23 February 2011

Why are the middle-aged middle class so apathetic in the crisis?

The Cameron Government is pursuing an economic policy which will impoverish and wreck the lives of huge numbers of people. The pain is every bit as bad as that inflicted by the Thatcher governments in the 1980s. But contrasting now with then reveals two political differences.

First, the Cameron-led coalition of millionaires has avoided the public gloating sadism associated with men like Norman Tebbit, who were so prominent under Thatcher. While “Tebbitism” no doubt appealed to the ranks of Daily Mail readers (then and now), opposing his brand of narrow-mindedness and authoritarianism united the left at a cultural level in the 1980s.

Second, in the 1980s – even as it moved to the right – the Labour Party provided a rallying point through its propagation of a social democratic alternative for Britain. Today the Labour Party is hogtied in its opposition, for on nearly every issue from rampant inequality to tuition fees, the coalition government is proceeding further along a track previous trodden by New Labour.

Yet the middle-aged middle class left which was so anti-Thatcher two decades ago has not just lost a discernable enemy icon and a friend in the Labour Party, it has also been hobbled by its own experience. Let me explain how.

In the 1970s and early 1980s the educated young reacted in horror at the demise of the achievements of the Post War consensus. As politics polarised, much of the educated young attached itself to the left with more ardour than did those in their adulthood in the 1960s. Yet history played a trick. Although the young middle-class left lost politically, at the person level it prospered – and this bred in many a political cynicism and disengagement from politics. That cynicism was fed further as the generation passively witnessed the immorality and betrayals of New Labour; so when the economic turn came at the end of the 2000s, it could respond with nothing but sarcasm and jokes.

One can just hope that the younger generation can do better.

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