I have, to the best of my knowledge, only met Rishi Sunak once. It was the summer of 2019 and he was chief secretary to the Treasury. We were both attending the leaving drinks of a government special adviser.
I can’t say he made an especially strong impression on me. Mostly, I just remember thinking that he was more lithe than I would have imagined. For a long time, I assumed that he had no memory of ever being in the same room as me, but I am beginning to wonder if I was perhaps wrong. How else to explain his recent actions?
It began with the permanent smoking ban he announced at his party’s conference in October. Thanks to him, the minimum age at which someone is allowed to start buying tobacco will soon begin rising every year, meaning that new generations will never be able to legally smoke cigarettes. It made me raise an eyebrow, but I didn’t make much of it.
Then he decided to ban social media for most teenagers. Well, maybe: as things stand, his government has commissioned a consultation, due to run next year, and one of the policies it is looking at would prevent children under 16 from accessing social media platforms. This is when it hit me.
I may not have any strong memories from that brief meeting in 2019, but clearly Sunak does, and on that day he loathed me so much that he decided to destroy the way of life that made me who I am today.
If you were to be given a time machine and tasked with finding me at 15, chances are that you would land to find me smoking and sitting in front of a computer. It’s essentially all I did in those years: I chain-smoked cheap tabs and endlessly edited my MySpace Top 8. It was great.
When I was out of the house, I made endless friends by having to stand outside and often having to nick fags or a lighter from friendly-seeming strangers. When I was home, I made endless friends by staring at my computer screen and doing my best to find fellow teenage oddballs.
Of course, not all of it was good; I was coughing like an old miner at the grand old age of 17, and I definitely saw a number of things no-one should ever see before even leaving high school. Do I have regrets, though? Christ, I don’t. I had a ball, and I’d do it all over again if I could.
That’s why I hate Sunak’s plans; young people have already been thrown under the bus in a million and one ways by his and previous governments. Must we also remove the few vices they have access to?
Then again, it is possible that things are more complicated today than they were in the online heyday of the early and mid noughties. Though I did spend hours and hours on the computer in my room, I could leave everything that happened on the internet the moment I stood up and left.
I didn’t have access to the web when I was at school, or seeing my friends, or even watching a movie on the couch in the living room. Being online gave me freedom and it changed my young life but it could never quite take it over entirely.
What would have happened if I’d been born twenty years later? Even as a 31-year-old, I frequently feel overwhelmed by the fact that I can check all my apps wherever I am, whatever I’m doing. There’s no escape from the internet anymore – I even wrote a book about it a few years ago. I should know. What effects would this life have on the still-malleable brain of someone half my age?
I want to hate Sunak’s plans because they make me worry that new generations won’t be able to have the weird, fun and exhilarating teenage years I got to have, but I worry that I am living in denial instead. Banning young people from my internet would have been cruel and draconian, but my internet hasn’t existed for a long, long time.
I hate Sunak’s plans not because of what they are, but because of what they reveal. There was once a good thing, and it has been ruined. It’s a terrible shame. Oh, and as for the cigarettes? Teens should be able to sneak in a fag once in a while. I just don’t care what anyone says.