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On our shoulders

Our politics is such a shallow game that any senior British politician who has read a book is apt to be considered cerebral, and if he has read two, feted as an original thinker.

17 February 2010

12:00 AM

17 February 2010

12:00 AM

The Pinch — How The Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future — And Why They Should Give It Back David Willetts

Atlantic Books, pp.336, 18.99

Our politics is such a shallow game that any senior British politician who has read a book is apt to be considered cerebral, and if he has read two, feted as an original thinker. So I had never quite dispelled the suspicion that the nickname ‘Two-Brains’ might have been awarded to David Willetts for no better reason than that he knew his stuff, could talk like an academic, had a lively sense of the complexities of things, and sounded a little vague. I had wondered whether he might be one of those men to whom the learned footnote meant more than the useful conclusion.

This book goes a long way towards dispelling such suspicions. The Pinch is a powerful personal credo, a mine of information, and a solid and remorseless argument. It is the sort of work that gives intellectual spine to a whole political career. It assembles facts, it makes brave judgments, and it offers a conclusion that has large, obvious and quite immediate consequences for policy.

That Mr Willetts does not spell these out in manifesto terms is hardly surprising. He will be a Cabinet minister in a few weeks. The Conservative manifesto is for many to propose, and for David Cameron to dispose, and it is fair to say that Willetts has trodden very carefully (and with enviable skill) to avoid pre-empting it. But the response of some of Willetts’s reviewers — that his book is long on analysis and short on prescription — is wrong. Willetts’s proposals are no less evident for being implicit. No senior Tory colleague, not even Michael Gove, has gone further towards describing his political and moral compass. What does a compass do if not to point direction?

The Pinch makes that direction clear. Willetts believes that the prisms through which we have traditionally viewed politics and explained policymaking — Left vs Right, haves vs have-nots, capital vs labour, continuity vs change — are missing an explanation that stares us in the face. There is in human society an ancient and enduring contention between what you might call the three tenses of man: who/what is, who/what was, and who/what will be.

Placed in today’s context, we who were born in the post-war baby-boom, the 20 years from 1945, are what is; we bestride the economy, the polity, commentary and the ballot box. We outnumber, out-earn, out-own, out-shout and (in coalition with the elderly) out-vote the rest. The elderly are what was, and are relatively lucky to have preceded a bulge in the productive population — their children — which is now there to sustain them.

The young of 2010 are what will be. Our generation, Willetts argues, is involved in an unwitting conspiracy to mortgage their future so we boomers can live better and pay ourselves more. We have broken open the piggy-bank. We have enjoyed the fat years, leaving only debt for the decades that lie ahead. Education, infrastructure, the accumulation of healthy Exchequer surpluses, the stewardship of the environment … these are what this generation owes the next. Willetts believes we are reneging on that debt.

That is the nub of it. ‘The central argument in the book is that we are not attaching sufficient value to the claims of future generations.’

The Pinch, however, ranges a great deal wider. I would almost say ‘rambles’ except that the author’s logic is always careful, his terms defined, his evidence set out and his tangent from the central argument clear. But in the course of supporting it he offers an engaging, sometimes startling tour d’horizon of research and thinking in socio-political theory since David Hume and Adam Smith. I was fascinated by his review of the (counter-intuitive) evidence that England never has been an exemplar of the extended family or of a rooted and cradling social structure: quite the contrary.

I would recommend Willetts’s chapters, too, to any student of social ethics. His exposition of theories of human altruism is beautifully clear — and no worse for being couched in the good-natured, chatty and unconfrontational style that has characterised his entire political career — perhaps unhelpfully among the football mob that passes for his political audience and peers.

Neither here nor in his masterly assembly of the academic literature on inter-generational economics, does Willetts claim to be breaking new ground. He is extensive and generous in his attributions. Where I think this book aims to move the debate on is in applying — in the field of politics, and in the language of journalists and politicians — a body of research and theory that is well known in the academic world, but pointless until taken forward into the world of policy.

This book’s argument stands comparison with the speeches and treatises of Sir Keith Joseph in the late 20th century. Like Joseph’s, Willetts’s analysis has consequences. Oddly enough, and in the most thoughtful sense of the word, this book moves David Willetts somewhat to the ideological Right. It is hard to see how its author could be other than a passionate advocate of raising the retirement age further and faster, an implacable sceptic about private finance initiatives, or a doughty promoter of capital investment in infrastructure projects at the expense of current spending on social welfare. Let us see.

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