AAmong the words that will panic the collective British psyche, three are among the most powerful: Christmas, gasoline and winter. Put them together, and you have the perfect ingredients for a crisis, made all the more surreal by the fact that one of its main causes – Brexit – is a word no one in politics wants to mention.
Despite assurances from ministers that the lack of fuel is in our heads, the queues in front of the garages stretch out in the distance. Supermarkets are full of empty shelves; rising energy prices threaten household budgets. Everyone knows that the labor shortages in the UK are dire and that a deficit of 100,000 carriers is really serious.
The government, meanwhile, is once again all over the place, refusing to look at its insanely strict visa rules at first, before announcing another U-turn. We are now, it seems, offering returning EU workers the most Brexity re-incentives: 5,000 tanker and truck drivers, as well as 5,500 ” poultry workers’, will apparently be eligible to work in the UK until Christmas Eve… whereupon, after making sure the holiday season can pass, they will be sent packing.
The headlines of the past week have repeatedly drawn comparisons to the legendary winter of discontent of 1978-79. For a few people, it might also conjure up hope that a Margaret Thatcher-style savior will come sooner or later to clean up the mess. But most seem to recognize by implication that with the endless consequences of Brexit and the effects of the climate crisis, life is going to be filled with turmoil and uncertainty for a long time to come. This, in turn, leads to two questions: Who might have the skills to somehow guide us through all of this? And why don’t our current top politicians inspire much confidence?
The answer to this last question, it seems to me, is partly generational. Shortly after the 2008 crash, I interviewed Denis Healey, the former Labor statesman who had been chancellor from 1974 to 1979, under truly appalling circumstances. When we first met, Gordon Brown was sliding towards possible defeat, while the relatively unresponsive David Cameron and George Osborne braced for power.
Healey’s time as Chancellor, he told me, had been defined as “fucking disaster.” We talked about inflation, strikes, shortages and the falling pound. And about the stress caused by such things: he had developed shingles and repeatedly suffered from colds and flu. “I wanted to be successful at my job,” he said. “It was very tiring, but I had been in the military for five years during the war, so I had learned to put up with it.”
This last point was rather underestimated: his political generation had come of age in the 1930s, had risked his life as the world fell apart (while serving in the Royal Engineers, Healey was a beach master at the Battle of Anzio in 1944), and then played their part both in post-war reconstruction and in the management of the social and political disasters that followed the 1973 oil crisis. brought to light something that politicians today often seem to fail to understand – that power is usually not about big political victories or even modest success, but crisis management, the likelihood of failure and the skills and experience to deal with it.
In addition to recklessness and ideological zeal, Thatcher – who was born in 1925 – looked like the war generation of weight and seriousness, but those qualities began to fade over the John Major years. And when New Labor took power, even though Brown often looked like the kind of politician who defined the postwar decades, Tony Blair announced the arrival of something much more fragile. Healey told me that it ultimately comes down to “bullshit and nothing else”; JG Ballard grasped its essential flavor when, at the end of the Blair years, he wrote about a policy of “fleeting impressions, [and] an illusion of meaning floating on a sea of undefined emotions ”.
And then came people my age, members of what we called Generation X. Overall, the most privileged members of this cohort had cut their teeth in an economically stable world where consumerism was king. . Some were disparaged as lazy, but other Gen X stories tended to include adjectives like ‘pushy’ and ‘motivated’. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, party politics were finally erased of much ideological content, and personal ambition often seemed to be the main motto. Also, among many who considered themselves either brilliant and capable, or told they were, politics seemed to be the last thing anyone wanted to get involved in (“I’ve seen the best minds in my generation accepting jobs on the fringes of the entertainment industry, ”wrote Zadie Smith).
These days, I sometimes wonder if the few members of my generation who have chosen this calling just haven’t gotten the better of it. The years of Cameron, Osborne and Nick Clegg, and the calamities they caused, are a case in point. The same goes for the recent history of the Labor Party: in 2015, in the race to succeed Gen-Xer Ed Miliband and facing three leadership contenders of the same age, Jeremy Corbyn, then 66, presented an image of conviction. and authenticity and won a massive victory. But when the baton was then passed to his younger parliamentary allies, the movement he had spawned collapsed.
In the United States, Gen X’s lack of impact on liberal politics speaks volumes: The Democratic Party’s last nomination contest ended with a choice between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, and hope radical is now based on this inspiring millennial Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer are on the upper end of Gen X; Given that he was born in 1962, Starmer might actually fall into the dreaded baby boomer category. But they and many of their colleagues fit the profile of people tall on ambition but lacking in substance and courage. In search of these things, both seek scripts left behind by previous political generations: Johnson has his Churchill fixation; and in his half-armed clashes with his party’s left and the use of very awkward political slang (repeated mentions of people who “work hard and play by the rules”, the tired cliché of “hard working families”) , Starmer looks like someone who goofs through a play about Blair.
In time, perhaps the younger ones who have come of age in an increasingly troubled world and have no idea how to come back to old and comfortable certainties could do a better job. For now, there is only the disturbing combination of a growing social and economic crisis, and political responses so unconvincing that they suggest the lines of Nirvana that me and my Gen X colleagues once yelled at. , almost as an apology: “Well, whatever.”