Last Tuesday evening, I tweeted the following:
It was, fairly obviously, a joke. But the fallout was extraordinary.
The gag split people politically. Many of those on the right thought the idea hilarious and a good way to scrutinise an activist who MPs were busy fawning over; my critics on the left suggested I should leave Greta alone because of her age. Both sides then proceeded to fight interminably in my mentions for a week. Twitter could barely cope and — to use its argot — I muted the thread and deleted the app before it destroyed my phone.
Some of those who attacked me then set about reporting me to Twitter with a view to getting me banned. But while they failed in doing so, this attempt at silencing those who didn't follow the consensus was revealing. That a political movement requires a child who cannot be scrutinised to lead it speaks volumes.
Thunberg's diagnosis with Asperger syndrome was also used by those who were unhappy with me. But environmental activists who support the teenager are wrong to claim that her condition should put her out of reach of all criticism. Thunberg herself talks of the “gift” of Asperger syndrome. It is good that she is able to appreciate its benefits. But it is right that those who dare to suggest that her proposals should be scrutinised are free to make that point too.
For the avoidance of doubt, using teenagers to front political movements is to be discouraged regardless of who tries it on. In 1977, 16-year-old William Hague spoke at Conservative party conference. Like Thunburg, he was criticised for his voice (‘too Yorkshire’, apparently), but the audience response was nonetheless rapturous. When the then-chancellor Nigel Lawson tried to appoint the boy wonder as a special adviser to Treasury, Margaret Thatcher rejected the proposal outright. ‘This is an embarrassing gimmick and would be deeply resented by many who have financial economic experience,’ she said.
Thatcher was right to do so. After all, children are not policy talismans. They cannot ‘lead’ us. Children are a responsibility to foster, not mini-messiahs. When people criticise the cult surrounding a child advocate, they’re not criticising the child. They’re criticising the narcissistic adults using the child as a vehicle for their own motives.
Helen Dale won the Miles Franklin Award for her first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper