Time for a novice

How the country is secretly run by the young

Published on The Economist, Oct. 22, 2009.

… For Bagehot, perhaps the most intriguing overall lesson of the party-conference season was the extreme youth of many of those in important positions in the party hierarchies, making policy and conducting high-level negotiations. This is one of the hidden features of the political machine: the callow age of many of its cogs, including some big ones.

The office of George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, generates many of the Tories’ best ideas, and some less good ones. Mr Osborne himself is 38, stunningly young for a would-be chancellor. But he seems venerable beside his advisers. His fecund brains trust comprises Rohan Silva (28) and Rupert Harrison (30). Matthew Hancock, his chief of staff, has just turned 31.  

It isn’t only the Osborne nursery. News footage of Mr Cameron on the night before his conference speech showed the leader conversing with his wife, Mr Osborne, William Hague (the shadow foreign secretary)—and Ameet Gill. Mr Gill is Mr Cameron’s main speechwriter. He is 27. The head of the party’s policy unit is 33. Interview a shadow minister and you will often find him accompanied by a scowling young press officer; it can be hard to decipher who is managing whom. Many of these rising Tory stars were inducted into politics when it was dominated by Tony Blair. They acquired a Blairite grasp of presentation and a focus on electability, as well as a reverence for new technologies.

Something similar is true of Labour. Gordon Brown once bragged to George Bush that he had ministers in his cabinet who were under 40. Some less conspicuous but quietly influential players in government are younger still. Torsten Henricson-Bell is a former Treasury civil servant and now a political adviser to Alistair Darling, the chancellor. Mr Henricson-Bell is highly regarded in Whitehall; he is said, in the parlance, to be able to “deliver” (ie, speak for) his boss. He is 27 too. Mr Brown’s own speechwriter is said to be 29. There are some boyish members of his policy unit, an outfit that deserves more credit than it tends to get: its output is mangled by the politicians.

Of course, politics is not the only sphere in which people assume awesome responsibilities at a tender age (the army is another), or in which careers now tend to peak earlier than they did. And thrusting young researchers and special advisers are a long-established feature of it. An even fresher-faced Mr Cameron worked for assorted members of the previous Tory government, as, somewhat forlornly, Mr Brown often points out. Under Mr Blair, twenty-somethings proliferated: Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and others advised ministers before becoming ministers.

The triumph of youth: … (full text).

Comments are closed.