“Wilderness years” are a period of time in a politician’s career when he or she is not holding a position of power. This may happen because the politician has left his or her political party or has taken a hiatus from politics altogether.
The implication is that the wilderness years serve to prepare politicians for their next stage.
The phrase is more often used in the United Kingdom than in the United States. It is often associated with Winston Churchill, the former Prime Minister. Churchill himself referred to the 1930s as the time when he was “in the wilderness.”
In 1930, Winston Churchill’s political party – the conservatives – had been voted out of power. Churchill was still a member of parliament, but he no longer held a position in the administration. His political views, especially his opposition to Indian self-rule, also made him seem out of step with the time.
Churchill spent much of the 1930s in his cottage in Kent, writing books and articles. Maurice Ashley, who worked for Churchill during those wilderness years, paints a vivid picture of life with the great man in semi-retirement. (Ashley noted, “I must he one of the very few people still alive who knew him’ intimately at that time, which is sometimes described as his days in the wilderness.”)
Churchill’s wilderness lifestyle resembles that of a college student, although with far more luxury. Churchill apparently spent a long time each day reading newspapers in bed and dictating letters to his secretaries before finally getting up and beginning his day. He typically worked on his book in the afternoons and then enjoyed a long, boozy dinner before engaging in an all-night debate about politics with his staff. Ashley notes that he was usually up until 3AM drinking, smoking, and discussing policies which he abandoned in the morning.
Finally in 1939, as Britain entered into war against Germany, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain appointed Churchill First Lord of the Admiralty. This effectively ended his wilderness years.
Of course, Churchill was not the only politician to have wilderness years. Abraham Lincoln experienced something similar, according to the historian Sydney Blumenthal. As the Washington Post, reviewing Blumenthal’s book, wrote, “…just as Winston Churchill had his “wilderness years” to ready himself for bigger things, so did Lincoln. In 1860, five years after the Whig Party collapsed, Lincoln was elected president. How he emerged from that wilderness — how “he entered his wilderness years a man in pieces and emerged on the other end a coherent steady figure” — is the story Blumenthal tells with panache and understanding.”
Lincoln’s wilderness years, like Churchill’s, happened when his country was on the brink of a major war. In 1849, the young Lincoln left Congress to move back to Illinois and practice law again. The country was in turmoil, with the question of slavery dividing both politicians and ordinary citizens. Even Lincoln’s political party, the Whig party, was in crisis and seemed about to dissolve. When Lincoln left Congress, he did not know whether he’d ever get involved in politics again.