Once a literary spat caught my eye. It was between the novelist Julian Barnes and the polemicist Christopher Hitchens, towards the end of the latter’s life. This was initially conducted in the pages of The New Statesman, when Barnes gave the following précis of his former colleague: “He was the most brilliant talker I’ve met and the best argufier. At the Statesman he was largely gay, idly anti-Semitic and very left-wing. Then ripple-dissolve to someone who was twice married and had discovered himself to be Jewish and become a neocon. An odd progress, though he didn’t do the traditional shuffle to the right; he kept one left, liberal leg planted where it always had been and made a huge, corkscrewing leap with his right leg. I enjoyed his company but never entirely trusted him.”
Leaving aside the absurdity of the word ‘argufier’, the phrase which was discussed at the time was the ‘traditional shuffle to the right’. The description generated column inches as part of the debate over the rights and wrongs of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But it remains interesting in that it seems to assume that right-wing attitudes are in some way incorrect and reprehensible – or, as Hitchens would later put it, ‘allied to senility’.
In his defence in his memoir Hitch-22, Hitchens went on to argue that he had discarded utopianism in favour of complexity. “It is not that there are no certainties, it is that there is an absolute certainty that there are no certainties,” he would write in his memoir.
And there the matter lay. But sometimes the phrase has returned to me – ‘the traditional shuffle to the right’. When it does, it’s never in relation to the protagonists, but in relation to the phrase itself. In short, is it true that people move to the right with age? And if so, why? And what does this all mean for our careers and for our education?
Recent data suggests that Barnes is broadly correct that people become more right wing with age. The best recent indicators are the 2019 General Election, which Boris Johnson’s Tories won with an 80-seat majority.
When one considers that Brexit, Covid-19, Russia-Ukraine and our present inflationary woes have happened since, it must be admitted that the following statistics emanate out of an ancient period, several historical epochs ago. Reality may have shifted in any number of directions since, and it’s likely that the 2019 data depicts a nation more friendly to the idea of voting Conservative than shall be the case at the next election.
Furthermore, it must be admitted that the election ended in an unusually personal mandate for the outsized figure of Boris Johnson, who though technically a Conservative, isn’t easily pigeon-holed on the political spectrum: his commitment to Net Zero and his acceptance of lockdown, however reluctant, are, for instance, arguably leftwing positions.
Even so it’s the best data we have. And what does it say? It backs up Barnes. Between the ages of 24-29, 23 per cent of voters voted Conservative, with Labour at 54 per cent. By the time voters have reached the age of 30, they’re slightly more likely to vote Conservative, and slightly less likely to opt for Labour, though a small percentage seek refuge in the middle position of the Liberal Democrats: the figures are 30 per cent Conservative, 46 per cent Labour.
Fascinatingly, the trend continues all the way through life, with on average a nine per cent rise in Conservative voters for every ten years of additional experience. By the time you reach the age bracket 60-69, the figures have flipped: 57 per cent vote Conservative, and a mere 22 per cent Labour. The trend continues into our seventies: there, you find 67 per cent vote Conservative, and a mere 14 per cent Labour. If you ever find yourself talking to a grey-haired stranger, there’s a two in three chance you’re talking to a Conservative.
So there seems little doubt that something is going on here. But what?
A Taxing Problem
In the first place, there’s tax. Human nature is more often acquisitive than altruistic and the rarity of saintliness likely means that most people vote in their own self-interest. Quite simply, over time people’s own self-interest aligns more with the tax policies likely to be espoused by the Conservative Party.
In Roger’s Version (1986), John Updike describes a Democrat voter as ‘a fighting liberal, fighting to have her money taken from her.’ Most people can see the humour in this position – and the light touch of the novelist who pointed it out. Of course, there have sometimes been attempts to extrapolate a broader lesson. It was Edmund Burke, that great orator and parliamentarian, who said: “Anyone who is not a republican at twenty casts doubt on the generosity of his soul; but he who, after thirty years, perseveres, casts doubt on the soundness of his mind.” Over the course of time, variants of this have been attributed to everyone from Georges Clemenceau, George Bernard Shaw, Victor Hugo and Winston Churchill. In other words, it feels sufficiently true and wise to have been ascribed to numerous people.
For the Conservative MP Sir Bill Wiggin, tax is the core driver of the Conservative vote. As we get older, if our trajectory has been reasonably normal, then the chances are we’ll be earning more – and, of course, being taxed more as a result.
“Definitely when I was a young man, the world was ideological place,” Wiggin recalls, “and I remember when I got my first payslip. You look at your payslip and see how much tax you pay and ask yourself the question: “That seems a lot of money, is it good value?” And some people will always say ‘yes’ and some people will say ‘no’. Most people will say: ‘Actually, I think I could get more for that money if things were something slightly differently’.”
