Prime Ministerial whimsy

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)?

19 thoughts on “Prime Ministerial whimsy

  1. Having recently praised the merits of experience that comes with age I worry equally about politicians who are too young or too old. Because Trump’s personality and reputed (well documented too) failings dominate opinion pieces about him nobody mentioned his success despite his old age in an era that worships youth.
    Old but powerful politicians of my lifetime do not inspire me – was Reagan too old by the end of his presidency? Surely De Gaulle, Franco, Castro, Mao and Robert Mugabe stayed on too long (for some of those a single day in power was too long). Our young MPs are usually proof that inexperience is an obstacle – an obstacle that can be overcome but still an obstacle. IMHO NZ politics is seriously hampered by a lack of experienced professionals. I would not vote for Winston Peters, Bill English, Helen Clark or Michael Cullen but in an ideal world they would be in parliament on the back benches providing intelligent comment and putting topical issues into context.


    • In a larger Parliament I would agree with you about Clark, Cullen, English and the like (harder to sustain in our size Parliament). And yes, people can stay around too long, or be too old. On the other hand, there are people like Alan Greenspan and Paul Volcker, both well over 90, with new books out last year. For what it is worth, I think our current PM is too young (I don’t know whether she could ever have grown into the job, but she isn’t capable of doing the job well – as distinct from occupying the office – now. Was Pitt the Younger too young? Quite possibly, but I don’t know enough to say.

      Liked by 2 people

      • It is not the age of our current PM that worries me; it is the inexperience. Yes she meets politicians and seems to have done so since she was a school girl and she regularly meets both businessmen and beneficiaries but the real world of real work is alien to her. If she had spent a decade in a real job such as a nurse working shifts or as a manager of a Pizza parlour or been an engineer responsible for large projects I would have more faith in her. Of course if she doesn’t believe her own hype and listens to good advice she can succeed or at least match the recent standard of PMs.


  2. “but I am a fan of Brexit, and really hope (against hope) that he is able to make it happen”

    Could to lead to the breakup of the UK. The Northern Island border issue is intractable. Scotland is keen on independence & there are murmurings in Wales as well.


    • I lived in Scotland in the late 1960s when Scottish independence moved from a rather jolly fantasy to a solid political movement that was pushed by academics and the media. It developed a rather unpleasant racist fringe that was worryingly from the educated Scots not the working class. It sometimes became more anti-English rather than pro-Scotland [sometimes I find an echo in NZ with those ‘anyone but Australia’ slogans].
      With the UK either in or out of the EU Scotland could achieve independence. Most EU countries will be more worried about a successful independence of Scotland than they will be bothered by Brexit – it would set an example for Bretons, Catalans, Basques, Sardinians, etc.


    • I suspect we can discount Wales for the time being. For NI and Scotland, I’d have thought that at worst Brexit might exacerbate forces already there. It is only a few years since 45% did vote for Scottish independence, and that was when Brexit wasn’t taken as a very serious chance. Independence might be even harder once the UK is out, because Scotland would then be totally on its own in trying to get into the EU (if the latter survives). In Northern Ireland, the combination of demographics (rising non-Protestant population share) and declining salience of religion more generally is weakening the basis for severing the North from the rest of the island of Ireland (but is also weakening the basis for severing Ireland from the UK in the first place).

      I guess I’m a pessimist on the survival of the EU itself, so altho as someone of UK descent I’d support Brexit anyway, I also think it is likely to be a body the UK will be well out of before the new crises break over the euro-area and EU, and potentially break it up.


      • Yes, one can only see the EU surviving if it is federalised, otherwise the single currency will become unmanageable.


      • And I don’t see citizens of EU countries agreeing to meaningful sustained federalisation. And probably nor should they – nations (working together as and when they can) seem a more natural and durable grounding for govt.


      • So you are pessimistic about the EU continuing to survive. Pessimistic about China catching up with the leading OECD countries. Pessimistic about NZ improving its productivity. Gloom and despair. So I looked up the meaning of the name ‘Cassandra’ and according to the urban dictionary their top definition starts “” Cassandra is a natural brown haired person who is very beautiful, very kind, funny, has a beautiful smile, and a very cute laugh. Someone who is perfect In many ways… “”

        EU may change dramatically; in fact is likely to change but judging by the non-Brit Europeans I meet it will continue just as even the americans who despise their political establishment have no thought of the dissolution of their country. They simply cannot imagine a return to fragmentation and hard borders.


      • The name of the blog comes from a quote from Keynes in his Essays in Persuasion where he described his writings as
        “The croakings of a Cassandra who could never influence the course of events in time.” – the capitalised Cassandra in turn being from Greek mythology.

        I turn many of those “pessimisms” the other way around. I’m optimistic that the EU will break up (it would be a good thing for it to do so, but the process of getting there might be traumatic), China could catch up with other advanced countries with some readily identifiable policy and institutional reforms, and NZ could do likewise (different reforms of course). I used to be a genuine pessimist on NZ – unable to see what would or could turn us around, and so the reward of studying the issue more deeply was a hypothesis (not now rebutted after almost 10 yrs) that gives me a satisfying and credible story as to how we could do so much better.

