by Colin D Gordon

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