The new Pope Francis I is 76 years old.
Yes, that’s right. At the start of his tenure as Pope, he is already older than most people are when they retire. He is the ninth oldest Pope to have been elected since 1295. Would you be happy if your doctor, dentist, solicitor or bank manager was 76? Perhaps not. However, if you are Roman Catholic, you have no choice. He is now the head of the Church.
Let’s put things in perspective. Only three monarchs in the whole of British history have exceeded the age of 76,: Victoria, Elizabeth II our present Queen and George III during his mad phase when his son ruled as Regent.
In elected situations, only one US president Ronald Reagan has exceeded 76 years while in office. He was arguably in the first stages of dementia when he left office aged 77 in 1989. In Britain, both William Gladstone and Winston Churchill ruled into their 80s. Both were great leaders, but both were past their best by this point.
Times have changed since the 81 year old Churchill faced the 72 year old Labour opponent Clem Attlee in the Commons in 1955. Leaders have got younger since then. Perhaps it is as well. Three PMs retired in a row on grounds of ill health in the fifties and sixties: Churchill in 1955, Eden in 1957 and Macmillan in 1963. All did live to a good age though (Macmillan and Churchill were both over 90 when they died) unlike Labour Opposition leader Hugh Gaitskell who died suddenly in his 50s in 1963.
Thereafter, leaders got younger. Harold Wilson may have looked portly and unglamourous next to President Kennedy when he visited him in 1963. But Wilson (born 1916) was actually only one year older than JFK. He was to be the youngest PM of the century so far when he entered Downing Street aged 48 in 1964.
Wilson retired aged 60 in 1976 and thereafter Labour leaders got older again. his successor Jim Callaghan, already prone to afternoon naps and stints on his rural farm, was 64 when he took over. Callaghan reportedly wanted to be succeeded by someone younger when he stood down in 1980 with Labour back in opposition. And, technically, he got his wish. Michael Foot was 67 and thus a full year younger than Callaghan. Indeed, Foot was two years younger than the dark haired charismatic Ronald Reagan who was elected president one month after he became leader.
But Foot with his walking stick and long scruffy white hair seemed much older than his years. “Do you want this old fool to run Britain?” was the cruel Sun headline during the 1983 General Election. “Let’s kick Michael Foot’s stick away!” urged comedian Kenny Everett in front of an audience of cheering Young Conseravtives during the same campaign. Labour lost heavily.
It thus took until 1983 for Labour to elect a leader born after the end of the First World War. Perhaps overreacting slightly, they elected Neil Kinnock, a man of 41 with no cabinet experience. Kinnock never got to Downing Street either but the trend towards younger leaders has continued (with a few exceptions notably sixtysomethings Michael Howard for the Tories and Menzies Campbell for the Lib Dems) ever since.
John Major became the youngest Prime Minister of the 20th century, taking over at 47 in 1990. But his successor Tony Blair (who, like Kinnock, had become Labour leader at 41) was younger still in 1997. William Hague was only 36 when he became leader in 1997 and is widely seen as having peaked too early in this regard.
But Cameron was only 39 when he became Tory leader in 2005. He had no Cabinet experience at all and had barely been in parliament for four years. He was younger than Blair or Major had been when he succeeded to Downing Street. Today all three party leaders are in their 40s. George Osborne, the Chancellor is barely 40.
What does all this mean? Much was made, after all, of Tony Blair’s youth and inexperience in 1997. But, in practice, even his opponents would agree, he actually took to the job of being Prime Minister with far more ease than ostensibly more experienced souls like Callaghan and Eden had done.
Old age need not be a disadvantage either and it should be noted that the Queen continues to do her job very well. But the Papacy is starting to resemble the last days of the USSR with one elderly leader such as Brezhnev – who once famously addressed an audience of communists while facing in the wrong direction – being succeeded by another (Andropov) and then another (Chenenko) within a couple of years.
Happily, the Vatican is not a nuclear power. And it is worth remembering that the upshot of the succession of geriatric leaders in the USSR was that it eventually led to the appointment of a younger man Mikhail Gorbachev, a reformer who presided over the destruction of a corrupt and archaic regime.
Is it too much too hope that history might repeat itself?