But Wiggin has another point to make: “That’s not why people vote labour. They vote for it and go, ‘That’s a lot of money. If rich people paid more I wouldn’t have to pay so much.’ That’s where the shuffle to the right begins.”
So Wiggin is sympathetic to the current government – as one would expect – for precisely these reasons: “I want a small tax low interference government.,” he tells me. “Rishi Sunak’s pledge to reduce the income tax from 20 to 19 per cent for two years’ time was a really good thing. Although it would be better if that were happening today, the direction of travel is the right way. Boris Johnson lifted the restrictions on Covid early against some of the medical advice because he wanted us to be free to make some of our own choices and live our own lives. These are very powerful messages for me. So whether you run, hop, skip, shuffle, crawl or are dragged screaming to the right you will do that as your age suggests that that is more important. It’s not more important because you’re older, it’s because you’ve witnessed the alternative.”
For Wiggin then the question of how much tax you pay, segues into broader questions of the size of the state and its alleged tendency to meddle in personal freedom. “It’s much harder if you’re British to imagine a superstate. When I stood in Burnley in 1997, people had just stopped having outside loos – a privy in the bottom of the garden. And I thought to myself, ‘Why isn’t the council – which was eternally Labour – interested in improving their housing?’ The answer was because once you’ve got people who vote Labour, if you make their situation better they’re less likely to vote Labour, but if you keep them suppressed they’re more likely to stay with you. That authoritarianism keeps them where they are or presses down on them.”
For Wiggin, there is therefore an essential justice to the government’s levelling up agenda. “Levelling is fair but squashing people down is what we’re against. Lifting the people who have the least and the most vulnerable up is the opposite to what you see under a Labour government when everybody is pressed down, especially the highest earners. If you squash the people at the top, then everybody’s incentive to succeed is suppressed.”
This leads Wiggin to an interesting dissertation on education. “The grammar school system did that educationally. It took the cleverest kids and pushed them up through the grammar schools but it didn’t deal satisfactorily with those who weren’t able to pass their eleven plus. The biggest challenge for Britain into the 21st century, is to have an education system which is ready to supply a workforce which is able to take on and beat the rest of the world. However old you are, you want your mates and their children to be world-beaters and we can’t afford to get education wrong. Your pension is going to be paid for by the people reading this magazine. It’s across the board and in everyone’s interest to get the best out of every individual.”
So what does Wiggin think? “Young people should be in school for longer. I look at schools in my constituency: the teachers are good, the facilities are good but if you’re not there, you’re not going to get the most out of it. So why do they go home at 3.30? Of course in the younger age groups they might not be able to last. If you look at the South Koreans, they have after school until 10 o’clock at night, because they need to beat the Chinese and the Taiwanese. The world is a savage place and if you don’t believe it, look at people all over the world who live on a dollar a day. You don’t want to be one of those.”
Hobbes et al.
Not everyone will agree with all this, but it is a comprehensive description of the Conservative mindset. Wiggin’s descriptions might have had their origin in tax policy, but what is noteworthy is how rapidly their logic travels outwards to other things: education, the health service, work.
Conservativism feels unified in this sense, and this is perhaps something of what people feel they are experiencing when they identify with the Tories. It was summed up best in recent times by Margaret Thatcher with her devastatingly simple maxim: ‘The facts of life are Conservative’. But its pedigree is deeper and one might trace a line back through Edmund Burke and Thomas Hobbes to find its origins in Enlightenment thought.
Hobbes, like Wiggin, viewed the world as a savage place and life, for him, was, in his famous phrase: “nasty, brutish, and short”. This notion of a world full of dangers and disasters, where human beings are hemmed in all sides, led Hobbes into the idea that people would readily accept a king or a parliament as a remedy to their predicament.
This turns out not to be a simple idea, since the blind handing over of one’s interests to the state doesn’t always pan out very well – as numerous miserable peoples in the 21st century, from Stalin’s Russia to today’s China would attest. This is where the formidable figure of John Locke comes along, stating that while a government is necessary it nevertheless depends on the ‘consent of the governed’. These words were of huge importance not just to the story of British democracy, but to the Founding Fathers of the United States of America – and to Thomas Jefferson in particular, so much so that they found their way into the Constitution.
It is Lockean democracy which informs much of what Wiggin is saying, and much of what Thatcher did. It goes without saying that it isn’t accepted by everyone; if it were the UK would be a one-party state. But it is certainly the case that the world presents itself to us over time, and that as we go on in our lives we are more likely to increase our experience of the state: we have children who then attend school and can assess the suitability of the state education system; health scares crop up which enable us to take the measure of the NHS; and over time, the odds go up that we shall become a victim of crime, and wonder about the efficacy of the police.
