June 28, 2021   6 mins

It’s 70 years this summer since the Festival of Britain, the strange semi-utopian, semi-bucolic jamboree organised to cheer everybody up after the rigours of the Second World War. That means it’s also seventy years since the occasion of one of my favourite Winston Churchill stories — the great man’s first encounter with an escalator.

The escalator in question had been installed in the South Bank’s futuristic Dome of Discovery, allowing visitors to travel quickly up to the special gallery on the solar system.

The story goes that when the saviour of the free world arrived at the Dome of Discovery that grey, drizzly day in May 1951, he rode up with the other dignitaries, looking around him in childlike delight, got off at the top, and then rode down to the bottom again. Then he went up again. Then he went down again. And again, and again.

The point of this story — apart from proving that the national-hero-on-the-Tube scene in Darkest Hour is a total invention — is that it reminds you how ridiculously old Churchill was. He was 70 when the voters rejected him in 1945, and by any sensible standard ought to have retired then and there. When he returned to office six years later, he was about to celebrate his 77th birthday.

He was a great man, of course, but as a dyed-in-the-wool Victorian, he was an absurd candidate to lead Britain into the new challenges of the atomic age. And not surprisingly, given his champagne-sodden lifestyle, he was not in the best of health. A severe stroke in May 1953 almost killed him, yet still he refused to step down. Only in April 1955 did he finally agree to go, ten years too late.

Which brings me to poor Joe Biden, whose health has been somewhat under the spotlight this summer. I say “health”, but what I really mean is his age. As it happens, I have a lot of time for Sleepy Joe, a politician with brains, decency and the common touch. But let’s be honest: he should have been President at least a decade ago.

The American media, especially on the Right, had a field day with Biden’s gaffes during his summer travels. He called Vladimir Putin “President Trump” – something of a Freudian slip — having previously called his own Vice President “President Harris”. At the G7 in Cornwall he got mixed up between Syria and Libya, confused Covid and Covax, the world vaccine programme, and got himself into a laughable mess when he jokingly reprimanded Boris Johnson for not introducing the President of South Africa. In fact, Boris had just done so seconds earlier. By the time Biden returned home, a group of Republican congressmen were even calling for him to undertake a “cognitive test”, having presumably booked him into a maximum-security retirement home beforehand.

All this might seem very unfair. Politicians make so-called gaffes all the time, and Biden’s slips weren’t especially glaring. The problem, though, is that Biden is very old, and looks it. He’s 78, fully eight years older than the next oldest US president, Donald Trump, and almost a decade older than the bronze medallist, Ronald Reagan. This might be a dreadful thing to say, but when I watched him give his inaugural address in the January cold, I was half-expecting to see him keel over half-way through.

When reporters ask Biden about his great antiquity, he often quotes the former baseball pitcher Satchel Paige, who played his last professional game two weeks before his sixtieth birthday. “Age is a question of mind over matter,” Paige supposedly said, though he almost certainly didn’t. “If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

That’s a nice line, but it’s too glib. Age does matter. If a younger man had been in Downing Street in the early Fifties, a man who knew that escalators had been around in London for more than half a century, then he might also have known that Britain’s industrial economy badly needed radical modernisation.

And there are other obvious examples. When William Gladstone took office for the fourth time as Prime Minister in 1892, he was a staggering 82, simply too old to lead effectively. In the words of his admiring biographer Roy Jenkins, he was half-deaf, half-blind and “over the hill”, the conduct of political business patently “beyond his capacity”.

“I live in fog that never lifts,” Gladstone said. He too was a great man. But if he’d been able to see and hear, isn’t it possible that Britain would have entered the 1900s in a better condition?

In politics, as in life, looks matter. The fact that Fifties Britain was led by a man who marvelled at the sight of an escalator spoke volumes about its obsession with its own past and inability to embrace the post-war world. And even if Mr Biden really is a dynamo of energy and master of detail, as his supporters insist, his appearance hardly proclaims the virtues of youth and vigour. Indeed, if the United States’s enemies wanted to paint it as a decadent, decaying, senescent society, unable to move on from its Cold War heyday, then no casting agency could have supplied better rivals than Biden and Trump, two ageing prize-fighters who made their names when Bill Gates was still at college.

Why has the United States, so often the herald of modernity, become such a gerontocracy? There’s no easy answer, but an obvious place to start is a political system that rewards years of contacts, lobbying and fundraising, instead of promoting young blood and fresh ideas. To put it bluntly, its politicians are so elderly because its politics are so corrupt. In that respect, the obvious comparison is the Soviet Union when Biden and Trump were in their twenties — another self-consciously youthful society that had simply grown old.

Under Leonid Brezhnev, who stayed in the Kremlin until his death at the age of 75 in 1982, people often joked that the USSR was being led by a dead man. There was a lot of truth in that. By his final years, Brezhnev had suffered several strokes and at least one near-fatal heart attack and was also afflicted with emphysema, memory loss, bronchitis and gout. Contemporary news footage shows his aides manoeuvring him about like a department-store dummy, not unlike the heroes of the film Weekend at Bernie’s. No doubt Brezhnev, too, would have insisted that he had the wisdom of experience, that age was just a number, and that you’re as young as you feel. Then he ordered the invasion of Afghanistan.

There is, of course, an obvious rejoinder to all this. At the first US presidential debate in 1984, the 73-year-old Ronald Reagan put in a dreadful performance against the 56-year-old Walter Mondale, forgetting that he was in Kentucky rather than Washington and admitting that he sometimes felt “confused”. At the second debate a fortnight later, one of the interrogators asked him about it, and Reagan had the perfect comeback. “I will not make age an issue of this campaign,” he said, trying but not quite succeeding to hide a smile. “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Even Mondale roared with laughter, and that was that.

Although it would be satisfying to end with some sweeping conclusion about youth always trumping experience — or vice versa — the truth is that there isn’t really an obvious pattern. Do younger politicians make rash mistakes? Yes, if they’re Tony Blair, reordering the world around him. No, if they’re Barack Obama, a case study in passivity.

Should you weep and wail if your paramount leader looks like an extra from One Foot in the Grave? Maybe not. When Deng Xiaoping won an internal power struggle to become master of China at the end of 1978, he was 74. A chain smoker, he was very far from being one of life’s gym bunnies. He was, in other words, one of the last people you would pick to catapult his country into a new age of economic reform and breakneck change. But we know what happened next.

And here’s an even better example. The most celebrated doge in Venice’s history, the enormously cynical Enrico Dandolo, was 85 when he took power in 1192, and ruled for another thirteen years. Dandolo might have lost his eyesight, but he had all the ruthless greed of a much younger man. He kicked out foreign residents, launched an attack on the Dalmatian coast and, most infamously, bankrolled and orchestrated the Fourth Crusade’s sack of Constantinople, one of the most appalling atrocities in medieval history. Among the looted treasures were the four Horses of St Mark, which stand in Venice to this day. So every tourist postcard is, in its way, a tribute to this malignant but undeniably vigorous old man.

In any case, when it comes to politics and age, perhaps the venerable antiquity of our leaders is the wrong question. Who cares how old Biden is? It’s the age of his voters that’s the real problem. Surely now, after all we’ve been through, it’s time to wake up to the realities of the modern world, and to reform the age at which young people can vote. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: 18 is far, far too young. But I suppose that’s an argument for another day.

Dominic Sandbrook is an author, historian and UnHerd columnist. His latest book is: Who Dares Wins: Britain, 1979-1982