The triumphant triumvirate of arrested adolescence
Published in: Daily Mail
Dr Vince Cable, the Lib Dem politician who oozes ambition from every pore, has made it clear that he wants to succeed Nick Clegg as leader of the party, and in passing has also taken a pop at the cult of youth.
It would be ungenerous to observe that no one should entrust Dr Cable with the management of a whelk stall.
Nor would it be kind to point out that, in general, Lib Dems appear to move seamlessly from adolescence to second childhood, by-passing the bit that comes in between.
Nevertheless, the Business Secretary — a veritable spring chicken of 69 — has made a telling point about the advantages of age in political life. Claiming that the ‘worship of youth is subsiding’, he suggested that there is now a greater appreciation for ‘people who have had some insight into what is going on’.
His barb was doubtless aimed not just at 45-year-old Mr Clegg, but also at 45-year-old David Cameron and 41-year-old George Osborne.
For if there is one characteristic which they all share, it is an absence of experience of the real world. All three appear to be singing from the same shallow songbook. Not so much the Three Tenors, then, as the Three Tyros.
This is because none of them appears to have done anything much apart from politics and PR.
After graduating from Cambridge, Nick Clegg worked for the European Commission and a political lobbying outfit before morphing into an adviser and speech-writer for the then European Trade commissioner Leon Brittan. Oh, and he also did a number of internships, in addition to working as a skiing instructor.
Soon after graduating from Oxford, George Osborne went to work for the Conservative Party and then became a ministerial special adviser. Oh, and he also worked part-time entering the names of dead people on to an NHS computer and re-folding towels in Selfridges’ bathroom fittings department.
As for David Cameron, he went straight from Oxford into Conservative Central Office before serving as a Treasury special adviser — and then took a few years out of Westminster to work as a PR for Carlton TV before plunging back in as an MP.
In other words, none of them had more than a passing acquaintance — if that — with the world outside the gilded bubble of the political, PR and media club.
They never got their hands dirty in the messy tedium of managing or being managed; never sweated over a business needing to break even.
They never had their noses rubbed in the knock-backs and compromises, hopes and fears of those who give barely a passing thought to politics, but who struggle with finding a decent school for their children, or a hospital that won’t actually kill them through incompetence or an absence of elementary hygiene.
And my, how it shows. The Three Tyros appear to know very little other than how to plot backroom strategies for out-manoeuvring their opponents in order to clamber up the greasy pole and stay there.
They are certainly skilled in debating and in striking a pose. Indeed, it is as if the country is being run from a university junior common room, with all the level of maturity and knowledge of the world of a callow undergraduate. They are the triumphant triumvirate of arrested adolescence.
And so when it comes to actually running the economy which does not behave according to plan, or facing up to the need to make hard choices over the EU or immigration or human rights law, they duck the challenge and opt instead for the heartless, incoherent and irrelevant posturing of granny taxes, gay marriage and House of Lords reform.
It is surely, above all, their striking absence of ‘insight into what is going on’, which explains why they have fallen into one elephant trap after another.
Only recently, we learned that before the last election, a friend remarked how odd it felt that his old chum Dave might soon be Prime Minister. Mr Cameron reportedly looked at him bemused and said: ‘How hard can it be?’
To which the answer should surely have been: ‘Very hard indeed for someone who asks a question which reveals such an alarmingly shallow grasp of reality.’
Of course, age does not necessarily bring depth — but it does at least bring the wisdom that comes from experience.
At the weekend, the former Tory Chancellor Lord Lawson weighed in against the current party leadership. David Cameron, he warned, should stop ‘modelling himself’ on Tony Blair and learn instead from Margaret Thatcher, and George Osborne should give up his role as the Tories’ election strategist.
Such advice has weight because Lord Lawson speaks with the authority of someone who has himself fought in the political trenches. That authority is what both the current Prime Minister and Chancellor so sorely lack.
What makes the situation even worse is that these tyro politicians have surrounded themselves by a phalanx of young special advisers.
Some time back, Ken Clarke — himself a big beast in the political jungle — scoffed at the ‘kids’ who filled these roles.
Once again, you don’t have to agree with Mr Clarke’s views or even admire him as a politician for his taunt to hit home.
It’s one reason why the House of Lords is so effective as a constitutional check and balance: peers are generally appointed on the grounds of their proven experience (yet another reason for not mucking about yet further with the upper House).
In the past, some of Britain’s greatest politicians were middle-aged or elderly before reaching high office. Disraeli became Prime Minister at 63, Gladstone at 58 and Churchill at 65.
The Victorian era was dominated by elderly politicians. No surprise, therefore, that it was one of the most successful periods of British history.
By contrast, our society is dominated by a cult of youth which has turned everything upside down ever since the Sixties — the point at which the infants took over the nursery and arrested adolescence became enshrined as the precondition of (generally failing) policy.
Hitherto regarded as life’s apprentices, the young suddenly became its arbiters. Parents were transformed from authority figures into supplicants for their children’s approval. Teachers took a back seat as ‘child-centred’ education turned pupils into autonomous ‘learners’.
Popular culture realised that teenagers were mass consumers and adapted its products to suit. Pop music, fashion, newspapers and magazines all eagerly courted the ‘yoof’ market.
With the boundaries blurred between childhood and adulthood, politics itself is now in danger of being infantilised, with Labour’s Children’s Minister Lisa Nandy suggesting her party should pledge at the next election to lower the voting age to 16. Ms Nandy herself has reached the ripe old age of 32.
Unsurprisingly, this youth-fixated society correspondingly fails to treat the elderly with respect. Other societies venerate their elders; Britain treats them as nuisances who have passed their sell-by date.
At its core, this cult of youth is all about irresponsibility. The essence of childhood is freedom from the duty to make responsible choices. That should be the role of adults — but today, they seek instead the freedom that children enjoy.
In his book Youth And Age, the 16th-century thinker Francis Bacon observed that ‘young men are fitter to invent than to judge, fitter for execution than for counsel; and fitter for new projects than for settled business . . . the errors of young men are the ruin of business; but the errors of aged men amount but to this: that more might have been done, or sooner.’
It could be the Coalition’s epitaph.