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Boomers vs millennials: the defining schism in UK politics

Brexit and the housing crisis have supercharged the divide between Britain’s young and old. 

On the afternoon of 23 June 2016, Beth Jenkinson, 19, entered the Wesley Memorial Church in central Oxford and voted for Britain to remain in the European Union. Jenkinson, the first in her family to attend university, knew some Leave voters (including three of her four grandparents back in Yorkshire) but no one she met that day supported Brexit – or expected it. “We were all convinced that it would be fine,” she says now.

When Jenkinson woke the next morning to confirmation that the UK had become the first country to vote to leave the EU, she felt “sad and angry to be British” – and resentful towards the older generations.

Three-quarters of 18- to 24-year-olds voted Remain. But two-thirds of over-65s (the demographic that turned out in the greatest numbers) favoured Brexit. “I wish we’d had the same vote in ten years’ time. A lot of people who voted Leave wouldn’t be here,” says Jenkinson, who now works as a researcher at the Intergenerational Foundation, a London-based think tank. Her judgement is harsh, but it reflects the despair that many young people feel about their prospects.

Vince Cable, the 74-year-old Liberal Democrat leader, is equally frank about the Brexit vote when we speak one morning in his parliamentary office. “The older generation shafted the young. Their life chances have been radically affected by what the older generation has decided.”

Class has historically been the main determinant of how people vote in Britain, and social divisions have widened, rather than diminished. As the cultural critic Richard Hoggart observed in 1989, “Each decade we shiftily declare we have buried class; each decade the coffin stays empty.” Yet age is now the best predictor of how people cast their ballots. At the 2017 general election, the generation gap was the largest since polling records began. Among 18- to 24-year-olds, 62 per cent voted for Labour, compared with 27 per cent for the Tories. For older people, the positions were reversed: 61 per cent of over-65s voted for the Conservatives and 25 per cent for Labour. At the same time, the class electoral divide significantly narrowed. Both support for Labour among the middle class and support for the Conservatives among the working class rose by 12 points.

Divisions between the young and old are hardly a new phenomenon. In the turbulent 1960s, the baby boomers railed against the political and cultural mores of their parents. It was a period of youthful insurgency – in Paris and beyond, students took to the streets and dreamed of revolution. But rarely has the generational divide been as pronounced as it is today.

What caused this chasm? And can any political party – indeed, any group or institution – hope to bridge it?

Nearly eight years ago, the then Conservative shadow minister David Willetts published The Pinch, an account of “how the baby boomers took their children’s future – and why they should give it back”. He charted how the old were hoarding the benefits of a market economy (property wealth, generous private pensions) while the young were left with its burdens (expensive housing, job insecurity, student debt, inadequate or non-existent pensions).

“I was taking a bit of a flyer. Some people thought it was rather eccentric,” Willetts, now 61 and the chair of the Resolution Foundation think tank, tells me. But he had identified a genuine schism, one that his party would do much to widen.

In coalition with the Liberal Democrats from May 2010, the Conservatives tripled university tuition fees from £3,000 to £9,000 (in defiance of the Lib Dems’ manifesto promise), abolished the Education Maintenance Allowance (a payment of up to £30 a week for 16- to 18-year-olds living in low-income households) and capped working-age benefit increases at 1 per cent from 2013 (benefits were frozen altogether from 2016). A cap on total benefits payments was introduced and set at £26,000 per household, while the maximum housing benefit was set at £21,000.

Pensioners were spared social security cuts – which allowed David Cameron to keep his campaign promises to older voters. “I’m not having one of those bloody split-screen moments,” he told his aides (mindful of Nick Clegg’s troubles). From 2010 onwards, the coalition protected the “triple lock” on the state pension (so that it rose by inflation, average earnings or 2.5 per cent, whichever was highest), as well as the means-tested Pension Credit and universal benefits such as winter fuel payments, free bus passes and free TV licences.

Gore Vidal once characterised the US economic system as “free enterprise for the poor and socialism for the rich”. The Conservatives favoured capitalism for the young and socialism for the old. Median incomes for pensioners rose by 13 per cent from 2008 to 2016 but fell by 1.2 per cent for working households.

“I often get caricatured as a ‘generational warrior’,” Willetts says. “Every time I do an interview like this, I get a letter in copper­plate handwriting on Basildon Bond notepaper from an 81-year-old saying her life has been very tough, and she’s struggling to make ends meet, and what have I got against her? And I’ve got nothing against her.” But he maintains: “The balance of savings should be more fairly allocated between working-age families and pensioners.”

