1 August 2011

Top Politicians: Birth Order and Handedness

David Cameron recently guest-edited The Big Issue, and in its My Younger Self column he remarked that in his childhood he had lived in the shadow of his brother. Alex Cameron (47, and three years older than David) is a successful criminal barrister in London (SEE UPDATE 9 November 2015 below).  By coincidence Tony Blair’s brother, William (61, and three years older), has also been a barrister and is now a judge in the Queen’s Bench Division. Gordon Brown’s brother, John (62, and two years older), is less distinguished, as was John Major’s (PM before Blair), late brother Terry, (10 years older). Before Major, Margaret Thatcher had an older sister, as did her predecessor as PM, James Callaghan. This means that the last first-born child to win a general election in the UK was Harold Wilson in 1974, when Edward Heath, another first-born, left office having beaten Wilson in 1970.  

Probably the best-known younger brother in current British politics is the Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, who in a surprise outcome last year beat his first-born older brother, David (four years senior), in the contest for leadership of the Labour party. So is there something about younger brothers, (or more generally, sibling birth order), that seems to take them to the very top in modern politics?

The significance of birth order seems to be disputed within psychology, but work which might shed some insight has been undertaken at University of California, Berkeley by Dr Frank J. Sulloway. He concludes:
In general, firstborns tend to be more conscientious than their younger siblings—mainly because they serve as surrogate parents—whereas laterborns tend to be more agreeable, extraverted, and open to experience (in the sense of being unconventional). Measured as direct sibling comparisons, birth-order differences in personality are somewhat larger than those associated with age but somewhat smaller than those associated with gender. The extent to which these birth-order effects may be inflated by stereotypes is still an open question. So too is the question of whether such stereotypes reflect real behavioral propensities, and whether these stereotypes may also augment these propensities.
Looking at recent British political history, it would be tempting to trot out the views (as quoted by Sulloway) of Freud’s erstwhile colleague, Alfred Adler, in the 1920s: firstborns as “power-hungry conservatives”, middleborns as competitive, and youngest children as spoiled and lazy, but Sulloway offers no support for this.

There is, however, a contrast between British and American experience since the early 1970s, although it may just be the spurious product of small number statistics. Of the ten presidential elections since the early 1970s, six have been won by first-born sons, the last won by a second-born, George HW Bush, being in 1988. The majority of US presidents have been first-borns, and so far all have been male.
More intriguing is something revealed in a photograph of David Cameron and Barack Obama during the latter’s visit to the UK earlier this year – they are both left-handed. Since the Second World War only Callaghan and Cameron have been left-handed out of 13 Prime Ministers. In the US five (or six) out of the last 12 presidents, four (or five) of last seven, have been left-handed. (Reagan wrote right-handed but could well have been forced to do at school in the 1920s, and in reality been left-handed.)

About 10% of males are left-handed, so the number of PMs is about right but the incidence among US presidents seems surprising. One theory seems to be that the left hemisphere of the brain generally handles language, but in left-handed people, this division is less pronounced, leading to enhanced communication skills.

So, one could theorise wildly that to get to be Prime Minister by winning elections, you need to be extravert and unconventional, and perhaps can then cope better than first-borns with the adversarial nature of the House of Commons.  To become US head of state, the ability to project conscientiousness and presidentiality, and make use of exceptional communication skills during an enormous marketing campaign are required. Of course, in reality, only very unusual (or perhaps rather weird) people get anywhere near the top anyway.

By the way, is Ed Miliband left-handed?


Analysis of some family size statistics quoted by Naomi Finch of the Social Policy Research Unit att the University of York (UK):

suggests that about 50% of children in the UK are firstborn.

Blair’s two closest consiglieri, Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell, both have older brothers (two in Campbell’s case).

The two current favourites to succeed David Cameron, Boris Johnson and George Osborne, are both firstborns.

UPDATE 9 November 2015

Reading Call Me Dave by Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott has made me aware of Cameron's having an older sister as well as brother.  So any conclusion which can be drawn should be confined to middle-born not just second-born.  Jeremy Corbyn is the youngest of four sons ...

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