While I am on the subject of dead hands on the political levers (Career Politics), I will just take a moment to examine that idea a bit closer, albeit from a particular perspective.
There are some jobs where you really only get a limited time in which to participate, succeed, mark your mark and then retire gracefully as a senior statesman of the game. Professional sports is one example, and it can even be rather alarming just how short the competitive live of an athlete may be. Female gymnasts are over the hill by twenty. Many other sports aren’t much better and if you blow out a knee or some such then it can all be over much quicker than that too. But while sports is a rather extreme example, it is by no means unique. Frontline fire-fighters, frontline soldiers, and even builders are the sorts of occupations that are described as a young mans game. With good reason too, even if you can find the odd middle-aged holdout still gamely hanging on, these jobs will give you a hammering and there is only a limited time when you will have the skills, capacity and endurance to competently perform. Teaching is another good one, and interestingly so is Politics. The specific combination of qualities that are needed to be are star performer are really only given to us for a short time. Realistically, 10 years is the best you can expect to get in order to make a mark. There may be time spent leading up to the years of peak performance, and some years spent coasting on your glory afterwards, but history would suggest that ten years is the best you get to be the leader.
The proof is in those leaders who hang on too long. Robert Mugabe, Lee Kuan Yew, and no shortage of other rather more despotic dictators. While they may have achieved some great things in their prime, by the time they got into their second and then third decades, they had forfeited a lot of their honour and virtue. It is hard of course for a dominant leader to surrender power to others. From the perspective of the top, how can it be seen as anything other than handing over to lesser lights. Let alone any other considerations such as there may well be some retribution coming if and when the previously excluded are raised to prominence. The longer a leader has been at the top the great the numbers of enemies they will have made. No-one is going to be in any hurry to put their head in a noose. In general, that is one benefit of democracies, political leaders are likely to be eased out before too big a head of pressure has built up, and there is history and precedent for peaceful transitions of power.
But for all that, the salient point is that for a myriad of reasons, even the best and the brightest only can only shine for a while. In New Zealand a political term is 3 years, and so a brilliant career will amount to at most three terms at the top. It has happened a couple of times in our country, but no-one has gone longer. By the end of those nine years, the electorate is ready for a change, any change, and the incumbent has gone. That is what happened here with our previous prime minister. Helen Clark relatively gracefully moved on when time was called on her after nine years. There were enough small hints that she wasn’t entirely happy to be retired by the electorate, but at least she was smart enough to know when to cut her loses, move on to fresh fields and in general retain a good reputation. In contrast, John Howard in Australia remained Prime Minister for 11 years and that was one or two years too many. He had definitely over stayed his welcome by the time he retired. Both of these two leaders however are commonly accepted to have been amongst the greatest leaders of their countries. That they neatly bracket my ten year definition, I don’t believe is a co-incidence. If you prefer ancient historic examples, consider Alexander the Great. Or for something more modern; Margaret Thatcher also lead for 11 years and was about as popular as John Howard at the end. And French President Francois Mitterrand was hugely popular for his first seven year term, which was probably unfortunate because it meant he got elected for a again. By the end of that, the scales had swung just as far in the opposite direction. Once again that ten year mark proved to be the ‘used by’ date.
What this means is that a smart and wise leader would recognise the absolute constraints they are obliged to work within and dealing with. While your political career may be rather longer, you aren’t going to be at the top for more than ten years. Within that time you are going to have to have achieved whatever you set out to do. And might I suggest you should also have developed a good succession strategy as well. The powerful though don’t like to be succeeded of course, and there lies the quandary. Not only do they get used to the perks of office, they get used to having people do what they tell them to do. They also get comfortable in having things done their way and in the conceit of their ego. If you know you are good, and ipso-facto your position demonstrates you must be, why would you stop doing what you are the best at? The ultimate and unassailable answer to that is; because you were the best – ten years ago. Not only are you older, but the world has moved on too. Whether we want to admit it or not we are on a bell curve. When we hit our peak, the only way from there is down, very slowly at first, but ohh so assuredly and with ever increasing speed. Sports stars are typically very aware of this dynamic and when they hit the backside of the curve they move on, or are moved on, in pretty quick order. Unfortunately the problem with politics and power is that there often isn’t really any easy process to remove the deadwood. They have the incentives, power and ability to hang on to their positions.
There are very good reasons for generational change. On the face of it, you could look on the young and say; what do they know, they are babes in the woods and are too foolhardy and ignorant to be trusted with important decisions. There is even some truth to that. And yet millions of years of life and evolution have decided that the older members of a population need to be removed to make way for their children. Certainly knowledge and wisdom may be passed down, but the staid and ossified older personalities need to pass away. The young are ignorant of much, but they don’t just bring youthful energy, they also don’t carry much of the old baggage. They will take things as they find them, not as they remember them. Life moves on – so to speak. Politics needs to do that too. Both politics and people are of a time. As a generation moves into adulthood and into power, then they need to address the issues of their own time, which actually typically means the issues that their parents bequeathed to them by their own failings. While that may sound a bit harsh, because yes in general everyone does the best they can with what they’ve got, unfortunately that’s not necessarily saying much either. Often the solving of one problem simply raises another. And unfortunately in politics also, doing your best can often mean the best for themselves for as long as they can get away with it. That has a logic that can work to exclude any other logic.
I am suggesting that “of their time” in politics means up to ten years, and even that is dependant on markedly superior leadership. So enter in to the arena, do your ten years max, do the specific job that is relevant to your time and place, and then move aside. There are others that need their time in the sun too in order to achieve what needs to be done. It is a bit of a zero sum game in many ways. If one generation stays around too long, it means they have eaten into the time of the next generations. To hang on in politics too long is to eat your young. From my perspective that is substantially the position we find ourselves in now. It is all fine and good for a while but eventually you will find that there is no-one left who can do those little things like pay for your pension. Again, one of those little signs and tell-tails that the system on so many levels is bankrupt. Yes, I know the problems of the world and the financial system has to do with more than just political generational change, but politics and power are a complex nexus and you would be surprised how many old faces and actors are moving behind the scenes. Either you have “appropriate” systems to deal with this sort of issue, or you have to rely on death to eventually sort out the playing field one way or the other. That has a tendency to be all a bit distressingly random.