By far the greatest disparity between young and old is in property ownership. During the coalition years, housebuilding fell to its lowest level since the 1920s. Measures such as the “Help to Buy” scheme, which was aimed at first-time buyers, focused on subsidising demand rather than increasing supply. As the then chancellor, George Osborne, declared at a 2013 cabinet meeting: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up.”

The young, most of whom longed for house prices to fall, were far from happy. Whereas property ownership among the over-65s rose between 1997 and 2016, it fell among 16- to 34-year-olds, from 54 per cent to 34 per cent. Osborne’s favoured combination of monetary activism (ultra-low interest rates and quantitative easing) and fiscal conservatism (public spending cuts and tax rises) kept asset prices high and housebuilding rates low.

At the 2015 general election, the Conservatives won their first parliamentary majority since 1992 aided by homeowners, among whom the Tories enjoyed a 24-point lead. But they are now struggling to sell capitalism to a generation with no capital. The traditional transmission belt to Conservatism – property ownership – is broken for Generation Rent.

Willetts acknowledges his party’s shortcomings. “We do need to accept that there’s a very important role for the public sector in getting houses built. It can’t all be done by private housebuilders… On this, I am completely non-ideological.”

The problem, however, is not merely one of housing supply. As Paul Johnson, the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), tells me, “Remarkably – I always find this number astonishing – 10 per cent of people have two or more homes. And, of course, all those young people are living somewhere and, on the whole, they’re renting off older people.”

Johnson, however, cautions against intergenerational conflict: the divisions within generations remain greater than those between them. In recent decades, pensioner poverty has fallen significantly, but the gap between rich and poor pensioners has
simultaneously widened.


David Cameron’s gifts to the elderly were not only fiscal. In January 2013, as older Tory voters defected to Ukip, Cameron promised a referendum on EU membership. The issue magnified the divide between Britain’s younger cosmopolitans and its older conservatives.

Young people had never known a Britain outside the EU. Free movement – the freedom to live and work in 27 other European countries – was as much a feature of their lives as the smartphone and Facebook.

But as immigration to the UK surged (net migration reached a record level of 336,000 in 2015), older voters in particular revolted against open borders. The 2017 British Social Attitudes survey later found that the UK had the largest generation gap of any European country over immigration (Sweden – which, like Britain, did not impose transitional controls on migration from eastern Europe in 2004 – was in second place). Nearly half of those aged between 18 and 29 believed that immigration had “a positive impact on the economy”, compared with just 29 per cent of those aged over 70.

Beth Jenkinson tells me of the “pride” that she felt in her generation the day after the EU referendum. “It was a reflection of our values and what we believe in: tolerance, being welcoming as a country. That’s where I see the big divide – the divide in
values.” At the 2017 election, Remainers took their revenge.

For the young, the Brexit vote intensified the sense of a world beyond their control. Here was a generation charged £9,000 a year for almost all university courses, regardless of their quality, with no guarantee of a graduate job at the end. This was a generation for whom saving for a deposit felt ever more futile after house prices rose to 7.6 times the average salary. (In November, the estate agent Strutt & Parker helpfully advised the young to stop buying sand­wiches and enjoy fewer nights out if they wanted to buy property in London.)

As their European friends spoke anxiously of their fears of being deported from Britain, the Leave vote felt to them like the final insult. Theresa May’s support for fox hunting and her abandonment of a full ban on the ivory trade in Britain could have been designed to repel the young (who in the general election turned out in larger numbers than at any election since 1992).


Labour, by contrast, courted the youth vote by pledging to abolish university tuition fees – a decision described by party strategists as their “big bazooka”. Jeremy Corbyn was that rarest of things: a politician whom the young trusted. His political and ideological consistency – exemplified by a photo of him being arrested in 1984 while protesting against South African apartheid – appealed to those who felt betrayed by the Lib Dems and New Labour. (James Schneider, who later became Corbyn’s head of strategic communications, left the Lib Dems in 2010 and joined Labour in 2015.)

Huda Elmi, 23, a member of Momentum’s national co-ordinating group, says: “Most young people are political. They are politicised. The issue has always been that their politicisation hasn’t been within party politics.” Corbyn, she adds, “shattered” the “perception of politics as being middle-class white men in suits in a Westminster bubble” by championing “the issues that people are fighting for in their own communities and in their own organising networks”.