None of these experiences of the state is likely to be perfect, and so they will at the very least generate a questioning mindset about the efficacy of the tax system.
Put simply, the state is a gigantic fact of our lives, and life is imperfect, and so its imperfections are likely to stack up over time. It is possible – even likely – that we can yoke the two together and say: “Things are imperfect because of the state.” For some this will always seem a false joining up – or worse, a lofty denigration, for instance, of all the good work state-paid nurses or teachers do. For others, Conservatism is more measured and might amount to something more like this: “Yes, I know the world isn’t perfect and that a smaller role for the state won’t make all my problems vanish all at once. But it will give me greater agency in my life if I bump up against the state less regularly. And I am at my best when the prime mover of my activities comes from free inspiration – from a felt liberty within.”
Surveying the Scene
However the issues Wiggin describes all fall broadly within the question of core policy and do not touch particularly on the question of social conservatism. A non-exhaustive list of issues which would fall under this umbrella would be: immigration, gay marriage, the role of women in the workplace, and climate change.
Now, if one were to imagine what a clicheic ‘shuffle to the right’ might entail it would be something like this. That as you age, not only do you feel a mounting sense of resentment about the reach of HMRC into your own wallet, and the incompetence of government, but you also begin to lament societal shift of every kind. You yearn for the past and yearning for the past means the restoration of a predominantly white, Christian world where women look after the children and don’t get any crazy ideas about becoming CEOs of FTSE 100 companies. To boot, you’re shortly to leave the world and so relatively cavalier about the seas rising in 20 years’ time since you won’t be around to drown in them.
Barnes’ original ‘shuffle to the right’ may not have meant precisely this as regards Hitchens, but I think something like this impatience with a perceived stupidity is housed somewhere within it, and it is present within, for instance, the discourse in the pages of The Guardian, and in parts of the BBC. It doesn’t need more than the implications of its tone to establish almost as fact an insurmountable gap between generations where the old are stupid and prejudiced and the young wise and virtuous.
If taken to its logical conclusion the country, and every organisation within it is undergoing a sort of surreptitious civil war between elderly idiots and young sages. This viewpoint seems inwoven especially in the climate and trans debates: the protestors who vandalise a Van Gogh, for instance, or stop traffic in rush hour in a major city, have assumed a certain behavioural licence which they feel has been bestowed on them by precisely this generational stupidity which is so rampant and obscene that it must be aggressively countermanded.
The trouble with all this is that human beings turn out to be more complex than this, and that the generational divide isn’t so distinctive as one had thought on many of these questions, though it is still there to some extent.
Research published by NatCen’s British Social Attitudes at The Policy Institute on the intergenerational divide looks at many of these questions and produces data to capture the mood of the nation. In relation to immigration, its conclusions are stark and don’t make for particularly good reading. Here is the report’s conclusion, as indicated by the graph in figure A:
Attitudes to immigration became one of the most divisive social issues in the UK in the last decade or so – and that has a strong generational dimension. In the late 1990s, hardly anyone in any generation considered immigration one of the most important issues facing the country, but over the follow 15 years, its prominence increased, and generational gaps exploded, so that the oldest cohort was twice as worried as the youngest in the years before the EU referendum.
This would seem to back up the Barnesian idea of a ‘shuffle to the right’. It can seem as though a sort of xenophobia – ‘allied to senility’ as Hitchens put it – had somehow become rife among the elderly on this important point. This notion has generally had its Exhibit A in the career of Nigel Farage, and, for instance, his referendum poster of refugees from Syria and other places, which seemed to portray Islamic people other, and to be feared on account of their external appearance.
However, some reservations about this narrative need to be aired. In the first place, we don’t know why and on what basis this generational shift in opinion has been brought about. Douglas Murray is one of those alarmed by the way in which the rising movement of peoples during the Blair years isn’t something we’re allowed to discuss. He once told me: ““It’s easy to be ‘for’ more empathy – to stand up and say, like Jess Phillips, ‘If everyone was more like me, everything would be better.’ But decisions require something hard. We’re very good at talking the language of inclusion, but the language of inclusion necessitates the language of exclusion. Try doing exclusion language in public. You can’t.”
In other words, it might not be that elderly people are opposed to immigration in some broad sense, but that they’re particularly aware of what has been going in recent history – the opening up of borders during the Blair years – versus what had happened before. This is a characteristic of age: the ability to compare the present time with what had gone before. It must also be said that during the first EU referendum, it was the left of the Labour Party, as represented by Tony Benn which took the Leave position which was then, as now, to some extent synonymous with doubts about immigration. But for him the EU was a rich man’s club, where the free movement of workers was in fact a freedom for capital to exploit labour. All this is to say that immigration isn’t a topic easily categorised as being of the left or the right. The NatCen data needs to be treated carefully.
