The idea that one should have had a career – be older, wiser and highly experienced – before going into Parliament is hardly a novel one. MPs and voters alike opine about this as if it were fact. Health minister Anne Milton recently put an age on it for us – 45. It may have been tongue-in-cheek but it betrays an all too prevalent point of view.
Maybe I’m missing something, but I’d have thought what we wanted from our leaders was the ability to represent us well. It seems to me that above all they need moral courage and an ability and willingness to put the interests of their constituency and country above their own.
Burke talks of the duty of a leader being: “…to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs [his electors]; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own.” To offer “…his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, … not his industry only, but his judgment”. I wasn't aware these were abilities gained only through age – although I'm not suggesting youth has a monopoly on them either.
Many of the finest achievements of our Parliament have been accomplished by remarkably young leaders. William Wilberforce was 21 when he entered Parliament – his legacy included helping to outlaw slavery in the British Empire. William Pitt the Younger became Prime Minster at 24 and is widely credited with having helped restore an even footing to the country’s finances. Robert Peel became an MP at 21 and went on to provide the model for modern policing. Indeed Churchill, who led this country through its darkest days, first became an MP at 26. I’m sure for these men the years they spent learning how the legislative and parliamentary processes worked were what, in part at least, enabled them to flourish in the way they did.
Yet Anne Milton’s view that older people make better MPs is now becoming commonplace. But having been in a “real” career first, doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to be better at understanding the legislative process, or what makes good or bad public policy, or what drives a stable and productive economy – in much the same way as being as good as Wayne Rooney at football doesn’t qualify someone to run the Premier League.
There is no doubt a place for specialised expertise in our political system and this is recognised especially in the House of Lords, where many appointments are now made on that basis. It’s also useful to have experienced professionals from varied walks of life in Parliament. There will doubtless be many occasions when it’s useful to know what a former banker, nurse or surveyor thinks. But diversity is what creates the best Parliaments. It's having a rich tapestry of backgrounds which gives life to debate and discussion.
I have no doubt that older people can contribute a lot as MPs. Having children for example, I'm sure can increase one’s sense of duty, foster forward thinking and generate wisdom, but equally there are many characteristics that youth tends to bring such as drive, energy and confidence.
It’s amazing how easily people think a Parliament of great leaders can be built. One of the key arguments of the Yes to AV campaign was that changing the electoral system would improve the quality of our leaders. This missed the point as much as arguing that we’d have wiser government if only more of our leaders were older.
MPs and voters alike should spend more of their time encouraging younger people to understand the duty they have to their society, to understand we all have responsibilities and we should wear them well. Surely age isn’t what determines what we have to offer, but character and resolve.