02 March, 2006

Old wave

There used to be a time when all political parties were led by, if not pensioners, then people well into middle age.

It was something only old folk did. Moreover, it was something for which only old folk were suited. After all, such a position could only be held by somebody at the summit of their career. It was the endgame of a life spent "serving your country" in a plethora of capacities from local councillor to cabinet minister. Nobody questioned why Thatcher couldn't be Prime Minister in her 60s, Churchill in his 70s, or even Gladstone in his 80s. Indeed, questions would have been asked had those kind of people not sought high office of such a nature at such an advanced age.

Today, however, there's been a welter of babble about the fact Menzies Campbell is already 64 and how if he stays around for two General Elections he'd be into his early 70s and, well, isn't that a frightfully delicate age to be practicing politics? A certain kind of politics, yes - the kind being tirelessly, and tiresomely, enacted by David Cameron, rushing about setting multiple plates spinning but not caring when and where they crash to the ground. But that's no way to run a party, let alone a country, and here's where Campbell has the edge on not just the Tories but Labour as well.

When the Liberal Democrats decided to oppose the war in Iraq, they made their case at their own speed on their own terms. Campbell, as foreign affairs spokesman, set that speed and established the terms. He and the party received (and continue to win) relentless flak and lazy insults in equal measure. But the outcome was a huge increase in the party's credibility and, when elections came, popularity.

If ever the moment was right for someone of lucidity, experience and above all composure to lead a political party in this country, that time is now. A few months ago when choosing their new boss the Tories skipped a generation and ended up with Blair Mark II. The Liberals have just skipped a generation in the other direction, and ended up with a 21st century Lloyd George. Which in my book can only be a good thing.


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