By Francis Beckett, author of WHAT DID THE BABYBOOMERS EVER DO FOR US?
If you think Prime Ministers are getting younger, it’s not because you’re getting older. They are getting younger. Tony Blair in 1997, aged 44, was the youngest Prime Minister since 1812, and David Cameron was a year younger than Blair when he entered Number Ten.
That’s the legacy of the sixties, when our obsession with youth began. The baby boomers – those born between 1945 and 1955 – believed when they were young that youth is always right, and the old and the middle-aged are always wrong. The baby boomer generation produced just two Prime Ministers – Blair and Gordon Brown – and there will be no more, because the baby boomers have been skewered by their own obsession with youth. They put an end to the days when Winston Churchill could become Prime Minister and save the nation when he was nearly 70, Clement Attlee could form a great reforming government at the age of 62, and Harold Macmillan could start one of the most successful premierships Britain has known at 62.
The children of the sixties created a society in which a Liberal Party leader – Menzies Campbell - could be drummed out of office for the crime of being as old as Macmillan and Attlee were when they first formed governments, though considerably younger than Churchill.
Tony Blair carried this spirit into government in 1997. It was the reason he renamed the Labour Party 'New Labour'. The nearest he had come to spelling out what he believed was in a book published the previous year called, naturally, New Britain – My Vision of a Young Country. There was no vision at all in it. But it was new. Nothing else mattered.
I remember very clearly – for I am a fully paid up baby boomer – how the music of the sixties helped instil contempt for the old and the middle aged. 'I hope I die before I get old,' shouted Roger Daltrey of The Who, while the Beatles made cruel mockery of the poverty and limited aspirations of their parents in 'When I’m 64'. 'We shall scrimp and save,' sang the Beatles derisively, for that was not something any of the Fab Four would ever have to do again. Bob Dylan told the old to get out of the way and let the young build a new society, for 'The times they are a-changing', though he stopped short of suggesting what they were changing into. ‘What a drag it is getting old’ bemoaned Tony Blair’s musical hero Mick Jagger.
It is no surprise that Britain’s first baby boomer Prime Minister should be a man who had once modelled himself on Mick Jagger, for in the sixties, music was never just music. It was politics too. The musicians of the sixties were hugely influential, and what they told the baby boomers was: all good lies in being young, and fresh, and new.
The baby boomers grew up with a level of freedom and security unknown to all previous generations. Today, they are a much more powerful political force than 55-65-year-olds have ever been before, because we are all living longer. And they are exercising their political muscle on their own behalf. Any government which fails to give the baby boomers what they want, even at the expense of younger generations, is in for severe punishment at the ballot box, according to research from the thinktank Demos. 'Future governments will have to do a deal with the baby boomer generation,' say the report’s authors.
We saw that in the budget. A Chancellor of the Exchequer who was not even born until the sixties were over delivered misery for everyone except the baby boomers. The one piece of good news in the budget was the restoration of the link between state pensions and earnings, which Margaret Thatcher broke in 1980. Osborne’s decision comes just in time for the baby boomer to benefit. If the baby boomers can no longer exercise power themselves, they can still use their voting strength to ensure that when the bad times come, the young are hit first.
But for the children of the baby boomers, and especially those at university, there was only misery. Higher education minister David Willetts has made it clear that students’ fees are going to go up. A lot.
Baby boomers, born between 1945 and 1955, paid no fees at all when they were students in the free and carefree sixties. We have had the best of everything all our lives, and our children are reaping the whirlwind. When I went to university at the end of the sixties, my widowed mother being demonstrably penniless, I received not only free education, but a student grant that I could live on in termtime. For the first time, proletarian and regional accents were heard throughout the British university system, and their owners were no longer made to feel out of place. Neil Kinnock, as he famously told the Labour Party conference, was 'the first Kinnock in 1,000 generations' to have a university education.
We were the beneficiaries of the Attlee settlement of Britain’s affairs. We are the first generation in which pretty well everyone has been taught to read and write fairly fluently. When I got polio (from which I made a complete recovery) my parents did not have to worry about enormous medical bills, as their parents would have done. Aneurin Bevan’s NHS – the greatest civilising measure ever undertaken by a British government – saw me right. The slums were torn down and replaced with council houses built to Aneurin Bevan’s high standard (Bevan was housing minister as well as health minister in Clement Attlee’s post-war government.) We had the freedom that comes from not having to fear starvation if your employer fires you: there were other jobs to go to, and a welfare state to fall back on. These things made possible the freedom of the 1960s.
