Young people need to do more than liking and sharing to win back their futures

PUBLISHED: 17:44 27 August 2020 | UPDATED: 21:41 27 August 2020

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg arrives for a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin. Photo: Maja Hitij/Getty Images

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg arrives for a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin. Photo: Maja Hitij/Getty Images

2020 Getty Images

ALASTAIR CAMPBELL reflects on the remarkable career of teenager Greta Thunberg and implores other young people to continue their fight against the old guard.

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The older I get, the more I appreciate the passion of the young, and their importance in getting the world out of the mess we are in.

Driving through southern Germany – where else to watch Bayern Munich win the Champions League final when the Lisbon stadium itself was Covid off limits, and the UK government has been taking a hokey-cokey approach to Portugal and quarantine anyway? – I turned on the radio news. The lead story was Greta Thunberg, speaking after her meeting with chancellor Angela Merkel, urging her to get the world to treat the climate crisis “like the crisis that it is”.

Merkel, surely one of the most impressive political leaders of modern times, will soon be joining that elite group of former impressive political leaders of modern times, and quickly discovering that though they have status, platforms and opportunities galore, they do not have the real power they are used to. Real power will pass to someone else, who will immediately become a major figure in European and world politics.

There is a little way to go yet – the CDU/CSU union, in which Merkel has been so dominant for so long, has yet to decide its candidate, but my money is currently on Bavaria’s minister president, Markus Söder of the CSU. (Note the “currently” … I reserve the right to change my mind, as the union has once already.)

As Merkel decides what to do with the rest of her life, Greta Thunberg will continue to be a very current, and very remarkable, political figure. It is just two years and a few days since she staged her solo school strike in Stockholm to protest at the failure of politics to tackle the existential threat to the planet. Today, I doubt there is a single person reading this column who does not know who she is, by her first name alone.

“What would Greta say?” I bet I am not alone in asking that question as the flights get booked, the tank gets filled, the steak gets ordered, the kitchen light gets left on overnight.

More important than becoming famous, she has used that fame to mobilise activism the world over, and force governments and leaders to move in the direction of the arguments of climate campaigners. Those who seek to belittle her, like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and some very strange people on social media, expose themselves for the kind of backward-looking, small-minded, misogynistic, wrong side of history people they are.

She is an inspiration precisely because she disproves the oft-stated maxim that it’s impossible for an individual to make a difference. She is 17 years old, has made a big difference already, and is going to be around, making more of a difference, for a very long time.

By the time I was out of the car and in front of a TV screen, a political figure at the other end of the age scale was dominating the news. Joe Biden, aged 77, was making a very well-crafted speech in acceptance of his nomination as the Democrat candidate who will hopefully add Trump to that list of former political leaders spending their days wishing they were still in power.

But then the bulletin turned to the story of a young boy who “hat die Show gestohlen!”, The show-stealer they were referring to was 13-year-old Brayden Harrington, who told how Biden had helped him try to overcome his stammer. I say “try to”, because as was evident from his short videotaped speech to the very unusual convention – frankly I thought it was better without all the balloons and the hoop-la and the silly hats – Brayden still stammers.

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“Without Joe Biden, I wouldn’t be talking to you today,” the young boy wearing braces and a big smile explained. “He told me that we were members of the same club. We stutter. It was really amazing to hear that someone like me became vice president.”

Biden, cruelly nicknamed ‘Dash’ at school because of his stammer, had taken the time and the trouble to help Brayden when they met on the campaign trail in New Hampshire. Later emerged a whole succession of photos and clips of Biden sitting down with the boy and explaining some of the techniques and tactics he had used to conquer this cursed affliction, sufficient to pursue a successful political career, and now on the brink of ousting the populist putrescence that is Trump from the Oval Office.

What came through Brayden’s short speech was not just his authenticity, but Biden’s, and with it the sense that Biden really does see politics as being about helping people less fortunate than himself. Has anyone ever said that about Trump? Would the Republican convention managers have been able to find a Brayden Harrington, to tell that kind of story? I doubt it, any more than Tory conference managers could find real people to show that Boris Johnson was in politics to help the young make the most of themselves, and I do hope the victims of the exams chaos use the experience to get properly engaged in the fight against this awful government.

In his speech in support of Biden, his former Number 2, Barack Obama said this: “I did hope, for the sake of our country, that Donald Trump might show some interest in taking the job seriously; that he might come to feel the weight of the office and discover some reverence for the democracy that had been placed in his care.

“But he never did. He’s shown no interest in putting in the work; no interest in finding common ground; no interest in using the awesome power of his office to help anyone but himself and his friends; no interest in treating the presidency as anything but one more reality show that he can use to get the attention he craves.”

Nobody would be in any doubt that Obama would prefer Biden over Trump, and so you’re left wondering, beautifully eloquent though Obama’s words were, whether he would be able to swing the swing voters in the swing States? Maybe, maybe not. But I can definitely imagine a soccer mom in Michigan or Florida, watching that speech from Brayden Harrington, and thinking, for Biden to do that, for one kid, suggests he wants the top job for the right reasons, not the wrong reasons.

The wonder and magic of elections is that none of us can ever fully explain or compute the billions of reasons why millions of people choose to vote this
way or that, or whether to vote or not to vote at all. But as we head to November, I am hanging on to the idea that in whichever State is the closest, Biden
wins it by a few hundred votes, and Fox News interviews a middle-aged former Trump voter, saying: “I shifted because of what the stammer boy said about Joe Biden.”

Then, once Trump has tried and failed to reject the result, and he is sent packing on his way to ignominy as the worst president in history, Biden enters the Oval Office where, a few weeks later, Greta Thunberg takes a delegation of American teenagers to sit behind the famous oak desk as president Biden signs off a new approach to environmental protection.

Vorsprung durch Jugend, as we say in Deutschland.

Though we started and ended in Germany, before driving back through Belgium and France to reach Calais – not stopping for a pee, so non-Cummings are we in our approach to the government’s make it up as they go along Covid ‘strategy,’ – it has felt at times like a farewell tour to the EU, as we have taken in half a dozen countries on our travels.

I have had many conversations with many people. I will just say this about Brexit. I did not meet one person who thought it would be good for Britain. I did not meet one person who spoke positively about Johnson as our prime minister. And I met many who were really, really sad that we were leaving, and sad at what, as a country, we have become.

As the chaos of December 31 looms, the sadness and sympathy for us will grow. So must our anger at what has been done, and so must our determination to undo it. Young people, your future is being stolen by liars, conmen and hapless incompetents. Your generation has to win it back. It means fighting; and fighting means more than clicking, posting and liking. Fighting means channelling your inner Greta, getting going, and never stopping.

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Almost four years after its creation The New European goes from strength to strength across print and online, offering a pro-European perspective on Brexit and reporting on the political response to the coronavirus outbreak, climate change and international politics. But we can only rebalance the right wing extremes of much of the UK national press with your support. If you value what we are doing, you can help us by making a contribution to the cost of our journalism.

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