For Corbyn’s supporters, his promise to abolish tuition fees was a recognition of higher education as a public good, rather than a private commodity. But others condemned the policy on the grounds of fairness. “Labour’s proposal is incredibly regressive,” David Willetts, who oversaw the introduction of £9,000 fees as universities minister, tells me. An IFS study found that the highest-earning graduates would benefit the most while the lowest-earning would benefit the least. Willetts warned that the estimated £11bn cost of ending fees would force the government to reimpose a cap on student numbers. “The marginal students that don’t get a place are the ones from less affluent backgrounds.”

The Conservatives have pledged to freeze fees at £9,250 (their level since 2017) and to increase the loan repayment threshold from £21,000 to £25,000. Thomas Tozer, 25, a policy researcher who graduated with £40,000 of student debt and pays a third of his income in rent in Greenwich, south-east London, dismissed this as “crumbs from the table”. “The young are not as naive or as easily misled as people assume,” he says. “The government cares more about its reputation and its image than genuinely helping young people.”

Labour’s manifesto vowed to shield the old as well as the young from austerity. Unlike Theresa May, Corbyn pledged to protect the triple lock on the state pension and all universal pensioner benefits. “There is this perception of us [Momentum] just being for the young, or all being middle class, hummus-eating hipsters,” says Elmi. “But you actually have a lot of retired pensioners who are Momentum volunteers, and that is solidarity in action.”

Willetts echoes this sentiment. “I am fundamentally an optimist… The polling work we’ve done shows that young people themselves care about the living standards of older people. And Granny does worry that her grandson can’t get started on the housing ladder.”

This may be too optimistic. The Brexit vote that caused Jenkinson such despair – “I couldn’t understand why that anger had to affect my life and my future” – was a symptom of a viscerally divided country. There is no reason to believe that Brexit will heal the divisions. The epic task of EU withdrawal – the nation’s most demanding post-1945 negotiation – has deprived the government of the capacity to solve the housing crisis facing the young or the social care crisis facing the old. A poorer and ever more polarised Britain is no country for young people or, indeed,  for old ones. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Young vs Old

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Game of Stones: The power struggle at the heart of British curling

Dynasties, scandal and “the curse” behind the scenes of the only Olympic sport you can play while eating pizza.

At the 1980 annual Canadian men’s curling championship, the Calgary competitor Paul Gowsell ordered a pizza mid-play. With tangled red hair down to his shoulders, a thick beard and in his signature plaid trousers, Gowsell – or “Pizza Paul” – had become a cult curling figure in the late Seventies.

“The rebel of the curling world” was known for his drinking and partying on the curling circuit, and rocking up to tournaments – or “bonspiels”, to give them their proper name – in his battered VW van.

Legend has it that a stray olive from his pizza on the ice lost his opponents the game that day.

Since Gowsell’s heyday, curling has professionalised. It became an official Winter Olympics sport in 1998 (the previous and only time it had this status was in 1924), but remains one of the most peculiar competitions of the season.

“We do get made fun of a lot” 

The brooms, frantic brushing, screaming from the “skip” (the captain of the team in charge of strategy), gliding on one knee, and even the equipment itself – 44-pound lumps of granite known as “stones”, which look a bit like old-fashioned irons – make for bizarre watching, as competitors release their stones before the “hogline” in an attempt to reach the “house”: the target at the end of the rink.

The etiquette is to shake hands before a game, and say “good curling”.

Its quirks are not lost on curlers, who appear to embrace the gentle mockery of their sport. The array of outlandish patterned trousers worn by the Norwegian men’s team brought a goofy humour to Pyeongchang (pink hearts for Valentine’s Day were a particular hit), inspiring an entire Facebook page of half a million Likes dedicated to their legwear. Meanwhile, the moustachioed and red-hatted US curler Matt Hamilton has been memed as Mario by his own team.

A veteran curling commentator I speak to, who does not want to be named because he remains closely involved in the sport and wishes to speak frankly, says comedic takes on curling – like the 2010 episode of The Simpsons “Boy Meets Curl”, in which Homer and Marge accidentally discover their innate talent for the game – “generally help promote the sport”.

“People definitely make fun of it! There are a lot of awesome personalities in curling and I think part of it is because we do get made fun of a lot. You kind of have to have a really good sense of humour to curl,” says John Cullen, a 32-year-old Canadian comedian and competitive curler in the world-ranked Team Joanaisse.

