Do British now prefer a young face on their party leaders?
The resignation of the Liberal Democrats' chief raises questions of ageism.
London — Winston Churchill was 65 when he became prime minister. Margaret Thatcher was 65 when they ousted her.
But these days, Britain appears to like its leaders a little more fresh-faced. At least that was the conclusion the political class was drawing on Tuesday, a day after a sudden bout of regicide gripped Britain's third-largest party, the Liberal Democrats.
Sir Menzies Campbell, an experienced heavyweight who took the helm of the party less than two years ago abruptly quit on Monday. Party supporters said it was his age more than anything else – he is 66 – that counted against him.
"It's a rather depressing reflection that, ultimately, age appears to have been fatal for him," says Norman Lamb, a colleague and Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament (MP). "Because of constant slurs in the media about age, it's been very difficult for him to get his message across."
He adds that disposing of talent just because it is older than 60 "is not necessarily a good thing." He says Britain could find a lesson in the wealth of experience on display in the early stages of the US presidential race. "We have something to learn from the Americans."
Indeed, in an era where people are enjoy vigor until late in life (Sir Menzies is a former Olympic sprinter), the leadership change looks even odder.
Another Liberal Democratic MP, Lembit Opik, says Sir Menzies has been unfairly judged on his buttoned-down, sometimes ponderous image, instead of on policies such as opposing the Iraq war and articulating a program to make Britain carbon-neutral by 2050. "It's shockingly ageist," he says. "It's unforgivable that people who are in their early 20s in the media seem so unable to grasp the psychology and merit of people over 60.
"There is a real risk in this country that if you're over 60 the media put you on the scrapheap, whereas in the old days, if you were under 60, you wouldn't even get a look-in," he adds.
Sir Menzies is not the first to suffer the indignity of being summarily pensioned off. The Conservatives ejected two elder statesmen in recent years before settling on the youthful energy of current leader David Cameron.
But Sir Menzies was perhaps more in touch with public opinion than his image might suggest. He positioned his party as the one that castigated the Iraq war and promoted efforts to battle climate change – positions broadly in line with a large swath of middle England.
Yet the party's recent polling has been as little as 11 percent according to one survey, down from well above 20 percent at the last election. "The Iraq war effect has faded – it's not as strong as it was in 2005 when it helped win votes," says Wyn Grant, a politics expert at Warwick University. "Secondly, every party now says it's green. David Cameron has stolen the Liberals' clothes."