Sage Britons: after the richest, the sexiest and the greatest, the search is launched for the country's wisest person

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The Independent Online

They range from a railway engineer to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, at least three are still in their forties and one resigned from the Cabinet in disgrace, but together they are being touted as the very pinnacle of British wisdom.

After lists ranking humans according to criteria from wealth to breast size, voting is under way in a poll to find the sagest souls in the nation.

A survey to find the wisest person in Britain has been launched by Saga Magazine, the country's highest circulation journal, as a backlash against more superficial measures of celebrity.

The magazine has approached institutions ranging from the Royal Institute of British Architects to Oxford University to help it draw up a shortlist of 50 wise individuals.

The resulting list includes the Queen, 77, the musician and media mogul Bob Geldof, 49, the High Court judge Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, 70, and the 60-year-old fashion doyenne Suzy Menkes.

A spokeswoman for the magazine for the over-50s said: "There is no doubt about the popularity of this type of survey but they always seems to only recognise factors such as money or sex appeal.

"Wisdom isn't just about being smart, it is also about experience. We are looking for those with that mixture of brilliance and application."

The list is based on discreet soundings taken from individuals and professional and academic institutions. The subsequent consensus includes five scientists, among them Sir Richard Doll, 91, the doctor who first proved the link between smoking and cancer, and four politicians, including Gordon Brown, 52, Tony Benn, 78, and Lord Saatchi, 57, the advertising guru recently appointed co-chairman of the Conservative Party.

The compilers say they have also tried to draw attention to a few unsung heroes, including Bill Armstrong, 73, a campaigner for investment in the railways, and the architect Peter Cook.

Another inclusion is John Profumo, 88, the former war secretary who resigned in 1963 after his relationship with Christine Keeler was made public and has since devoted himself to charity work in London's East End.

The list is a further flexing of the social and political muscle of the over-50s, who now account for 70 per cent of Britain's richest people and make up 44 per cent of the population. The final rankings will be voted for online or by post by Saga readers. The results will be unveiled in the spring.

The early front runners were yesterday headed by the Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (7.5 per cent), the fertility expert Lord Winston (7.3 per cent), Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web (4.2 per cent), the Queen (3.2 per cent), Lord Rothschild, the banker and philanthropist (2.9. per cent), and Dame Butler-Sloss (2.7 per cent).

Mr Benn, who earlier this week was at the top of the list but has since slipped down, said that while he was flattered to be included, he was not quite certain what qualities the poll was seeking to define.

The veteran Labour politician said: ""We all gain experience as we grow older and I'll be 80 next year. If you use that experience sensibly then I suppose that might be wisdom."

As well as delivering a calculated snub to Tony Blair by nominating his Chancellor as a man of greater common sense, the short-list is as notable for its omissions as it is for those it features.

Only nine of the 50 are women, including the crime writer P D James, 83, and Ms Menkes, whose fashion writing places her ahead of figures from Dame Shirley Williams to Germaine Greer.

One source involved in drawing up the shortlist, which is expected to become an annual survey, said: "It is meant to be a little controversial. We are looking for people who have been around and done things that make them wise. But we don't pretend it's the perfect list."

The 50 who made the list of sages...

Dr Eric Anderson, 67: Taught Tony Blair at Fettes College and Prince Charles at Gordonstoun.

Bill Armstrong, 73: Secretary of the Permanent Way Institution, dedicated to "advance the art and science of railway infrastructure engineering"

Tony Benn, 78: First British MP to denunciate apartheid. Left Parliament after 50 years saying he wanted to "devote more time to politics".

Tim Berners-Lee, 48: British physicist who in 1990 invented the World Wide Web while working at the CERN nuclear research centre in Geneva.

Sir Harrison Birtwistle, 69: Composer who wrote unashamedly modern music in the early 1970s when the establishment favoured the avant garde.

Mike Brearley, 61: Inspirational England cricket captain.

Craig Brown, 46:

Guardian columnist who writes under the names Bel Littlejohn and Wallace Arnold.

Gordon Brown, 52: Chancellor of the Exchequer, who may yet get to Number 10. Celebrated birth of son, John, in October 2003.

Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, 70: President of the High Court Family Division.