And what did we do with this wonderful inheritance? We trashed it.
We created a far harsher world for our children to grow up in. It was as though we decided that the freedom and lack of worry which we had inherited was too good for our children, and we pulled up the ladder we had climbed.
Today, ten years into the new millennium, six decades after it its birth, Britain’s welfare state is in the worst danger it has known. Commentators and politicians sneer at it and undermine it while legislators chip away at it. The political will in the Labour Party which created it has gone.
A trip to the hospital is still free, but you pay through the nose to park your car there. More and more bits of the health service – prescriptions, dentists – cost more and more. The principle that no one should die of a treatable disease was breached long ago. For years, no politician could safely criticise the NHS without courting the severest electoral punishment, but now some top Conservatives are saying that the NHS isn’t 'relevant in the 21st century'.
The welfare state is now stuck together with cellotape, starved of money, and struggling under the weight of great, bullying, bureaucratic initiatives designed to give it the appearance of a market, because nothing that does not look like a market is apparently acceptable in the Britain the baby boomers built.
Most capital expenditure for education and health no longer comes from the present-day taxpayer, but from the next generation, because the baby boomers have been too stingy to pay for it. This trick is done by means of the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), a scam for getting the cost of public buildings like schools and hospitals off the present government’s books, and placing them on the books of governments ten or 20 years hence.
Wealth is being sucked up the age ladder. You can now only get mortgages up to two-thirds of your salary (us baby boomers used up the 100% mortgages) so that first time buyers have to save hard for a deposit. Today almost a third of young men between the ages of 20 and 34 – nearly two million of them – live with their parents, mainly because of the lack of homes they can afford. The baby boomers grabbed the houses for investment, and use their homes as ATM machines.
The freedoms the baby boomers fought for, they deny to their children. 'Hoodie' was just a name for a garment in fashion with children and teenagers, until it was demonised by people who were young and fashionable in the sixties.
Education is no longer seen as a good in itself, but as the acquisition of the skills required to swell someone else’s profits. New Labour abolished the higher education department, and placed its responsibilities under the department dealing with business and industry, a pretty good indication of what ministers now think education is for. The new higher education minister, David Willetts, has made several speeches since the election, and has not yet once mentioned any sort of education that does not provide marketable skills.
Prime Minister Harold Wilson saved the baby boomers from having to fight alongside young Americans in Vietnam, though we gave him little thanks for it. When the baby boomer generation formed a government, its Prime Minister, Tony Blair, told lies to the young so that he could send them to fight alongside the Americans in Iraq.
Why did we throw away so lightly the freedom and security our generation enjoyed when young? Partly it was because our parents gave us our freedom, but they did not educate us for freedom. Our schooling may have been free and universal, but it did not give us the equipment to cope with choice. Fifties schools taught us to doff our caps and do as we were told. Teachers, more commonly called masters and mistresses in those days, taught us respect for our 'elders and betters'.
That was how the two baby boomer Prime Ministers, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, spent their schooldays, and it helps explain why the baby boomers produced the most directionless governments Britain has known.
At the end of the sixties, Blair, at a splendid Scottish public school called Fettes, was showing his revolutionary fervour by growing his hair longer than regulations allowed, dodging Fettes masters to drink in the pubs along Rose Street, and being caned regularly by prefects and masters right up to the age of 17.
Brown left a strict grammar school, where he felt much too much pressure was put on the children, to go to Edinburgh University, where he found freedom and power, and triumphantly got himself elected as Rector instead of the elderly establishment figure whom the university bosses wanted.
In the sixties and seventies the baby boomers came out of wretched schools like Fettes into havens of freedom like Edinburgh University, and found a world where, blessedly and unexpectedly, they were allowed to think for themselves, dress how they like, and defer to no one. It was a new world, freer, fresher, fairer and infinitely more fun. But because they had not been educated for this sort of freedom, it went to their heads. They thought it was part of the natural order of things, and they did not make the e3ffort required to preserve it.
Wealth is being sucked up the age ladder. Opinion polls show that the now elderly baby boomers will use their increasing voting power to ensure a comfortable old age for themselves. When the baby boomers were young, they believed society could afford student grants; now they are old, they think it can afford pensions. I say it can afford both – but only if young and old alike learn to care for each other.
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