Tuesday, 2 December 2008

No time for a novice

At the end of the summer, the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, announced that the current climate of economic meltdown was ‘no time for a novice’.

The remark was obviously directed at the Conservative Party’s David Cameron, Leader of the official opposition and Prime Minister in waiting – not that it looks as though he may need to wait that long: his party still leads in the polls and the election has to take place by May 2010. He’s certainly a novice. He only became a Member of Parliament in 2001 and has never been a minister.

The less obvious, but only slightly less obvious, second target of Brown’s remark was his own Foreign Secretary, David Milliband. He too has had a remarkably swift rise up the ladder: like Cameron, he only entered parliament in 2001. Over the summer, when Brown was looking increasingly like a forlorn cause (20% behind, swiftly losing support within his own party) Milliband seemed to be positioning himself to challenge him for the leadership and therefore the position of Prime Minister. Brown was almost certainly administering him a sharp put down.

This kind of tactic isn’t limited to Britain. One of the least fair attacks on Barack Obama during the US election campaign was the McCain camp’s claim that he didn’t have the experience to become president. As it happens, he’d had four years as a senator. Before Lincoln became President, he’d only had two years as a member of the House of Representatives. While at the time views were more mixed, particularly in the Southern States, today most commentators reckon he did pretty well in the job.

William Pitt the Younger, who became British Prime Minister at 24, apparently replied to the accusation that he was too young and inexperienced for the post, ‘Gentlemen: these are faults that are being remedied daily’.

And that’s the point. Using the argument that a politician should not be elected because of lack of experience is deeply unfair, because the only way to get that experience is to be elected. Pushed to its conclusion, it becomes an argument for never changing government: after all, in a parliamentary system, once a party has been in power long enough, no-one in the opposition will have experience of office. Does that mean you can only ever re-elect the governing party? By that argument, we would never have seen Blair triumphantly entering Downing Street in 1997. While in hindsight that might not seem so bad a thing, the alternative would have been the continuation of one of the dreariest governments of recent times, John Major’s.

So a simple commitment to fairness requires that we stop using lack of experience as a weapon against political candidates.

That at least is the position in principle.

In practice we may need to be more pragmatic.

Cameron’s rise to the top seems less meteoric when you take into account how short a distance he had to travel. He started at Eton, one of the most prestigious independent schools in England and perhaps the most expensive. From there he travelled effortlessly to Oxford University where he was a member of the Bullingdon club, alongside George Osborne who is now Finance spokesman in his parliamentary team. The Club brought together the richest conservative students so that they could enjoy themselves in the innocent way of youth, for instance by booking entire restaurants, trashing them and then getting their Daddies to pay for the damage. From there Cameron became a political adviser, then a member of parliament, and in 2005 leader of the Conservative Party, poised for the move into Downing Street.

What has fairness got to do with any of this? Surely with a candidate like that, you can’t judge an objection on the grounds of whether it’s fair or not. The only criterion has to be ‘is it effective?’

I’m delighted that the ‘no time for a novice’ objection failed against Obama. Wouldn’t it be great though if it worked against Cameron? My only fear is that it may be too late.

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