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15 July 2014

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

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

By Kevin Meagher

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.

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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