It couldn't happen here ... could it?

If statistics are to be believed, many people find themselves barely employable by their mid-thirties - an EC directive states that no one over 35 need apply for work with the European Commission, for example - but in politics, and to a lesser extent the law, it seems you can go on and on. The question is: are the oldies to be found in these professions an asset or a liability?

Much was made of the reduction in retirement age for the higher judiciary to 70 in 1993, which meant that senior justices such as the former Lord Chief Justice Lord Lane, Lord Lowry, and Lord Bridge of Harwich - all approaching 80 - were barred from judicial practice. Back in the 1980s, though, Lord Denning was meting out justice until his voluntary retirement at the age of 83, and carried out some of his most progressive work after 75: one of his later decisions gave Sir Freddie Laker the right to compete with British Airways and offer cheap transatlantic flights. And, despite popular preconceptions about elderly judges, age has no monopoly on sternness: the cliched image of the ancient beak as a crusty reactionary takes a knock when considered beside the notorious Judge Jeffreys (1648-89), who, at the time of the so-called Bloody Assizes, when hundreds were hanged and transported, was a mere 36.

In the House of Lords, though, there is nothing to stop peers hanging around until they drop: Clement Attlee put a Shropshire deputy lieutenant there at the age of 94 in 1948, and Harold Macmillan was made Earl of Stockton at the age of 90 in 1984. The late Lord Houghton, who died last month aged 97 (and who, incidentally, had been dropped from Harold Wilson's cabinet in 1967 on the grounds of age) attended regularly until last year.

But if the years are showing, public figures risk prompting at best "concern" for their health and at worst plain derision. The 70-year-old Margaret Thatcher's drained appearance at the Tory party conference in 1994 raised many an eyebrow, and her daughter, Carol, complained: "I have told her before that she should take it easier, but she won't listen." Indeed, only the previous March, she had collapsed while giving a lecture to businessmen in Santiago, Chile. In the Commons, meanwhile, Sir Edward Heath, our oldest MP, has vowed to fight the next General Election, by which time he will be 80.

Complaints about geriatric public servants are usually refuted by the claim that it is only with age that one accrues the kind of experience necessary to run the country. Alec Douglas-Home became Prime Minister when he was past 60 and was 73 when he ceased to be Foreign Secretary in 1974. Winston Churchill enjoyed his finest hour as a pensioner, though admittedly he was rather less proficient as an octogenarian, riding on the popularity his war leadership had brought him. But, generally speaking, we might do well to remember the grand old statesmen of history: the Duke of Wellington, who became Prime Minister at 60; Lord Palmerston, active as Prime Minister in his 80s; and Gladstone, who left power at 86.

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