Every time the Winter Olympics come along, curling manages to entrance audiences. It’s one of the few sports to be played for the entirety of the Games because of its “round robin” structure (where each country has to play the other, at least once).

Curling benefits from a lot of airtime. Matches can last three hours, and there are mixed doubles as well as separate men’s and women’s tournaments.

But it also captures our imagination because, unlike figure skating or alpine skiing, we feel like anyone could have a go. Curlers don’t all look like athletes. The dedicated viewer can watch them chatting, see their anguished facial expressions – and hear them swear when they mess up.

“You still have people who make the Olympics who’ve got a bit of a belly”

“It has a big appeal for people because it seems – even though it’s not – like a game you could play, if you’re just a regular person watching the Olympics,” says Cullen, who has curled for 20 years. “Every Olympics, people think to themselves, ‘OK, if I started curling tomorrow, I could be in the next Olympics’.”

A bit like darts, he adds: “Curling is a lot more physically demanding than darts, but when you watch darts on TV, you think ‘oh these guys are drinking, they’re not in shape’.

“It seems accessible in a way other sports don’t… Curlers now are more fit than ever, but you still have people who make the Olympics who, yeah, they’ve got a bit of a belly, or they don’t really look like they spend that much time in the gym. They just kind of look like regular people.”

Adding to curling’s relatability, there are two real-life couples in the mixed doubles this year, and you can watch them bicker as they play. Norway’s girlfriend-and-boyfriend outfit Kristin Skaslien and Magnus Nedregotten admit to having heated arguments on the ice (she never sweeps for him, as far as I can tell from watching one of their games – you go, sister), whereas Russia’s wife-and-husband duo Anastasia Bryzgalova and Aleksandr Krushelnitckii have had their bronze medal tarnished by the latter’s suspected doping.

When a doping scandal reaches your sport, you know it’s made it.


Traced back to 16th-century Scotland, the sport nicknamed the “Roaring Game” – because of the sound of rolling across ice – was played socially with stones on frozen ponds and lochs by farmers in winter, when no farming could be done.

Competitions between neighbouring communities began in the 18th century, when Rabbie Burns would play and even wrote some poetry about it, and Scots took the game across the country with the arrival of the railways. They later exported it to places as far as North America and New Zealand.

But it took until 2002 for the general public to notice curling in Britain. The Great British women curlers’ unexpected gold at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City transformed attitudes towards the sport – it was the first time Britain had won gold at the Winter Olympics since Torvill and Dean’s Bolero ice dance in 1984 at Sarajevo.

 “We used to get a lot of jokes about housewives with brooms”

An audience of 5.7 million people watched the tense final live on the BBC, when five previously unknown women from Scotland beat Switzerland with the final throw – since dubbed the “Stone of Destiny” – played by the skip, Rhona Martin.

“It definitely put curling on the map. We used to get wee write-ups in the back of the paper and that was it,” she tells me over the phone from her home in Ayrshire. “We used to get a lot of jokes about housewives with brooms, and curling your hair, whereas now people see it as a sport because they’re more knowledgeable about the game.”

Rhona Martin delivering the Stone of Destiny. Photo: Getty

A flag-waving crowd greeted her team when they landed in Heathrow – adoration they hadn’t been expecting. They received a congratulatory message from then Prime Minister Tony Blair (“You have captured the imagination of the whole of the UK”), appeared on everything from Lorraine Kelly’s sofa to Ready Steady Cook, were put up at Claridge’s and received MBEs from the Queen, and sat in the royal box at Wimbledon.

Curling fever didn’t last long, however. The women returned to full-time work or being full-time mothers. Talk of a Hollywood movie about their victory died. Two of the five endured intrusive news reports about their marriages breaking down, and Martin (now Howie after a subsequent marriage) was at one point a “single mother living on benefits”, as put by one of her agents.

This became known as the “Curse of the Curlers”, according to the Guardian. Indeed, Howie’s gold medal was stolen from the Dumfries Museum four years ago, never to be recovered.


Has the curse on British curling finally been lifted?

Two dynasties of curling champions dominate Team GB this year: the Muirheads and the Smiths. Both are Scottish farming families from Perthshire, both have two or more siblings on the Olympic curling teams, and all the competitors are children of world champions: they grew up on farms about 40 miles apart, and were regulars at their local rink.

