People often complain about the professionalism of politics today, but the truth is, at the top level, our politicians aren”t half professional enough. They lack staying power, and when they receive a check, they fold. So in Britain an absurd convention now rules; it decrees that defeated prime ministers or party leaders give up and throw their cards on the table. A lost election signifies pretty well the end of a career.
It used not to be like this. The British people rejected Winston Churchill in 1945 when he was a few months short of his 71st birthday. He might reasonably have said, “I have done the state some service,” and retired. That was what his wife wanted him to do. But the Old Lion glowered and carried on as leader of the opposition. He lost another election, this time narrowly, in 1950. He remained at his post and became prime minister again in 1951. I can”t think that any party leader today would show such staying power.
Ted Heath was elected Conservative leader in 1965. He failed to win the general election the following year. But he clung on to win in 1970, defeating the incumbent prime minister, Harold Wilson. And Wilson didn”t walk away either. On the contrary, he became prime minister again in 1974 before leaving of his own accord two years later. As for Heath, though embittered when he lost a party leadership election to Margaret Thatcher, he chose to remain a member of Parliament for almost thirty years more, and the speeches he made in the Commons were far better and generally more sensible than those he had made as Tory leader and prime minister.
For a truly professional politician, electoral defeat is a setback, but not the end of a career. Look at Richard Nixon. He lost the presidential election in 1960. Two years later he was defeated again when he ran for election as governor of California. When at the press conference that followed he told journalists they wouldn”t have Nixon to kick around anymore, many thought that was the end of his career. It wasn”t, of course. Nixon was a real pro. He won the presidential election in 1968 and again in 1972. Even the disgrace that followed Watergate didn”t finish him. He ended as a respected and influential elder statesman. They don”t make them that tough now.
Consider Ed Miliband. Elected Labour leader in 2010, he failed to win the 2015 general election, and promptly resigned the party leadership. Why? His campaign hadn”t been disastrous. He might have learned from defeat and come back stronger. Any sports coach will tell you that losing can be valuable, that players learn more from losing than from winning. The same is, or should be, true of politicians. Defeat can teach lessons and make you stronger. Churchill had so many setbacks over his long career that when Robert Rhodes James wrote a biography that went up to only 1939, he gave it the subtitle “A Study in Failure.” But Churchill remained devoted to politics, and without this record of failure, would he have been the man he was in 1940? It seems unlikely. Equally it seems certain that a modern politician forced to endured so much failure would walk away from politics to make money.