Happy Birthday, Theresa May – 60 years of age.
Age is only a number of course, but it is interesting to see how the cult of youth that has dominated British politics for so long has, quietly, passed away – and not before time. As it was, the “wrong” side of 50 had become an acceptable form of ageism, and an inexplicable one too.
The most energetic example of the cult was, of course, Tony Blair – he was once the future, after all – and one of the more inane soundbites of the Blair era was “Young Britain”. Over and over, New Labour’s young Turks, and the older ones, repeated it in their successful 1997 election campaign. Even then, the British population was far from “young”; ageing gracefully, in reality, with ever more pensioners being supported by a smaller pool of “young Britons”.
In contrast to May, Blair was a remarkably young 43 years old when he won his first general election, the youngest Prime Minister since Lord Liverpool in 1812. He had already been the youngest Labour leader in its history. But Blair’s achievement was quickly surpassed by David Cameron, a slightly younger smooth-browed 43 when he strolled through the door of Number 10 with Nick Clegg (also 43).
Theresa May in quotes
Theresa May in quotes
1/10 On being described by the former chancellor Ken Clarke as “a bloody difficult woman”:
“Politics could do with some Bloody Difficult Women actually”
2/10 On keeping secrets even from her husband:
“There are some things I am told that I am not able to confide in anybody”
3/10 On the relentless focus on her appearance during a speech at the Women in the World summit:
"I like clothes and I like shoes. One of the challenges for women in the workplace is to be ourselves and I say you can be clever and like clothes. You can have a career and like clothes”
4/10 On comparisons to Margaret Thatcher:
“I think there can only ever be one Margaret Thatcher. I’m not someone who naturally looks to role models. I’ve always, whatever job it is I’m doing at the time, given it my best shot. I put my all into it, and try to do the best job I can”
5/10 On her rebelliousness, or lack of, as a teenager:
“I probably was Goody Two Shoes at school”
6/10 On being replaced as chairman by Lord Saatchi and Liam Fox in 2003:
“Yes, it takes two men to step into the shoes of one woman”
7/10 What Theresa May said when she was asked about her political ambitions during an interview with Miriam González Durántez, a lawyer married to Nick Clegg, in December:
MD: "My very last question is: that little girl who is somewhere there, is she dreaming of becoming the next British Prime Minister?" TM: "She’s dreaming of carrying on doing a good job in the Home Office"
8/10 On not being able to have children:
“I like to keep my personal life personal. We couldn’t have children, we dealt with it and moved on. I hope nobody would think that mattered; I can still empathise, understand people and care about fairness and opportunity”
9/10 On whether she can deliver the mandate of the EU referendum:
“I think for party members and indeed for others, I would say look at my record. I think they can see that I’m somebody who gets on with the job, but I’m also somebody who says it as I see it and actually delivers on what I say”
10/10 On the equally relentless obsession with her shoes:
“As a woman I know you can be very serious about something and very soberly dressed add a little bit of interest with footwear. I always tell women ‘you have to be yourself, don’t assume you have to fit into a stereotype’ and if your personality is shown through your clothes or shoes, so be it”
Gordon Brown broke the run a little, at 56, while John Major was something of a dynamic newcomer when he emerged from relative obscurity to take over from Margaret Thatcher (65) in 1990, at 47. Major was then a little younger than Harold Wilson in 1964, who made it to the top when he was 48. The 1960s also favoured the cult of youth, with JFK the trendsetter.
No longer. When May faces the Leader of the Opposition across the despatch box, she sees a well-preserved 67-year-old in Jeremy Corbyn. Indeed, there is a remarkable convergence of age among the current crop of world leaders. We have Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia, both 63; Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel both at 62. They will, before long, be joined by either Hillary Clinton (67) or Donald Trump (70), succeeding a much younger veteran of American politics, Barack Obama already a two-term president and now leaving office at just 55.
When May and co drop by to visit other global dignitaries they can at least feel young by comparison. The Queen, at 90, Pope Francis, who turns 80 in December; the 85-year-old Dalai Lama; and Emperor Akihito of Japan, now 82, can offer the benefit of their age and experience to those not old enough to have lived through the Second World War.
Does it mean much? Maybe something. This is a generation of leaders who have political memories stretching back to the progressive permissive 1960s, when they were no doubt precociously interested in politics. They were students in the crisis-ridden 1970s, lived through the coldest episodes of the Cold War, and by the 1990s well established in their political careers (Trump aside), with the ructions since 2007 propelling them, directly or indirectly, into power.
Having lived through good times and bad, they are perhaps more inclined to follow Rudyard Kipling’s famous dictum to “meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same”.
As a group, there are similarities in the Merkel-May-Hollande-Putin-Clinton cohort; they tend to proceed carefully, to mull their decisions, and stick to their guns (literally in Vladimir’s case).
They are capable of bold initiatives – Merkel on refugees, Putin’s aggressions, obviously, May’s grammar-school plan and Brexit enthusiasm – but they don’t come on impulse. They also reflect the changing demographics of the countries they lead. In Britain, for example, we now have about half a million people aged 90 and over, roughly three times the number of 30 years ago, and about 15,000 centenarians.
No bad thing really, then, that the oldies are back in power. They haven’t discovered the elixir of youth, but they are impressive proof that ageism is plain wrong.
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