Interestingly, this generational gap turns out to be less marked when it comes to other matters, most notably the environment.
As the NatCen survey points out, nearly half of the pre-war generation state that they are now concerned about the environment. It’s a reminder that the Clean Air Act in America was passed by the Republican Nixon administration and that the environment has traditionally been a cross-party issue. The report states:
The gaps between generations on environmental concerns is often grossly overstated. It’s true that younger generations in the US are more likely to say that climate change is very or extremely dangerous, but there is not a great deal of difference, and older groups are far from unconcerned.
So the age disparity exists in relation to certain issues more than others. This in itself opens up onto other possible theories about the age divide – and these in turn might open up onto new solutions for the workplace and for education.
The Book of Mark
I talk to Mark Morrin, a policy and research strategist at ResPublica who first digs down into the 2019 General Election. “2019 was a different sort of election,” he explains. “Brexit had been in framed in such a way that those who voted Brexit were more right wing than left, and more likely to be old than young. It doesn’t really do justice to the argument.”
Then Morrin gives it to me straight: “The younger generation – the millennials – are much more socially conservative as a generation and Rishi Sunak is on the cusp of that. There’s a book called The Fourth Turning is Here by William Strauss and Neil Howe which I like a lot, even though the theory in the book can’t be empirically proven. The book states that there are four different generational archetypes and each lasts for around twenty years – and between them they constitute a cycle lasting between 80 and 90 years.”
So what point are we at in that cycle? “What happens is we go through a high point, to a rejection of the high point, to an unravelling and then onto a crisis – and we’re at a point of crisis at the minute.” That sounds like bad news. Morrin has this sobering thought. “The last time we were in crisis was in the 1930s and according to The Fourth Turning is Here, it was that GI generation who were the heroes who resolved things last time.”
This strikes me a far more complex theory of generational mentality than the typical ‘shuffle to the right’ dichotomy. Morrin continues: “The equivalent of the GI generation today would be the millennials, who have similar traits to the GI generation: they’re less likely to commit crime, less likely to take drugs and more inherently optimistic in their character even though they also can’t get on the property ladder.”
Morrin explains how this affects their approach to policy. “When you poll, they’re happy to pay tax on the Scandinavian model if they’re getting decent services as a consequence. I don’t see a huge popular movement on the streets wanting to lower tax.”
So does Morrin think people make the traditional ‘shuffle to the right’ at all? His response is nuanced. “There are people who start on the left and then end up Conservative but I don’t know how archetypal those people are. Philip Blond, the CEO of ResPublica, tends to argue that the Conservatives on the right are economically Labour, and that Labour on the left are socially liberal. You need a quadrant to explain it really.”
This means that those politicians who make it to the top of British politics are all to some extent hybrids on the ‘right-left’ spectrum. Morrin gives an example: “Look at Boris. He’s economically and socially liberal. He has no regard for family, and he wants to be free Europe. Uniquely, he tried to play at being a One Nation Conservative while really being a liberal.”
Which would mean that that 2019 Boris mandate doesn’t describe a straightforward move to the right at all.
Morrin agrees, and then gives another example: “Blair was economically liberal and socially liberal. There was perhaps a communitarian nod at the beginning, and his Catholicism of course. But it all just goes to show that the main parties are a hodgepodge and can’t really represent values. Within Labour you’ve got two parties: the far left and the moderate right, and within the Conservatives you’ve got the moderate wing and the far right – so that’s at least four parties between them.”
So what bearing does this all have on education? Morrin says: “There’s this pervasive idea when you look at the university attendance figures that the younger people who didn’t vote are more educated than the older people who did. We’re not yet at that 50% point in relation to higher education. But soon we’ll get to a stage where 50% of those people aged 30 will have had some experience or exposure to higher education.”
Morrin pauses then says: “You could argue that if that continues, then the population becomes more educated they’re likely to become more left.” And then the shuffle to the right would become a thing of the past.
Such a development would go hand in hand with an economy which had become larger and more state-dependent. So what can the workplace do now to adapt? Finito mentor Sophia Petrides has written on this site about the importance of ‘mentoring up’ as a way of making sure that young people are taken properly into account in the workplace setting.
So the question of our broad political leanings turns out to be both more and less important than we might have expected. We bring these tropes with us into the settings which define us: into work and into our education. But they’re not fit for purpose, and the moment we start looking past them, a more meaningful dialogue becomes possible – and we have the chance to grow together in a way in which our previous simplistic notions about one another had tended to prohibit.