Grumpy old men are only doing their duty

Last updated at 22:00 24 January 2008

Senator John McCain has performed a real service to politics by showing that you can be tough as old boots at 71 and ready for an interesting career change.

Historically speaking, we ought not to be surprised.

But, unfortunately, the cult of youth has taken a firm hold these days and various potential national and party leaders, here as elsewhere, are constantly assessed on their youth and supposed vigour, with mutters about so-and-so being "too old" by 2010.

But age has its value. Wisdom really does come with years.

victor meldrew

Experience matters in politics more than in almost any other field. The price of inexperience is liable to be measured in blood as well as treasure.

Anyway, by historical standards, it seemed natural for the elderly to be in charge during the post-war years. Churchill won the 1951 election aged 76 with an energetic campaign.

President de Gaulle did not leave the presidential palace for Colombey-les-Deux-Eglise until 79. Dr Adenauer presided over the German economic miracle until the ripe old age of 87.

Franco died more or less in harness aged 83. His neighbour Dr Salazar ran Portugual for 36 years until he was nearly 80.

Tito kept Yugoslavia in one piece until his death just short of his 88th birthday. Apparently, power preserves, perhaps absolute power preserves absolutely.

Elderly (and vigorous) British Prime Ministers also dominated the later Victorian years.

Gladstone came storming back to power with his Midlothian campaign at the age of 71, only relinquishing office at the grand old age of 85.

His hated rival Disraeli lasted in office until he was 76. Palmerston's popularity soared when he was cited in a divorce case after winning his second premiership at 75. Lord Salisbury finally resigned as Prime Minister at the age of 72.

If our aged Prime Ministers were not grumpy old men it was because they had little need, given that the condition of the people was constantly improving.

Today, there is a growing reaction against GOMs on the blasÈ grounds that the old are always complaining anyway.

Alistair Cooke once upset a student audience with a series of complaints about the younger generation. He appeased them by pointing out that he was quoting grumbles from ancient Greece.

The inclination to complain as one ages is natural enough. The growing malice of inanimate objects and the fact that the ground gets further away are both annoying.

But there are times when change really is for the worse, sometimes alarmingly so.


Only the young and foolish would have scorned complaints from their elders that the country was going to the dogs in the last days of the Roman Empire - for it was.

History is littered with states in actual or potential decline or collapse when the voices of experience and age were ignored, no doubt with comments that the old always grumble anyway.

Today, as well as GOMs we have the ONS. The invaluable Office for National Statistics provides horrific tales of rising crime and misbehaviour of all types. I am not aware that the ONS is staffed by GOMs.

The difficulty for the young is that they have never, by definition, experienced the sort of standards the old go on about. If I tell a teenager that in my younger days I would park my bike at the roadside without so much as a padlock, they suspect me of hyperbole.

Wandering the streets of London at night was no peril. Drunks were a rarity. Come to that, so was illiteracy. So was shoplifting.

Of course, some things have improved (technology's blessing apart). Oddly, one can list better taste in some fields. No Oxford City Council would dare today to propose driving a main road through Christ Church Meadow.

And historical buildings are infinitely better preserved.

Classical music is better performed (while popular music has deteriorated to an imbecile level). We no longer have the Lord Chamberlain's Office censoring or daft laws about homosexuality.

But the improvements are modest set beside a general collapse of behaviour.

The old have a duty to say so.

Bank on the voices of experience

Amid the financial turmoil, Gordon Brown declares that we need the International Monetary Fund to change and "acting with the independence of a central bank... to focus on surveillance of the global economic and financial system and, thus, prevent crises".

I love the "thus" - a triumph of hope over experience.

In fact, the IMF already produces a tidal wave of assessments of national and global economic outlooks - without "thus" preventing great crises.

There was never a secret about the dangers in the American sub-prime fiasco.

If you lend lavishly to those of dubious credit, it is inevitable and predictable that it will one day end in tears, dragging others into danger.

In our own case, when there is excessive borrowing by both the public and the Government - without the Government even trying to repay debt during a boom - you have a looming problem. No crystal ball is needed to see that. People should have listened to the grumpy old economists.