Is William Hague's the last of the long-haul political career? Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Are we witnessing the death of the long-haul political career?

What William Hague's career trajectory tells us about British politics.

What does it say about British politics that William Hague is quitting the game at just 53? His decision to call time on a political career by retiring from parliament at next year’s general election is the personal story of this reshuffle.

Did too much come too soon for the second-youngest cabinet minister of the 20th century (36, beaten by 31 year-old Harold Wilson)? Has politics lost its lustre? Are the heights of ministerial office not quite as giddying as we mere mortals assumed?

Our politicians seem to be getting younger, peaking sooner and finding themselves in their career dotage when previous generations were only just looking to step up a gear.

A hunched, silver-haired Harold Wilson first became prime minister at 48 back in 1964. In his day he was referred to as “youthful.” Nye Bevan was the enfant terrible of Attlee’s government at the same age. Thatcher became PM at 54 while Churchill and Gladstone were still at the top of their game in their 80s. At one time, high office was a steep mountain to climb and the culmination of a life spent in public service.

Now, the ministerial ladder is much shorter. While the elevation of Liz Truss and Nicky Morgan to the cabinet is important because of their gender, it’s also significant because of their relative youth and newness. Morgan (41) and Truss (38) were only elected in 2010.

With so much now coming so quickly, public office increasingly seems to be something to enter and pass through as part of a longer working life. (Before Morgan, the last woman to hold the position of education secretary was a 36 year-old Ruth Kelly, who is now out of politics altogether and working in corporate banking).

Tony Blair’s decision to quit parliament as soon as he resigned as prime minister in 2007 seems to have set a trend. Many of the Blairite tribe vacated British politics soon after, usually through choice (Milburn, Hutton, Hoon, Byers, and Hewitt) and occasionally at the hands of the voters (Charles Clarke). Many have found their way into corporate sinecures.

Other Brown-era ministers have also decided that they’ve had their fill of Westminster. Shaun Woodward (55), Hazel Blears (58), Meg Munn (54) and Bob Ainsworth (at 62, the same age as Attlee when he first became PM), will step down next year, leaving Westminster during what should be their prime years.

Perhaps it’s the growing opportunities for former ministers to ply their trade (or contacts book) elsewhere, or it might be the recognition that the many sacrifices of a political life are perhaps not worth it in the end, but against the backdrop of an ageing population, it is surely a perverse trend.
 

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496