        On your final para, most Americans see themselves as primarily American. Polls suggest most citizens of EU countries see themselves as primarily of that particular country. That could change, but I wouldn’t bet on it myself.


      • In Greek Baby Names the meaning of the name Cassandra is: Unheeded prophetess.

        From the Greek name Κασσανδρα (Kassandra), derived from possibly κεκασμαι (kekasmai) “to excel, to shine” and ανηρ (aner) “man” (genitive ανδρος)

        The first is feminine so the male name would indicate a man who excels.

        Europeans identify with their local area: Bavarians say they are Bavarian not German in the same way Scots refer to themselves as Scot not Briton. The EU is loosening national boundaries; admittedly lagging 150 years behind America and still pre-Civil war. Despite its many faults (well one main fault – basically undemocratic and one medium fault – straining to hold different economies in one currency) it will mutate and continue. The convenience of fresh food crossing borders and the freedom to move to find work or a new life is just too strong. [BTW I was a fence-sitter but guessing I would have voted for Brexit.]


      • To Bob Atkinson, you make the classic oversimplifcation which the remainers and the EU made, that the benefits are so self-evident that there is no point objecting to the EU…

        “….. Despite its many faults (well one main fault – basically undemocratic and one medium fault – straining to hold different economies in one currency) it will mutate and continue. The convenience of fresh food crossing
        borders and the freedom to move to find work or a new life is just too strong….”

        It is just counting the pluses, but ignoring the minuses, and the minuses run far deeper than lack of democracy (this is a symptom of the larger problem). Trade in goods and ease of movement are things that worldwide are generally easier for everyone today, than was the case in the fifties. Australia and NZ via CER show that. The EU cannot claim some unique contribution to that outcome – it would have happened anyway.

        Having a federal or pan-nation government is not evil per se, the question is what kind of government is it? In the EUs case it is a civil law (in the German style) based, social democratic one.. Virtually all of Germany’s institutions map to EU ones and the philosophy and politics of the EU reflects German ones. Concepts of freedom and liberty are irrelevant (always subject to caveats of “limited to the extent necessary in a democratic society”). The social and political model has more in common with East Asian societies than Anglo common law ones. When this is confined to one or a couple of states, this is fine – all part of the great diversity of human life. But the EU cannot leave it like that – that defeats its purpose of being there… Hence the problems which unsurprisingly emanate from the odd man out in the group (UK)….


    • I don’t think the NI border problem is intractable. The EU negotiators have positioned it as such, in order to throw a spanner in the Brexit works. Various EU countries have differences in taxes, rules between each other (even today in NI/ROI there are different excise rates, VAT between the two), without needing hard borders. Switzerland and Norway are both non-EU states with land borders to EU states, and there are technical and bureaucratic solutions to deal with the trade issues posed by this.

      The EU leadership are in my view utterly malevolent – their mad utopian dream means they will gladly throw NI peace under a bus just to make a political point. I get very angry when I hear them saying “we must avoid a hard border to preserve peace” and Brexit will cause conflict – this incites the very idea and on top of it all, they engage in brinksmanship over the point, making a false binary decision, either hard border or no border but NI outside the UK indefinitely… which almost certainly will inflame the situation.

      The Scottish nationalists are mad, but no more so than the many other little states (Croatia, the Baltic states) who shed blood for their freedom from one union, only to join another… The Spanish would no doubt fight hard to keep Scotland out, to make an example to Catalonians.

      The Scots ought to remember, if they had been in the EU, with the Euro (a condition of membership now), in 2010-14, they would be in Greece’s situation now, maybe even worse…

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I met a Tuscan once. He told me that he was from Tuscany and for some silly reason I said, “so you are a Tuscan then” He absolutely loved hearing that from me. He was a member of the free Tuscan movement back home. Places are not what they seem. Local is best for most people.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I am optimistic about Johnson. He has a very positive vision for the future of the UK once it is free of the shackles of the anti-democratic EU. He has assembled an extremely talented Cabinet of people who share his vision. He has signalled he is ready to fight an election from day one with a view to crushing Corbyn and settling his own Party. Oh that we had such leadership here.


  5. I’ll withhold judgement. He is endlessly fluent in almost any cause, but it is never clear which causes he really cares about or how long he’ll stick to them. The sheer intelligence is certainly a welcome contrast to our own govt leadership – you may have seen Matthew Hooton this morning describe our govt as “the emptiest and most incompetent in living memory”, which doesn’t seem far wrong. Our Opposition really isn’t much better, and from neither Ardern nor Bridges has one ever heard a fresh interesting or stimulating angle on any issue whatever.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hooton is right. We have a “government” formed by a bitter old man around a party composed of identity politicians who hold their places through either their gender or race or sexual preference or a combination of any of the above. They are completely bereft of ability. And we have an opposition leader who’s as shallow as a carpark puddle – he wouldn’t even make the “buffoon” grade (the epithet he gratuitously applied to Boris). I am not optimistic for this country.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. An interesting take on Boris from old colleague, Toby Young. Quite the character, authenticity and adventurous. Big contrast with the vile weasel Corbyn, I suspect the Tories and Brexit party would take an election easily. Also a great intellect and child prodigy. Good read over at Quillette.
    Also a podcast has just been put up there; Toby young interview re Boris.

    Liked by 1 person

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