Professor Peter Cook, 67: Co-founder of Archigram, the 1960s group of radical student architects. Cook's influence is in London in Norman Foster's GLA building and in the Swiss Re tower.

Francis Crick, 87: Scientist who discovered DNA double helix.

Frances Crook, 51: Took over Howard League for Penal Reform in 1985 at age of 32.

WF "Bill" Deedes, 90: Former cabinet minister, returned to reporting after long stint as editor of a national newspaper.

Sir Richard Doll, 91: Doctor who established link between smoking and cancer.

Sir Bob Geldof, 49: Musician and powerful voice of world conscience.

Lord Goldsmith, 53: Attorney general, co-chairs Human Rights Institute.

General Sir Timothy Granville-Chapman, 56: Land Commander in the army.

Sir Peter Hall, 73: Founder of Royal Shakespeare Company in 1960.

Professor Stuart Hall, 71: Foremost authority on race and ethnicity, co-authoring Policing the State.

Professor AH Halsey, 80: Britain's first professor of sociology.

Charles Handy, 71: Business management visionary, author of Age of Unreason and The Age of Paradox.

John Hume, 66: Entered talks with Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams in 1993, leading to ceasefire.

PD James (Baroness James of Holland Park), 83: The doyenne of crime writers.

Linton Kwesi Johnson, 51: One of only two living poets to be included in the Penguin Modern Classics series.

Sir Peter Lampl, 56: Independent advisor to the government on access to higher education through Sutton Trust, and a multi-millionaire.

Penelope Leach, 66: Child psychologist who wrote parenting bible Your Baby and Child.

Sir Alexander Macara, 71: President of the National Heart Forum. Seeks to improve all aspects of public health, most recently calling for a ban on public smoking.

Suzy Menkes, 60: Fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune.

Professor David Morley, 80: Emeritus Professor of Tropical Child Health at the Institute of Child Health in London.

Sir John Mortimer, 80: Playwright, novelist, barrister, creator of Rumpole of the Bailey.

John Profumo, 88: Overshadowed by the scandal that bears his name, Profumo has worked tirelessly for forty years for Toynbee Hall, east London.

Philip Pullman, 57: Children's author who won Whitbread Prize for The Amber Spyglass.

Queen Elizabeth II, 77

Sir Martin Rees, 61: Astronomer Royal. Believes there will be a catastrophe on Earth within 20 years which will kill more than a million people.

Lord Rothschild, 68: Wealthy international banker. Former chairman of National Gallery and Heritage Lottery Fund.

Dr Dorothy Rowe, 73: Clinical psychologist, whose books have helped millions tackle depression.

Lord Maurice Saatchi, 57: Co-chairman of Conservative party.

Jonathan Sacks, 55: Chief Rabbi.

Dame Cicely Saunders, 85: Developed modern hospice movement.

Simon Schama, 58: Historian who wrote History of Britain books, having lectured at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and now Columbia University.

Father Michael Seed, 47: Ecumenical officer to Archdiocese of Westminster, he has gained a reputation as headhunter for the Roman Catholic Church.

Sir Nicholas Serota, 57: Director of the Tate.

Sir Sigmund Sternberg, 82:

Philanthropist, promoting world peace.

Sir John Sulston, 61: Biologist, one of the founding fathers of genetics.

Sir Crispin Tickell, 73: Diplomat who warned of the dangers of global warming.

Baroness Mary Warnock, 79: Moral philosopher trusted by government to tackle controversial social issues.

Charles Wheeler, 80: Doyen of BBC news, passionate believer in independent journalism.

The Most Rev Rowan Williams, 53: Archbishop of Canterbury.

Lord Winston, 63: Part of the team that created the world's first "test-tube" baby, Louise Brown. Britain's most prominent fertility expert, and Labour peer.

Sir Magdi Yacoub, 68: World's leading heart surgeon, forced to retire from NHS at 65.

...and two who didn't

Tony Blair, 50: While Saga Magazine describes his Chancellor as a "brilliant operator" and "perhaps the most intelligent member of the Government", the British Prime Minister is humiliatingly relegated to the status of an also-ran

Keith Richards, 60: Despite years of drug abuse, the Rolling Stones guitarist has long enjoyed an iconic status as an alternative sage. He recently further endeared himself to his fans by taking a swipe at Mick Jagger for accepting a knighthood