Britain and Ireland: Innocence versus experience?

Fascinating couple of pieces on the major shift in British politics in the last decade, which would seem to be a shift in preference towards young and inexperienced leaders… First this paper from Phillip Cowley of Nottingham University on the rise and rise of career politicians…

In a précis on his university’s school of politics blog:

The current trance of leaders are not as exceptional in their youth as they are in their inexperience. It is not the case that the leaders are inexperienced because they are young, more that they are young because they are so inexperienced. Nor does this change appear to be the result of changes in the way parties elect their leaders (although this has had a small effect).

The article concludes that instead the explanation lies in the changing nature of ‘experience’, with all three of the current leaders having significant political experience at a reasonably senior level before they entered the Commons. The ‘career politician’ remains a minority in the Commons as a whole, with plenty of MPs who have a broader experience of the world. But for those who want an accelerated route to the top, the career politicians now looks like the only game in town.

By contrast, Irish political leaders have for the most part accumulated considerable political experience in their climb to the top:

  • Eamon Gilmore is 56, and has been through several political incarnations.
  • Gerry Adams is 63 and has been leader of his party since 1986.
  • Enda Kenny is 60, and has served in the Dail – where the average term is about 20 years – for more than 35 years.
  • Micheal Martin is 51 and has held no less than four cabinet level posts in government.
And Northern Ireland is run by two men who have been close to the top of their respective parties/movements for most of the last forty years…
So what does this say? Is Ireland advantaged by its preference for experience at the top?  Chris puts half a dampener on it:

…there’s a massive difference between entrepreneurship and politics. We have found a way of improving the odds of entrepreneurial success. We allow many entrepreneurs to compete against each other, to see who succeeds; this is why free entry into markets and access to capital are so important.

In politics, however, competition is much more limited and entry restricted. So the natural selection we have in markets operates much less well. In this sense, political activity offers us the worst of both worlds. It has neither the body of experience, evidence base and precedent that sportsmen, engineers, bureaucrats, lawyers or some artists can draw upon. Nor does it permit the ruthless natural selection that well-functioning markets do.

Ireland would seem to have the advantage in experience. Though, considering the fact that the Taoiseach’s experience has mostly been of opposition or the parliamentary back benches it may be of limited use to him in government. It would be interesting to find out just why the two countries have become so vastly divergent in the two countries. And which, ultimately, begets the better strategies?


  • FuturePhysicist

    The ‘career politician’ remains a minority in the Commons as a whole, with plenty of MPs who have a broader experience of the world. But for those who want an accelerated route to the top, the career politicians now looks like the only game in town.

    Yeah, in GB the parties simply put up the nicest personalities they can find out of the Oxbridge PPE degree brigade.

  • Brian Walker

    Don’t forget image. Are party leaders elected in opposition since 1994 all look alikes? Remember the odd question of John Humphrys, even for him, quoting a confidence of the late Robin Cook. Was Ed Miliband too ugly to succeed?

  • “a shift in preference towards young and inexperienced leaders”

    I’m surprised that Scotland and Wales have been overlooked not least because the boy Dave is currently up against the wily older fox Alex! And the youthful Carwyn has replaced the elderly Hywel Rhodri.

  • andnowwhat

    Indeed Brian. There’s a plethora of reasons to criticise Ed Milliband but the ordinary punter seems to think he looks odd.

    I think there’s an interesting alignment between the progression of youthfulness dominating society, especially in GB. Where as experience was once the most admired quality, youth and energy is the game nowdays. I like my politicians boring, eccentric, experienced in life and with a vision. I want to look up to them and be amazed at their brilliance and insight rather than the opaque nonsense that passes these days.

    Just how thick would one have to be not to see through Lansley, Dave’s and Gideon’s aims?

  • Ruarai

    The giveaway line: “In politics, however, competition is much more limited and entry restricted. So the natural selection we have in markets operates much less well.”

    Yes – but why is it more restricted?

    Because it’s clogged up with and by people who have invested – in the name, bafflingly, of “professional politics” – inordinate amounts of time and emotion in building personal networks, alliances, grudges, etc.

    Ideas? Policies? Experience forged conviction??

