Around 2007 it appeared that British political leaders only came in one model. Tony Blair (53), David Cameron (40) and Nick Clegg (39) were all young, economically liberal and socially liberal. Grey hair as much as no hair appeared an impediment to leadership. Both Cameron and Clegg had replaced older predecessors (Michael Howard and the much-mocked Ming Campbell). The 2008 election of Barack Obama (47) only appeared to confirm the trend.
But, like much else, this assumption has been overturned. In 2015, Labour elected Jeremy Corbyn (then 66) – the oldest leader of a major party for 35 years. The following year, the Conservatives chose Theresa May (then 59), now the oldest prime minister since Margaret Thatcher. Should Vince Cable become Liberal Democrat leader (the 74-year-old entered the race today), the reversal will be complete. The average age of the three leaders would be 67 (up from 47 in 2015) – the highest since 1955. All this, with a 71-year-old in the White House.
After younger leaders disappointed their parties, perhaps it is no surprise that activists are seeking refuge in the assumed wisdom of age. And May, Corbyn and Cable are not only united in this respect. All are notably more statist than their recent predecessors.
In contrast to David Cameron, May has spoken of “the good that government can do” and backed interventionist policies such as an energy tariff cap, increased workers’ rights and employee representation on company boards. Far more than Ed Miliband, Corbyn rejected New Labour’s deference to the market and made the case for the renationalisation of the railways, Royal Mail, the energy grid and the water industry. During the coalition years, Cable routinely challenged Nick Clegg from the left on public spending and state intervention. After the 2008 crash, and the ensuing fall in living standards, Britain’s ideological horizons have expanded.
In different ways, May, Corbyn and Cable have challenged the assumption that youth knows best (the first with mixed results). Under Clegg, the Liberal Democrats were reduced to just eight seats, a total the 47-year-old Tim Farron only increased to 12. Corbyn, meanwhile, has succeeded where the younger Ed Miliband failed in improving Labour’s standing. Should Cable be elected (he has cited the precedent of Gladstone), and fare well, the revenge of the old will be complete.