Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser

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Illusions of change
Corriere della Sera - July 2nd 2007

What do we want from our political leaders? Wisdom, experience, steadiness under pressure, clarity of thought: those were once what most European voters seemed to choose, or at least it is what political parties offered to the voters. Now, we are in the midst of a political cult of youth.

 Britain’s new prime minister, Gordon Brown, apparently worries that at 56 years old he will look too ancient, so he has appointed as his foreign minister a 41-year-old, called David Miliband, who has had no experience of international affairs but who is helpfully the same age as the man Mr Brown is worried about: the leader of Britain’s main opposition party, David Cameron. This year two European prime ministers have departed, seemingly having outstayed their welcome: Belgium’s Guy Verhofstadt, who was 46 when he took office in 1999, and Tony Blair, also 46 when he became British prime minister in 1997. So did Austria’s finance minister, Karl-Heinz Grasser, after seven years in the job and apparently now a veteran at 38. In America the favourite presidential candidate among intellectuals, though not yet among voters, is Barack Obama, a man of 46 with only two years experience in the Senate.

The definition of political youth is, however, relative, not absolute. If Mr Obama is elected next year, he will be a year older than Bill Clinton was when he was elected president in 1992. The most important comparison is with Hillary Clinton, who is the Democratic frontrunner but who will be 61 next year. It is the same for Walter Veltroni: to become party leader and a potential future prime minister at the age of 52 is not youthful compared with Tony Blair in 1994 when he took his party’s leadership at 43, but Mr Veltroni’s point of comparison is with Romano Prodi at 68, Silvio Berlusconi at 70.

What, then should we voters think of all this? Is age really a good measure? Breaking a good writer’s rule that you shouldn’t write about yourself, I should nevertheless declare a conflict of interest: I became editor-in-chief of The Economist in 1993 at the age of 36. So I can hardly argue that youth is a bad thing. Looking back, I cringe at the thought of some of the mistakes I made in my first year. Youth may bring freshness and energy, but it also brings inexperience and lack of maturity. Returning to politics, we all remember John F. Kennedy as America’s youngest ever president in 1960 at the age of 43, a vision of hope, change and glamour. We tend to conveniently forget one of his first acts: the failed attempt to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.

A better value for voters to look for is freshness, which brings with it independence and open-mindedness. The real problem with political leaders in their sixties and seventies is not their age, it is that they are likely to have taken part in government and politics for so long that they become unwilling or unable to contemplate change. Few people are able to destroy the structures that they have themselves been involved in building. It takes newcomers, outsiders, to do that.

Gordon Brown is only four years older than France’s new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who is 52, but it will be hard for British voters to believe his claims that he wants to bring change. He used the word “change” eight times in his first short speech as prime minister. But he has been at the heart of the Labour government throughout the past ten years. Mr Sarkozy’s calls for “rupture” were credible; Mr Brown’s are not.

And Mr Veltroni? We know from his book that he hopes Italian voters will think that he will bring “La Scoperta dell’Alba”. We know he admires John F. Kennedy’s brother, Bobby Kennedy, a man who had energy, bravery and imagination. We know he is a lot younger than Italy’s current leaders. Now, we need to find out whether he truly wants to bring change. Youth is not enough.


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