At last month’s Chalke Valley History Festival, you could get your military training from men dressed as second-world-war Tommies, and then defend a pretend hill in Flanders. I met a chap who had driven up in a vintage Citroën van, though admittedly it had broken down en route. All this took place in a sun-dappled English meadow straight out of a Merchant Ivory film, with local ladies serving home-baked sponge cake.
Perhaps no country has a happier relationship with its own past than Britain, and the self-appointed guardian of that relationship is the Tory party. But, since about 1800, Britain has always offered cutting-edge modernity. The sites of that modernity have shifted from northern industrial cities to London and university towns, but Britons have consistently helped invent the future, from the train through punk rock to the world wide web. Travelling the country in recent weeks, dodging train strikes, I felt that had changed. Neither main party now offers a vision of the future. No wonder: an ageing society doesn’t particularly need one.
Britain’s transformative postwar leaders — Attlee, Thatcher and Blair — were futurist almost by definition, though Thatcher also looked backward to the glorious national past. Her heirs, the Brexiters, sold a similarly potent double brew in 2016: the glorious past plus the promise of a “Global Britain” jetting around signing trade deals.
Brexit’s sunlit uplands have since evaporated, along with fantasies of trade deals with the US, China and India. The government estimates that its recent deal with New Zealand will boost GDP by precisely 0.00 per cent. Meanwhile, trade with Europe stagnates. Asked recently about the benefits of Brexit, Jacob Rees-Mogg, minister for Brexit opportunities, talked about converting distance signage in tunnels into round numbers. “In and of itself,” he conceded, “it’s completely trivial.”
More broadly, it’s hard to concoct a futurist narrative without economic growth. Real wages in 2025 are projected to be lower than in 2008, and British consumer confidence is at a 50-year low. All this is depressing if you care about the future, but demographically, ever fewer voters of Britain’s default ruling party do. The Conservatives’ longstanding love affair with older voters has climaxed under Boris Johnson. His throwback 1920s persona was shaped by media from a bygone era: the Telegraph, The Spectator and a TV quiz show. His Brexit coalition of 2016 was mostly grey, and the Tory vote has since set new records for age. In 2019, say pollsters Ipsos Mori, 64 per cent of over-65s voted Conservative.
Pundits often puzzle over the identity of today’s Tory party. It claims to be rightwing but has imposed Britain’s highest tax burden since 1950. In fact, it’s an old people’s party. That’s a winning strategy in a country where most voters are now over 55, estimate Joe Chrisp and Nick Pearce of Bath University. Ballot-box Britain is much older than the rest of Britain.
Once you’re an old people’s party, you’re free to ignore many things: the dearth of new homes, record low birth-rates, the threat to funding for British university research through the EU’s Horizon scheme, reduced opportunities for Britons to work or study abroad, not to mention climate change. Even the economy hardly matters to many pensioners, because they aren’t in it. Instead, an old people’s party takes the geriatric side in culture wars, keeps house prices rising, and redistributes not to the poor but to pensioners, who last week got a 10 per cent raise just as rail-workers were offered 2 per cent. An old people’s party imports a non-voting workforce while encouraging geriatric grumbles about immigration. In effect, the Tories side with wealth — held chiefly by the elderly — against incomes, and then cast that stance as “anti-elitist”. The Republicans in the US have managed a similar trick: they rage against Obamacare, a rare modern benefit for the under-65s, and block abortions for young women.
The TV series Years and Years produced a terrifying metaphor for modern Britain: a downwardly mobile family whose impoverished younger members end up living in the grandmother’s magnificent but decaying house. A country that abandons the future risks slipping into full-dress ancestor-worship, re-enacting the second world war, as has Russia.
Perversely, though, the Tories themselves may be the future. Old people’s parties — which will mostly grow out of the centre-right — can look ahead with confidence. Today’s developed countries are the oldest societies in history. There are always new old people, and as James Tilley of Oxford University shows, people’s politics move rightward with age (and inheritance). Future politicians can ditch the futurism.
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