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Global Affairs

From former PM to nobody by age 50

Is there a right age to become the leader of a nation? Those who rise to the top young retire early and struggle to remain useful.

LONDON • He did what was expected of him: After resigning from office in the wake of losing a referendum on his country's membership of the European Union and having forfeited the confidence of his fellow politicians, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced his total retirement from politics.

He could have waited until the end of the current parliamentary term in 2020; after all, that is what he was elected to do by voters in his constituency. But he didn't; he went now, immediately, despite the fact that this triggered a by-election nobody wanted.

Being all-powerful one day and then just another anonymous citizen the next is the lot of any politician in the Western world. And the British are particularly keen to make this point, as Mr Cameron discovered when he recently sat forlornly with his wife on a seaside bench, licking an ice cream cone; not one of the hundreds of passers-by even looked, let alone acknowledged the presence of a man who a mere few weeks earlier decided the country's destiny.

Yet there is a bigger question lurking behind this episode. Here is a man who had led the ruling party for a decade and a country for over six years, but who is now expected to fade into retirement before he has celebrated his 50th birthday. Is it wise to discard his accumulated experience? And what do such episodes say about the nature of politics today?

For the British phenomenon of politicians retiring in the prime of their lives only to linger on in obscurity for decades thereafter is relevant to most Western nations; Mr Barack Obama will meet a similar fate by early next year.

The phenomenon of youngsters reaching supreme power is not exactly new: Out of Britain's first 20 prime ministers since the position was created in the 17th century, for instance, no fewer than five were under 40 when they first took office, including William Pitt (rightfully called The Younger) who became British prime minister at the tender age of 24. But these were days when people lived much shorter lives, and careers peaked at a far younger age.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

As politics solidified into predictable patterns in many Western countries, top leaders tended to get older, if only because they had to spend many more years advancing through the ranks of political parties which became huge bureaucracies. Again, using Britain as an example, out of the country's 20 prime ministers over the past 110 years, only four were younger than 50 years old when they came to office. But the average age of people reaching the top is now falling again, and rapidly: Out of the five prime ministers which Britain had over the past 25 years, no fewer than three of them were in their early to mid-40s.

The same applies to most other European countries today. Out of the 28 current leaders of the EU member states, 10 are between 40 and 50 years old, and a further six are just past their 50th birthday. The only major exception to this trend in the Western world is the United States, where the Constitution mandates that no one under the age of 35 can become president, and where only nine out of a total of 44 presidents was less than 50 when they first crossed the White House threshold.

And there are grounds to believe - again, the US stands apart - that the trend towards younger leaders will continue. One factor pushing for this is, paradoxically, a return to earlier times, when established political parties are no longer the only arbiters of politics.

Throughout the Western world, loyalty to established parties is declining and the search for new providential leaders or novel ideas increases. One can see it in Britain and in Germany, where the two major political parties which regularly used to get two-thirds of the votes are now lucky to get barely half of the ballots.

In order to save themselves from disaster, parties have suspended the old rules of promotion which ensured that leaders reached the top only in middle age, in order to allow people with public appeal to leapfrog others; that is why Britain's Labour Party pushed Mr Tony Blair to be prime minister at the age of 43, and why Britain's Conservatives did the same with Mr Cameron at precisely the same age.

In order to save themselves from disaster, parties have suspended the old rules of promotion which ensured that leaders reached the top only in middle age, in order to allow people with public appeal to leapfrog others; that is why Britain's Labour Party pushed Tony Blair to be prime minister at the age of 43, and why Britain's Conservatives did the same with David Cameron at precisely the same age.

Parties which fail to adapt risk being trounced by others which can capture the public mood: Just look at Greece, where a 41-year-old former student leader with no government experience became prime minister last year.

Either way, younger leaders also mean younger pensioners; barring a few exceptions, no Western leader can hope to be in office for much more than two terms.

But what are they to do when they leave office? They are unlikely to be poor: Throughout the Western world, provisions are in place to provide retired top politicians with adequate pensions, so the days when someone like Winston Churchill retired as British premier only to find himself virtually bankrupt and in need of donations from wealthy friends are long gone.

Still, having a financially comfortable retirement is not the same as having a fulfilling one. And it's here that problems start, for without exception retired Western politicians are caught between the expectations of the public and their own need to be useful.

In theory, a former prime minister can go on to work as a director of, say, a bank or a multinational consultancy. But it won't be long before accusations start flying that he or she used past connections and influence to advance their businesses.

So, what retired leaders are usually reduced to doing after pocketing a cheque from a publisher in return for their memoirs - a one-off transaction - are years of delivering speeches in return for cash, or starting their own consultancy and/or foundation, in the hope of finding some useful employment.

All these pursuits are subjected to the rule of diminishing returns. Soon after leaving power, top politicians are in demand as speakers at top conferences of banks and international institutions. But within a year or two after retirement, that demand ebbs, to be replaced by requests from obscure businessmen who want a famous person to talk at their daughter's wedding, or property developers who need a recognisable face to cut the ribbon at the inauguration of their latest shopping mall.

Consultancies and foundations run by former top politicians fare no better: Just ask Mr Blair who started by offering his political "reconciliation" services to foreign governments, but now stands accused - unfairly - of being more interested in conciliating his bank accounts, or former US president Bill Clinton, who is constantly harangued by questions about the source of donations to his foundation.

The one thing all these former leaders lack is any formal mechanism to pass on their experience to their successors or to offer advice to a new generation of politicians. Of course, some are treated with great respect by their nations, and are often invited to splendid state celebrations, where they are paraded as some long-lost religious relics.

But the bias against their continued involvement in any politics - however minor, and even as a parliamentary backbencher - is very strong.

As Mr John Major, who became British prime minister at 47 and was out of office and a "political pensioner" at the age of 54, once put it, if former leaders "say nothing, people ask what is their purpose", but if they say anything in public, "this is automatically construed as criticism of their successors". Better, therefore, to just shut up, which is what most retired leaders do.

Does this swift relegation to irrelevance matter? Yes, and a great deal, not only because it is a terrible waste of experience which could be put to good use, but also because it limits the participation of future generations of politicians, who may well calculate that it's not worth dedicating one's life to merely a few years of public service, followed by decades of being treated as the political equivalent of a stuffed bird.

What Western nations therefore need is a more formal mechanism of harnessing the experience of previous generations of politicians. But don't expect that to happen soon.

And, in any case, it will be too late for the likes of Mr Cameron, now destined to join the sad circle of after-dinner speakers. Coming to a convention centre near you. Or to your favourite shopping mall.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 19, 2016, with the headline 'From former PM to nobody by age 50'. Print Edition | Subscribe