New Times,
New Thinking.

29 October 2011updated 09 Feb 2015 1:31pm

Forget the “baby boomer” debate, says Laurie Penny – this is about cuts and class

My speech in a debate on inter-generational conflict, attacking team mate David Willetts. We lost.

By Laurie Penny

Ladies, gentleman and everyone else here present. My teammate, Mr Willetts, has made worthy representations for the motion, and I am honoured to have been invited by Intelligence Squared to follow his points.

Now, the framing of this debate, like the framing of the ‘baby boomers’ argument as a whole, deserves attention. The older generation, we are informed, has “stolen the family silver’. What does that imply? It implies that the creation and maintenance of the welfare state in Britain, of free and popular healthcare, housing, education and out-of-work benefits were somehow an indulgence – rather than the bare minimum of common inheritance that can and should be the birthright of every generation that is prepared to stand and fight for it.

Yes, many of the baby boomers who were fortunate enough not to have been miners or steelworkers did live through a ‘golden age’, enjoying benefits and a safety net of which their own mothers and fathers could only dream. It is sad to be living in an age when the political class seems to be doing everything in its power to make that ‘golden age’ a historical aberration, rather than a baseline for building towards a truly free and equal democracy.

I believe that my parents and their generation had every right to the education and healthcare advantages that allowed them, the children of immigrants, to build satisfying and useful lives. The generation currently reaching adulthood has that right too, as will our children and grandchildren, and that right is being confiscated right now, as we speak, not by the greed of our parents, but by a government desperate to distract attention from its wholesale plundering of the public purse to finance the cannibalistic self-indulgence of a financial system whose time is done.

I am aware that in speaking frankly like this I may be breaking the protocol of this debate. I was invited to make a polite case for why the older generation has sold out the younger for the opposing team to politely contest, presumably without too much reference to class, to the economic crisis, or to persons here present. I feel that the situation here is too urgent to pay protocol or politeness any mind. Mr Willetts, you and the cabinet of which you are a member are screwing the younger generation on whose behalf you claim to speak today.

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The rank hypocrisy of standing here and claiming that the baby boomers have sold the family silver whilst, as we speak, an Education White Paper is passing through the House which will allow private companies to rifle through the pockets of all that remains of the higher education system in this country, burns in the back of the throat.

We are talking, let’s remind ourselves, about a higher education system which disadvantaged young people are already abandoning in despair because of the soaring costs of university which you have personally overseen. University applications are down almost ten per cent this year, despite your assurances that tripling tuition fees and gutting the teaching grant would not make a difference to applications. Mr Willetts, if you truly care about the young people of Britain, if you truly believe that the Baby Boomers have stolen the family silver and should be made to return it, you would not do these things.

It is not the baby boomers who have stolen our future, Mr Willetts. It’s you. You, and your government. And we will not forget it in a hurry.
Phrasing this robbery in terms of generational conflict is a clever piece of misdirection. In your book, Mr Willetts, you draw attention to the fact that the post-war generation is set to get out of the welfare state ‘approximately 118%’ of what it put in, a statistic that fundamentally misunderstands what the welfare state is about. Here’s another statistic for you: the richest 10% of the population of Britain are now more than 100 times as wealthy as the poorest 10% of society, and whilst the people of this country have been suffering the fallout of public sector cuts that have seen their standard of living drop through the floor, the richest 500 members of this society have seen their wealth rise by a fifth.

Mr Willetts also draws attention, as he has several times in public forums, to the fact that the rise in social status of women has, he believes, contributed to the problems of working men – ‘feminism,’ he says, ‘has trumped egalitarianism.’ More misdirection. Anyone, it seems, is to blame for rising inequality in this country, except the wealthy. Set the children against their parents, the women against the men, anything to stop legitimate civil unrest as the majority of this nation realises that it has been sold off and sold out by the political and financial elite of which Mr Willetts himself has long been a member.

A clever piece of misdirection, but not quite clever enough. As we speak, the streets of this country are full of angry people who are not fooled for a second by this muddled rhetoric about generational conflict. This is class conflict, and it is being waged by the wealthy against everyone else with the full support of a cabinet of millionaires who see nothing wrong, for example, in claiming hundreds from the taxpayer to change the lightbulbs in their second home whilst claiming that it is the women and the over-forties who are taking the state for everything they can get. My colleague appears to expect that my generation will be fooled by this argument. Mr Willetts, we are not fooled, and we will not forget.

I know that I was invited here to back up your case, but Mr Willetts, ladies and gentlemen, what did you expect? How could you possibly ask me, having seen my friends, my family and my contemporaries have their futures stolen and their life choices decimated by policy decisions which you have personally overseen, not to call it like it is? To speak like this is the only possible response to the many and specific betrayals of trust and mandate enacted by the government of which my team-mate is a member, and by Mr Willetts himself in personally presiding over the largest transfer of wealth from poor to rich, young to old, advantaged to disadvantaged in this country in recent memory.

I hope that leaving him to back up his absurd arguments on his own will help him, in some small way, to understand one of the few remaining lessons it may be useful for him to learn. Mr Willetts, you are more alone than you think. You, and your government, and governments like it across the world, are losing the argument, just as you will lose this debate.

Right now, as we sit here in this beautiful hall, in this prestigious talk which most of you have paid to attend, students who were involved in a peaceful protest against Mr Willetts’ savage university reforms in June are going through the courts. Tomorrow, they may be sent to jail, for no other reason than daring to speak out against the bartering off of British higher education by a political class so drenched in self-deceit that it really thinks posturing about generational conflict will fool us. We are not fooled.

Mr Willetts, I do not expect you to listen to me; I do not expect you to apologise to the audience for daring to come here and dissemble, nor to my generation for pretending to speak in our interests whilst mortgaging our futures to your friends in finance. But if you wish to retain a scrap of self-respect, you could start by asking that young people like me not be criminalised for having the temerity to speak against you. Thanks to you and your education reforms, hundreds of thousands of people who voted for you are watching their worlds get a little darker. There is no need to cement that betrayal with cowardice.

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