Margaret Thatcher took on the job of managing the Conservatives disunited at a time when Sir Alex was in charge of St Mirren. She lasted 15 years, including an unprecedented 11 years in which her team was unbeaten. The symbol of her authority was not a hairdryer, but a handbag. She bears comparison with Sir Alex, but she did not retire gracefully at 71. She was sacked when she was 65.
Tony Blair did a 13-year stint running Labour, keeping it united at first, but he had to cede his position to someone he did not trust to manage the side properly.
Ken Clarke was in government before Sir Alex was a manager, and is in government still. He is Britain’s longest serving postwar minister, but he failed every time he bid for the Tory party leadership, so he is does not compare with Sir Alex either.
Sir Alex’s fellow countryman, Alex Salmond, became a Westminster MP of the SNP in 1987, its leader in 1990, and Scotland’s First Minister in 2007. But his dream of being the first prime minister of an independent Scotland is fading.
The most durable figure in UK politics is Ian Paisley, now Baron Bannside, who founded and led the Democratic Unionists for 37 years – but sectarian Northern Irish organisations are not the political equivalents of a Premier League club.
When Alex Ferguson was appointed manager at Old Trafford in November 1986, the Wapping dispute that saw Rupert Murdoch change Fleet Street for ever was entering its final furlong. Since then, Sir Alex has dominated English football and his Manchester United teams have assisted Murdoch’s equally transformational Sky satellite TV experiment in becoming the most successful business in British media. Ferguson and Murdoch have endured as power players over the past 27 years, and though Murdoch is Australian his part in UK press and television has made an honorary – or dishonorary, depending on your view – fellow Brit.
Few media titans have lasted as long. Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail in 1992 and still in post, exerts a similar mixture of respect, awe and naked dislike among industry peers. As with Ferguson, even bitter rivals have to acknowledge Dacre’s extraordinarily long and successful track record and both men have been able to exert influence over their respective fields.
The football manager is of the same generation as the great television grandee David Dimbleby but the latter, for all his presence at grand ceremonial occasions and his deft hosting of Question Time, is essentially a commentator on the unfolding drama rather than a central performer.
Sporting longevity is rare, simply because of the very nature of the business. Even Sir Alex Ferguson was given the boot once. But his record since St Mirren ushered him out the door places him among a British sporting pantheon – yes, there are others who can claim a seat alongside the Govan knight.
There is Sir Steve Redgrave, probably still aching from his five gold medals from five consecutive Olympics, beginning in 1984 and finishing in 2000. Phil Taylor, the master of that truly British sport of darts, has exerted a similar control. Taylor won his first world title in 1990 and his 16th this year (he, and his sport, are the exception to the opening rule regarding the passage of time diminishing an athlete, or rather in this case competitor).
But when it comes to pure time in the saddle – literally in Lester Piggott’s case – there are three outstanding sporting Britons, each of whom has been at the top of his game for longer than Ferguson. Sir Stanley Matthews is the reverse Ferguson, long and successful career on the pitch followed by a short and unsuccessful one off it. Matthews played his first game for Stoke City in 1932 and his last in 1965 at the age of 50. Piggott rode his first race as a 12-year-old in 1948 and, with nine Derby triumphs en route, rode his last winner in 1994.
But the granddaddy of them all is the not-so-good doctor, WG Grace. He was, by all contemporary accounts, in many ways a deeply unpleasant man, at times a cheat, always a sporting mercenary, but over the course of the 44 seasons he played cricket for Gloucestershire and England he changed batting for ever and pointed the game towards what it is today. When he played, it was enough to double the entrance fee, a marketing ploy that even Manchester United have yet to try.
Few of this generation of business leaders who have been garlanded with greatness share the staying power of Sir Alex. Sir Terry Leahy, for example, the man credited with turning Tesco into an international retailer with a presence from Poland to Thailand, spent much of his working life at one company but lasted only 14 years in the top job. Paul Walsh is another one-company man. He announced his retirement this week from Diageo, having spent 13 years turning it into a global operator. At Vodafone, Sir Chris Gent was the boss for six years.
All three men showed plenty of Ferguson’s single-minded drive, but it is rare that any chief executive spends more than a decade in charge – or waits until he is so old to retire.
