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FRANCIS BECKETT: Blame us baby boomers for Brexit

Young people on an anti-capitalist demonstration in London, 1968. Picture: Getty Images - Credit: Redferns

As the UK departs from the EU, FRANCIS BECKETT issues a mea culpa for his generation for allowing it to come to pass.

What grudge did the baby boomer generation have against our children, that we chose vindictively to impose Brexit on them? Why does my generation so dislike our children that we should want, spitefully and pointlessly, to limit their lives and opportunities, as one of our last acts on this earth?

A young British company executive now living in the EU told me that, a decade or so ago, as a student, he did an Erasmus year at a European university. It gave him an international perspective and provided the platform for his successful career. He knew of young people who are now being denied this opportunity, because their countrymen voted for Brexit. Why, he wanted to know, had we kicked away the ladder he climbed?

Three quarters of those aged between 18 and 24 voted to remain in the EU, compared with just four out of 10 of people aged over 65. The three oldest age groups voted leave; the three youngest voted remain.

In December’s general election, the old gave Boris Johnson his majority. Just 28% of those aged 50-59 voted Labour. For 60-69-year-olds it was 22%, and Labour won just 14% per cent of the vote of the 70-plus age group. It was the baby boomers what won it.

We saw ourselves as pioneers of a new world – freer, fresher, fairer and infinitely more fun. The short 1960s – from the release of Love Me Do in 1962 to the student sit-ins and the Paris evenements of summer 1968 – was a wonderful time to be young. People took the young seriously for the first time, which was good. But the young took themselves seriously, which was less good. We thought New Jerusalem was round the corner.

But in 2004, the New Economics Foundation calculated that 1976 was the best year to be alive in Britain, and that it has been downhill ever since. By 2006, in a league table of young people’s wellbeing in 29 European countries compiled by researchers at York University for the Child Poverty Action Group, Britain came 24th. The only countries below Britain were Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania and Malta.

The radicalism of the baby boomers decayed fast, not because it was groundless, but because it was not grounded. What began as the most radical-sounding generation for half a century turned into a random collection of youthful style gurus who thought the revolution was about fashion; sharp-toothed entrepreneurs and management consultants who believed revolution meant new ways of selling things; ultra-leftists, who played games of lefter than thou and invented litmus tests for ideological purity; and Thatcherites, who thought freedom meant free markets, not free people.

We never saw how lucky we were to have Harold Wilson to hate. Without Wilson, the baby boomers might well have had to fight and die in Vietnam; for a lesser prime minister (Boris Johnson, say) could have been cowed by America’s power to cripple Britain’s economy.

For the first time since the Second World War, there was money, there was safe sex, there was freedom. We were the first generation for which university education was not a privilege of wealth. We grew up at the time when – as he famously told the Labour Party conference – Neil Kinnock was “the first Kinnock in 1,000 generations” to have a university education.

Our parents and elder brothers and sisters had battled for health care, for education, for full employment and economic security. These battles having apparently been won, the baby boomers fought for the right to wear their hair long and to enjoy sex. Proud of having conquered our inherited inhibitions, in our foolishness we thought there was little else to conquer.

It now feels as though we decided that the freedom from worry which we enjoyed was too good for our children. They leave university burdened with debt. We decline to treat them with the respect which we successfully demanded when we were young.

When the baby boomers were young, we believed society could afford student grants; now we think it can afford pensions. There is nothing like impending and perhaps impoverished old age to remind a person that there is, after all, such a thing as society.

We reinstalled the deference we rejected. Politicians of the 1960s generation realised that deference can be helpful to governments.

When I left university in 1969, there was work, and places to live which we could afford. Today you hear long-suffering sighs from baby boomers as their children return home to live after university. But our children are not coming back to us from choice. Our generation used up the money and the good years. We used our homes, not as places to live, but as ATM machines.

We kicked away our children’s legs, and sneer at them for being lame.

In the 1980s, while one section of the baby boomers embraced Thatcherism as the best sort of freedom they could get, and another section buried itself deep in left-wing sectarian politics, successive governments made a bonfire of regulation. We threw money at a few city folk, who became fabulously rich without much effort.

It was our children’s money we were throwing at them. The great unregulated orgy of spending and speculating was bound to lead to disaster, and our children were going to have to pick up the bill. Some of the baby boomers were too busy to notice, others too greedy to care.

The governments under which we grew up – those of Macmillan, Home, Wilson, Heath and Callaghan – had a liberal core, and saw great libertarian reforms. The direction of travel was towards greater liberty, which is what made the baby boomer generation’s rebellions possible, and what made our optimism possible. We really did believe things could only get better.

Sixties radicalism decayed fast. It was rotting on the tree, putrid and poisonous, by 1979, and lying on the ground, dead and inert, by 1997. And with almost our last gasp, we threw the poison of Brexit at our children.

For we looked at what we had made for the first time with clear eyes, and saw that it was not good. All the good things about Britain when we were young had gone, and it could not be our fault.

It could not be the fault of the unregulated capitalism many of us had encouraged, not the fault of the rigid, sectarian politics which others had embraced.

There had to be a scapegoat, and conveniently there was one lying just across the channel.

For one part of the 1960s generation, Brussels had destroyed the old England we knew. For another part, it was the capitalist club which restrained the revolutionary British masses from rising up against their oppressors.

This is what unites those two equally authentic children of the 1960s: 70-year-old Jeremy Corbyn, who voted against EU entry and could not bring himself to oppose Brexit with any sort of conviction, sure that pure socialism could only flourish if the English revolutionary spirit were not contaminated by compromisers from Brussels; and the 70-year-old woman Brexiter who rang into James O’Brien’s programme on LBC and explained that the wicked EU had stopped us wrapping fish and chips in old newspapers.

The baby boomers had everything. We thought the world could only get better. Our parents watched us and shook their heads, saying: “It will end in tears.” And it has.

– Francis Beckett’s What Did the Baby Boomers Ever Do For Us? was published by Biteback in 2010

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