    It’s about relationships – generally paranoid ones.

    When you look at the unforgivably unsolvable complicated mess foisted on us by Europe’s genius political class can you think of a better argument for limiting the role of politics to as small a scope as possible?

    Does anyone think David Cameron or Miliband have even worked one honest day’s work in their lives?

    Think of the biographies of prominent leaders from these parts: Collins and Churchill types. Now picture the bios of contemporary leaders – riddled with sniping and bitching and “vision” waffle.

    I expected the eras of Blair and Ahern and Clinton to be followed by the election of people of less malleable persuasions. Granted, that happened in the US with, let’s say, suboptimal results.

    But for Britain to somehow find a way to elect an imposter whose skitch is impersonating an actor – well, they asked for it.

    Political journalism owns much of the dishonor for this state of affairs too. On any given day, in the nationals or the locals, how many “stories” are about relationship gossip or analysis rather than policy analysis?

    And why? Cause 1. The latter is far harder to report on. 2. The very terms of reporting are increasingly reduced to deconstructions of whether something will ‘work’ with a certain crowd.

    In such an environment why or how would or could anyone other than an expert self-promoter of relatively vacuous substance run successfully for high office?

  • Ruarai

    PS – on that last point: One of the glorious aspects of the blogging era is the opening of the public conversation away from know-nothing politicos, their interns and the fixation of political reporters on their blatherings. Now the views of people of real substance on any given issue, whether through life-experiences or through professional expertise, are merely a click away for anyone with the urge to look.

    Related predictions: The role and influence of civil society will explode in importance vis-a-vis public policy in the years ahead. The interest in reading journalism- with the exception of investigative journalism – will recede to some degree.

  • “are merely a click away for anyone with the urge to look”

    Ruarai, I’ve been told by a senior civil servant that it’s quite difficult to get permission to access my NALIL blog via the NICS network yet Slugger O’Toole is open access.

    You’d think that easy access to stories such as the drop-leaf table and the Torr ancient monument ones would be in the public interest.

    The second account demonstrates the value of collaboration between politicians, journalists and bloggers but also the need for improvement.

  • Billy Pilgrim

    I’d quibble with the title. There’s nothing innocent about those at the top of the UK government.

    (I’m talking only about the Tories here. Invertebrates merit no discussion, so the LibDems are out.)

    And I’d disagree with Ruarai’s analysis of the shallowness and lack of conviction in politics right now. That may have been true under Labour, but Labour is supposed to have a totally different set of convictions than the Tories.

    Labour is supposed to challenge power. The Labour Party is supposed to be the vehicle that allows working people to access the machinery of state, to stand up for themselves against the powerful economic interests of the UK. The last Labour government did nothing of the sort, and there’s no particular reason to believe they had even the idlest inclination to try.

    (Which is why Blair was always so disliked by his party. Take Clause 4. Blair actually put the word ‘socialist’ into the Labour constitution for the first time, while removing the actual socialism to which the old Clause 4 committed the party. That was Blair, in a nutshell.)

    But the Tories have a different set of convictions. The Tories exist to serve power, and there is no lacking in the present government’s commitment to that calling.

    I understand where Ruarai is coming from, but I think the point only holds up in terms of presentation. Cameron etc pretend to be a bunch of Blair clones, empty suits with no substance. It’s in their interests to give this appearance. But look at their efforts to sabotage the NHS, which I wouldn’t shrink from describing as evil. These are the efforts of a bunch of utterly fanatical ideologues.

    Don’t be fooled by the presentation. Whatever else one may say about them, there is no lack of conviction there.

  • Neville Bagnall

    In all the Irish cases you mention I’m not aware of any significant experience outside of politics. If anything, Britain is coming closer to where Ireland has always been – more career politicians and a requirement to treat politics as a career in order to reach the top.

    The key difference is that the Irish electoral system mitigates against the “unelected politician” path followed by those at the top in Britain at the moment. The most significant exception to that rule in the Republic in recent years was Martin Mansergh.

    At least the British and American systems still throws up the odd successful politician who has another successful career before and/or after politics.

    Personally, I think both career and part-time politicians are necessary and should be able to reach the top. It is about the only problem I have with STV.