Has Vince Cable lost his marbles? I ask this coyly, as I’d initially sat down to write about how the general election and EU referendum had exacerbated already questionable attitudes to older people in this country. But some of the Lib Dem leader-in-waiting’s comments got me wondering whether there wasn’t something to them.
I’d initially welcomed Sir Vince’s opening pitch in the now-moot leadership election. The 74-year-old Yellow Knight announced he would slay the ‘irrational cult of youth’ in politics and follow the example of William Gladstone and Winston Churchill; both in their eighties by the time they resigned from high office. Good on him, I thought. Too many young whippersnappers around who don’t know what they’re talking about.
Then I remembered Theresa May is 60 and Jeremy Corbyn is 68 and neither seem to have much idea what they’re talking about. And, although I can’t help but disagree with Cable on economic matters, there’s no denying he was a good interim leader ten years ago when, fittingly, Ming Campbell was shuffled off for being too old and doddery. Surely this crusader against the dragon of ageism can show the world that politics isn’t just a young man’s game, and older people are to be valued in politics?
Oh, how naive. Last week Cable told a parliamentary press gallery lunch that Brexit voters “were overwhelmingly elderly people who were obsessed by the worry of 80 million Turks coming to their village.” It’s incredible — you might say bordering on demented — that a man who pitched his leadership on respect for older politicians should write off his entire generation for being irrational, nostalgic, racists. You’d expect it from entitled millennial Remainers who, ironically, are nostalgic for a golden age of high wages and rock-bottom house prices that never really was; but it makes no sense for Vince to join in. History may well judge him as the reverse William Hague — a man who arrived at the leadership a decade too late.
But this ageism quagmire aside, it’s worth picking apart why what he said was so stupid, because the standard narrative of ‘racist, xenophobic, pensioners sold us down the river’ just doesn’t add up. As in, literally, the numbers just don’t add up. Lord Ashcroft Polls found those aged under 50 were highly likely to have voted Remain, while those over 50 were much more likely to have voted Leave. Pretty clear cut. But what seems to have been missed from this assessment is that more than 67% of people voted Yes (i.e. Remain) in the 1975 referendum on our membership of what was then the European Economic Community. And, if you had just turned 18 in 1975, you would have been 59 last year. Meaning it’s likely that most of those ‘racist, xenophobic, pensioners’ actually wanted us in Europe first time round.
So what happened in the intervening four decades to make those people change their minds? Was it the oft-repeated trope that people get more right-wing and prejudiced as they get older? Or could it be that the EEC morphed beyond all recognition from the simple free trade area people were sold in the 1970s into today’s overreaching, amorphous, wannabe superstate?
June’s general election was also remarkably dominated by age. But here, too, the results were revealing. Lord Ashcroft found every age decile from 35-44 downwards was progressively more likely to have voted Labour, while every decile from 45-54 up was progressively more likely to have voted Conservative. Unsurprisingly, once you plot alongside these deciles the age at which voters reached the age of 18, it correlates closely with whether they are likely to have had a working memory of the economic and industrial chaos of the 1970s. In the case of the 45-54 threshold, for example, the years are 1981 and 1990 — either end of the Thatcher revolution. It follows that, having witnessed the illness and the cure, you’re far less likely to want to go through it again.
The lesson? Respect your elders and listen to what they have to say; they’ve amassed decades of wisdom and experience and have likely seen it all before. But remember, too, that there will always be a few of them, like Vince, who’ll never know what they’re talking about.