“We’re all super-competitive”

The only member of the men’s team who is neither Muirhead nor Smith, Kyle Waddell, comes from another Scottish curling dynasty: his grandfather Jimmy was European curling champion in 1979.

Eve Muirhead, skip of the women’s team, is the current queen of the dominant Muirhead dynasty. The three-time world medallist, now 27, was the youngest ever skip to win a Winter Olympic medal, when her team took bronze at Sochi in 2014. Her brothers Tom and Glen on the men’s team are making their Olympic debut.

The Muirheads’ father Gordon, a sheep farmer, is a world champion who competed at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. Eve was inspired to begin curling at the age of nine.

The Muirhead siblings on their farm. Photo: Getty

Kyle Smith, the skip of the men’s team, is head of the curling house of Smith. His younger brother Cammy is on the same team. Their father David, a dairy and potato farmer, was a world champion skip in 1991, and their uncle Peter (known as “Pistol Pete” in the curling world, for his sharp-shooter-like accuracy) represented Team GB at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.

Known as Team Muirhead and Team Smith, they still help out with their respective families’ farming duties. While training for the Olympics, Kyle Smith fed the calves before going to the gym in the morning or milking at weekends, and the Muirhead brothers combine their sheep farming duties with training (they’re missing the lambing season to be at the Olympics). But Eve – who also plays golf and the bagpipes – prioritises curling practice.

The Smiths and Muirheads playing together. Photo: Getty

The Smiths are trailing the Muirheads medal-wise and see themselves as “the underdogs”, but there’s more rivalry between siblings than between the two families, who often play on the same team.

“I know we’re all super-competitive,” Eve tells me down the line from Pyeongchang. “We all support each other to the bitter end. To have my two brothers here is really special, I guess it makes this Olympics a little bit more special than the other ones.”

Just last season, the Muirhead brothers were on different teams and went head-to-head, competing for the same Olympic spot, which made working together on the farm temporarily tough. They had to check up on each other’s flocks while the other was training to beat them.

“Our local rink has unfortunately now closed down”

“I have learned how to wind him up over the last year so I have a few tricks up my sleeve,” Thomas, the younger Muirhead, quipped at the time. All the Muirhead siblings are so competitive that no board games were allowed at home.

Curling isn’t seen as a “posh” sport, like skiing (although curling clubs have been linked to freemasonry in the past), and it’s likely that such a small pool of talent is down to the sport’s decline rather than a privileged elite.

Eve Muirhead tells me that her “local rink at Pitlochry” – where she played as a child – has “unfortunately now closed down”, and this is part of a trend in Scotland. At curling’s peak in 1993, Scotland had 31 ice rinks which offered curling. The number is now down to 22.

The veteran curling commentator I speak to says the Olympics have benefited the sport’s image, but the money spent on elite competitive curling “to ‘buy’ GB medals” in this country “hasn’t helped grassroots curling much; only a few curlers benefit”.

It’s even starker in countries with no curling legacy. China has just two curling clubs for a population of 1.4 billion and still sends teams to the Olympics. Cullen confirms this, from his experience of international play. “Once curling got us [Canada] in the Olympics, a lot of countries recognised this as an opportunity to get a medal,” he says. “So what they’ve done in some of those cases in China, Japan, Korea, is they’ve found athletes from other sports and converted them into curlers.”


But this doesn’t mean curling is easy; it just makes it a more competitive sport. With my only background in curling being an episode of Pingu I watched as a child (he sweeps with his foot, the innovator), I rounded up some colleagues and went to the Sliders Social Fun and Games Club at Queens ice rink in West London to try it out for myself.

The banging beats, disco ball, and giant projected episode of Pointless on a rink-side screen didn’t exactly scream 16th century loch, but we pulled on our studded grippy rubber soles and took to the ice.

While one colleague discovered that she was “actually sick” (her words) at curling, most of us found the stones impossibly heavy and rolled them nowhere near the target.

New Statesman staff curl

The author attempts to curl

After a few failed attempts, I tried a double-handed curl, but that didn’t work at all. One bolder team member developed a special “one-knee thrust” move, which worked quite well.

Even the brushing was quite tough, because you fear falling over at any moment. Some men on the neighbouring rink told us we were “rubbish”.

Essentially, curling is really hard. A lesson that adds to its status as history’s most misunderstood sport. But its players remain dedicated, and audiences engrossed. As Rhona Howie, the master of the “Stone of Destiny”, tells me: “Never, ever give up, and keep fighting, one stone at a time.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Young vs Old