Whimsy more than anything else this morning.
I’m no great Boris Johnson fan – except perhaps as newspaper columnist and (presumably) after-dinner speaker – but I am a fan of Brexit, and really hope (against hope) that he is able to make it happen, in a way that really sets the UK free of the European Union. Between his own inconstancy and the opposition of much of “elite” Britain, what actually happens is anyone’s guess. One possibility – not inconsistent with any of the possible Brexit outcomes – is that Johnson isn’t Prime Minister for very long at all. A vote of no-confidence could be lost. An election could happen (and at present UK polls have the vote split four relatively even ways, in an FPP system).
I was once a close student of interwar British politics (as a geeky teenager I knew the make-up of every interwar Cabinet) and knew that Johnson’s only predecessor as a foreign-born Prime Minister, Bonar Law, hadn’t lasted long – only 211 days in 1922-23. But although Law had the shortest tenure for a very long time (only one other British Prime Minister since 1900 has served less than a year), he didn’t have the shortest tenure. In 1827, George Canning last only 119 days (and then died) and his successor Viscount Goderich lasted not much longer, only 130 days.
And it was here that the contrast with New Zealand struck me. We’ve had Premiers and Prime Ministers since 1856, 40 of them in total. Here is the list of shortest-serving Prime Ministers.
|Henry Sewell||13 days|
|Francis Bell||20 days|
|William Hall-Jones||57 days|
|Mike Moore||59 days|
|Thomas McKenzie||104 days|
|George Waterhouse||143 days|
|Daniel Pollen||224 days|
Some were in the very earliest days (Sewell was the first Premier), but four of them were in the 20th century, one as recent as 1990. (There were other people who served very short terms who also served longer terms – Keith Holyoake in 1957 is the most recent example – so these statistics are for total time as Premier/Prime Minister.)
Why the difference? I’m not sure. For most of our history, our political systems look pretty similar – up to 1950 we even had two chambers – although they’ve diverged more recently (MMP here, the Fixed Parliaments Act in the UK). At least since 1890, as the party system crystallised, we haven’t changed governments particularly frequently. Perhaps a three year term makes a difference – Mike Moore and Keith Holyoake (and John Marshall and Bill English who served a bit longer, but less than a year) each took office on the brink of an election. But I suspect most of the difference must be more idiosyncratic. For example, Hall-Jones and Bell took office (effectively as acting Prime Ministers, but legally as PM) when Seddon and Massey died in office. But when Savage and Kirk died in office, there was simply an acting Prime Minister until the Labour Party confirmed a new permanent leader.
It turns out that deaths in office is one of the things that distinguishes the UK record from New Zealand’s. Seven UK Prime Ministers have died in office – one assassinated – but the most recent of those was in 1865 (Palmerston). Others – including Law – died just a few days after leaving office. But in New Zealand the following Prime Ministers have died in office, all after 1865 – Ballance, Seddon, Massey, Savage, and Kirk (and none of them particularly old). Ward died fairly shortly after leaving office. So much for the young and robust new country….
In a similar vein – and I did say this post was whimsical – look at how long British and New Zealand Prime Ministers have lived for. James Callaghan and Alec Douglas-Home lived to 92, Churchill to 90, Edward Heath to 89, and Margaret Thatcher to 87. All of them lived longer than anyone who has ever served as Prime Minister of New Zealand. George Grey remains our longest-lived Prime Minister, and he died (at 86) in the 19th century (1898). He is closely followed by Walter Nash, also 86, who died more than 50 years ago. The next three – Robert Stout and the short-serving Bell and Hall-Jones – were 85 and 84, but they were (at minimum) almost a century ago, and we (rightly) make a lot of improving life expectancies. If Jim Bolger lives for another two years, he will overtake Grey, but even then the UK will still have had five second half of the 20th century Prime Ministers who will have lived longer than anyone who has held office as Prime Minister in New Zealand.
And finally, reflecting on increasing life expectancies, improved health care, and renewed expectations of people working later in life, I was struck by this mini-table (like almost everything in this post, thanks to Wikipedia)
Nash was the most recent of those and he left office almost 60 years ago now. The Brits also beat us for the oldest person to leave office as PM (Gladstone).
Not much about US politics appeals to me, but it is interesting to note the contrast with the US where age doesn’t appear to be such a barrier to (much more demanding) office, be it Pelosi (79), Trump (73), Biden (76), Sanders (77), Reagan (69 when he became President), Warren (70) or whoever.
The US does look a bit idiosyncratic – but should it, given life expectancy etc? Perhaps there is still time for Don Brash (78)?