The other day I came across an article making the familiar argument that politicians these days increasingly have no background in anything other than politics. Unlike their forbears, it is claimed, who had wide experience running other organisations, our leaders these days are woefully ill-experienced. The author of this article - George Walden, who ten years ago I regarded as the intelligent face of the Conservative party, but I’m afraid I now tend to see more as just a miserable old man - particularly compared them with Churchill.
This is now a familiar claim. But - aided by an interesting discussion at that excellent institution Liberal Drinks (which I feel strongly we should encourage to happen as widely as possible around the party, incidentally) - it strikes me that although it conforms to our general sense of the decline and convergence of politics, is not actually supported by the evidence.
I offer two main pieces of evidence against this claim.
Firstly, let’s take a look at perhaps the two greatest Prime Ministers that Britain has had (I’m not trying to start a discussion here about who Britain’s two greatest PMs were, but they seem to me a reasonable pair to pick!).
Churchill was obsessed by politics from childhood, aiming to follow his father into government. He first entered Parliament at the age of 25 and was in the Cabinet by the time he was 34. At various points in his life he made some money through writing, and in his early life had a couple of thoroughly Boys Own escapades in the battle of Omdurman and escaping from a prisoner of war camp during the Boer War. They were certainly no routine experiences. But playing soldiers in various parts of the world did not give him much sense of the varied conditions of life in his own country at the time - and it is quite clear that throughout his life his main focus was always politics and government.
Gladstone, similarly, went straight from university into Parliament at the age of 22 (6 years younger than the current youngest member of the House of Commons) after only a Grand Tour that was extremely limited by comparison to today’s gap years, and first became a Minister by the time he was 24. Although he famously had interests in theology and Homer, he never did any job not related to governing the country (or in his case, half the globe too)