It used not to be like this. Great industrialists such as Lord (Arnold) Weinstock spent 33 years until 1996 leading GEC, one of Britain’s great conglomerates. Starting out at the helm of his father-in-law’s electronics firm, he increased turnover 110-fold, creating a business straddling electronics, defence and shipbuilding. Within a few years of his retirement, the company was unpicked by managers who drove it disastrously into internet equipment just as the spending bubble burst.
There are two good modern comparisons with Ferguson. Sir Richard Branson is in his fifth decade as an entrepreneur. But Virgin is more of an investment company than a conglomerate these days, often licensing its name to partners instead of risking so much of its own cash. It means that at 63, Branson – very unlike Ferguson - leaves the hard work to other people.
A better analogy is Sir Martin Sorrell, a former Saatchi & Saatchi finance director who took a small wire-basket maker and bought some of the biggest names in Soho and Madison Avenue including J Walter Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather to create WPP, arguably the world’s largest advertising group. At 68, he still controls the company, which now employs 165,000 people.
Sir Alex’s 26 years at the top of his game is a mere blip in the spotlight for the UK’s leading cultural figures. Think of Lucian Freud, who painted from the 1940s until the day he died in 2011. Or Monica Mason, who retired from the top job at the Royal Ballet last year having been at the heart of the company for 55 years.
Nor do you have to be an artist to display long-term dedication. Ferguson’s closest rival in the arts – in terms of leadership, acclaim, expansion and economic success – might be Sir Nicholas Serota, head of the staggeringly successful Tate since 1988 and showing no signs of letting go yet.
Rockers, of course, never get old. The Rolling Stones will headline Glastonbury this summer some 44 years after they wowed the Isle of Wight. And 50 years after his first No 1, no major cultural event is complete until Sir Paul McCartney has sung “Hey Jude”.
In literature, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis and Julian Barnes, a gang who came to prominence in the early 1980s, still dominate bestseller lists, broadsheet review pages and dinner party conversation. The work of Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Stephen Frears and, in the past 20 years, Danny Boyle remains the standard to beat in the UK film industry.
Theatre, though, is where the ageing luminary truly feels at home. Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench and Helen Mirren have been acting since their twenties and still sell out shows on their names. A new play from Alan Bennett or Mike Leigh is a cast-iron box-office bet. All of the above beat Fergie for longevity, but can they, like him, prompt admiration and fear in equal measure? Let’s just say, the dressing-down that Mirren, in full Queen costume, gave a group of noisy drummers outside her theatre last weekend, could rival any hairdryer treatment meted out in the Manchester United dressing room.
Who is the Sir Alex Ferguson of the British food world? Some of the obvious big names lack the longevity factor. Heston Blumenthal has been at the Fat Duck since 1995, Gordon Ramsay picked up his first Michelin star at Aubergine in 1996, Jamie Oliver’s done his cheeky-chap routine since 1997 – small beer compared to Fergie’s 27 years at the top.
I’d nominate Raymond Blanc. Yes, he’s as French as Maurice Chevalier, but he’s become an honorary Brit: he was chosen to represent the UK and Ireland at the first foodie Oscars (the World Master of Culinary Arts prize) in 2002. Wholly self-taught, he left France after being sacked from a Michelin-starred restaurant in Besançon for advising the head chef how to cook. In England he mortgaged his house in 1977 to start Les Quat’Saisons in Oxford. Fame and glory followed: it won Restaurant of the Year from the Egon Ronay guide and two stars from the Michelin. Six years later, he bought a manor house in Great Milton, Oxfordshire, and turned it into Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. Since then he’s opened a chain of patisseries called Maison Blanc, a chain of excellent medium-priced brasseries called Le Petit Blanc, and appeared on a score of TV programmes.
Vivienne Westwood is considered a grande dame and her national treasure status was made official in 1992 when she accepted an OBE from the Queen – seven years before Fergie got his honour. Her designs made their catwalk debut in 1981, and she retains her punk spirit to this day.
Like Ferguson, Nottingham-born Sir Paul Smith has a sporting past. The ambitious racing cyclist was forced to give up that dream after an accident led to six months in hospital. Since showing his first menswear collection in 1976, Smith has established his brand as a byword for the blend of tailoring and gentle humour that the British export so well. Smith has a management style far from Ferguson’s famous “hairdryer” – recently he explained the importance of simply “being nice”.