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Sunday 11 September 2005

Clarke is the right wise old head to tow the Tories to the promised land

ON HOLIDAY I've been able to catch up with Harry Potter, whose problems always put mine in perspective: however inconvenienced I've been this week by late trains, a really tedious burglary and being drenched by a thunderstorm, I'm not being attacked by Death Eaters.

Among its other virtues, Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince is an interesting study of the interaction between youth and age, obstinacy and impetuousness, wisdom and intuition.

Which leads me to the Tory leadership contest in Britain and particularly to Kenneth Clarke, who, with a relaxed beam, has been grabbing the headlines from his juniors over the past couple of weeks.

Harry Potter admired the way in which Professor Dumbledore, his white-bearded headmaster, revealed his superior wizarding skills without any showing off, for "Harry had long since learned that bangs and smoke were more often the marks of ineptitude than expertise".

Well (as it's appropriate to put it since I'm writing near Siena) "even the ranks of Tuscany could scarce forbear to cheer" at the way in which the old war-horse - in the usual livery of battered fedora, utilitarian suit and comfortable, slightly down-at-heel suede shoes - has got his opponents worried.

Many who won't countenance Ken at any price because of his enthusiasm for the EU are grinning along with him as he lambastes New Labour and its Conservative imitators for their obsession with style rather than content, spin rather than conviction, and focus groups and opinion polls and make-overs and sharp young political advisers without common sense or experience.

His effectiveness is beginning to undermine the general assumption that, at 65, he's too old to be a serious contender - widely held from the moment Michael Howard, a year Clarke's junior, announced he would be resigning on grounds of age.

For what has age got to do with it? After all, in Britain since 1997 there has been a government whose incompetence has given youth a bad name.

Who is considered by most the greatest prime minister of the 20th Century? Churchill, who was 66 years old when he took over and 77 when he won the 1951 election. And like or loathe him, Gladstone, who finally retired at the age of 85, is seen by many as the greatest of the 19th Century.

Elsewhere, postwar Germany was rebuilt under the guidance of Konrad Adenauer, who was chancellor until he was 89, while Ronald Reagan, whom many credit with bringing down the Soviet Union, won his second presidential election at 73.

We were among those who swooned over the youthful John F Kennedy when he became US president in 1961, but it took his older successor, Lyndon Johnson, to demonstrate the guile to get Kennedy's policies through Congress.

And Kennedy himself understood the drawbacks of inexperience well enough to sit at the wise old feet of the then British prime minister, Harold Macmillan, who had been born in the previous century.

Remember what happened to William Hague, who became the leader of the Tories at a youthful 36. A highly intelligent man who in a couple of decades may be a fine prime minister, Hague made a complete mess of his job because he was too immature to know what he was doing. And he has been the first to admit inexperience was his problem.

Yet only the Catholic church seems to be prepared these days to buck the modern fashion for thinking that wisdom is so yesterday and all that matters is youth. Its cardinals elected 78-year-old Joseph Ratzinger as Pope earlier this year.

The irony is that it is the politically-correct brigade - the people who cry about discrimination at every turn and have added ageism to the list of unacceptable sins - who lead the cry that political leaders should be running around kicking footballs, rather than, like Clarke, doing a bit of bird-watching.

When you think that we're all living longer lives, and are told daily by the media that 70 is the new 60 and 50 the new 40, Clarke could be considered to be in his prime. He has many merits. He is very intelligent, has vast experience of government and is his own man. In Clarke, you get what you see and people like him. As Chancellor of the Exchequer he laid the foundations for the economic prosperity Gordon Brown claims as his own creation.

What those choosing a Tory leader need to consider is not the date on his birth certificate, but whether - as some of his critics suggest - his mind has become more closed with age. As Professor Dumbledore pointed out to Harry: "Age is foolish and forgetful when it underestimates youth."

It is foolish too if it thinks that ideas that were valid 10 years ago are necessarily valid today, or that no new ideas are worth consideration.

What will be interesting to watch over the next few weeks is how Clarke reacts to the suggestion of the 34-year-old Shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, that Britain should think about adopting the flat tax. Gordon Brown's mind is closed. Let's see if Clarke, his senior, can do better.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards