I have been reading 39 Ways To Save The Planet by the BBC journalist Tom Heap, which includes such ingenious suggestions as capturing refrigerant gases in a large box and then destroying the large box. It is an interesting book. I would like to suggest to Tom a 40th way in which we might help to save the planet, as well as saving the country a lot of money: raise the minimum age at which a person can drive a car from 17 years to 25 years. This would immediately reduce our motor vehicle emissions by a little over 5 per cent — no small contribution. It would also reduce the number of accidents on our roads by 18 per cent, consequently saving the taxpayer an estimated £2.9 billion per year, which we could spend on planting trees or building attractive igloos for polar bears.
That is by no means the end of the benefits, environmental or otherwise, of my policy. The way in which we behave is in no small part a consequence of the way in which we are brought up: habits become ingrained. No generation has been so cossetted and pampered as the current crop of 17- to 25-year-olds. These are the young people who, unlike previous generations, did not walk to school or indeed to anywhere else, but were ferried hither and thither by their parents. No wonder, then, that at the age of 17 they are aching to get behind the wheel. Car ownership among the young has started to rise again after two decades of decline. An eight-year interregnum might inculcate in these young people a habit of taking public transport, or cycling, or walking, and with any luck this habit might remain with them after their 25th birthdays. Furthermore, it would send a salutory message to these young people: you are not yet properly adult and you are not to be taken remotely seriously. Nothing you say or do really matters. Your views are beside the point. That is why we will not let you drive a car.
That would also be an excellent corrective to the extraordinary indulgences to which they have been subject at school and university, where rather than being told stuff they are instead encouraged to believe that their feelings are the only things which really matter. My policy would have extra force behind it if we also raised the voting age to 25, but let’s take this one step at a time.
So many of the problems which bedevil our society are the consequence of us suddenly deciding, in about 1963, to take young people seriously. The most obvious is in the dumbing down of our culture, from the various bastard offspring of rock and roll to films almost entirely devoid of dialogue; a culture from which difficulty — and therefore depth and resonance — has been excised.
Then there is cancel culture, where we are enjoined to bow down before the legion of acute sensitivities demonstrated by the young, terrified that they might be triggered into a breakdown. The post-Marxist idiocies which infest so many of our institutions devolve directly from the youth-driven upheavals of 1968, which seemed then as now simply expressions of adolescent petulance.
But more damaging even than these is the problem which last week the Prime Minister decided he must address in his usual boosterish fashion: drugs. Until teenagers were invented in about 1955, the UK had virtually no drug problem whatsoever, nor any of the crimes which now accompany drugs: then, it was a handful of middle-class addicts who got their morphine from the local doctor. The enormous growth in illegal drug use from the end of the 1950s was almost exclusively among young people (and had been initiated in jazz and later rock and roll clubs). Over the following decade it increased almost exponentially, at every single juncture being attendant on one or another youth subsect usually associated with music: cannabis, heroin and cocaine from jazz; amphetamines for the Mods; LSD for the hippies. Today, drug use costs us £20 billion per year, an estimated 20 per cent of people between 16 and 24 have taken drugs, and there are 330,000 opiate or crack addicts in England alone. The figure in 1959 was 454, for the whole of the UK.
Quite clearly, drugs have become embedded in our culture. But it is the manner in which they did so that interests me. While in the 1960s consecutive governments attempted to take a strong line by reworking the 1951 Dangerous Drugs Act, a certain leniency nonetheless began to prevail. Getting out of your head on any one of a range of illegal narcotics was no longer simply an act of hedonism, but a political statement every bit as crucial as marching to Aldermaston or occupying the London School of Economics. Asinine works of literature gave credence to this view, whether it be Carlos Castaneda’s interminable The Teachings of Don Juan (1968) or Timothy Leary’s Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out (1966) — the template having been set by William Burroughs’s Junkie in 1953.
Given an imprimatur by the Beatles and the Stones, taking drugs became a vital part of one’s ‘personal revolution’, the overthrowing of conservative values and a statement of opposition to the status quo, to the squares — to those over the age of 30, in other words. Much as rock music was now being lionised by supposed intellectuals as an art form not merely worthy of comparison to classical music but actually superior to it — and the ludicrous doggerel lyrics subjected to the kind of critical examination which was once afforded to T.S. Eliot — so the appurtenances of this new ‘vibrant’ culture also came to be accepted by a clique which, in later years, would begin to dominate our institutions. Dangerous drugs were no longer the preserve of a few sad and lonely men, to be a little despised and pitied. They were not merely no longer taboo, but central to an ‘edgy’ and oppositional counter-culture which later became the culture.
Marx was wrong, as ever. The base of the drugs trade is not the economics: that’s only the superstructure. The base is a culture which suddenly became amenable to drugs.