Friday, 20 February 2009

Stray Thoughts on the Political Sociology of Ageing

When I was 20 – in the late seventies - people who were my age now (50ish) had lived through a period of remarkable change. They had come to adulthood at the end of WW2 or under the Attlee government, seen the setting up of the NHS and birth of the Beveridge State – but also lived through an undeniable fading away of Britain’s Great Power status. The politics of national decline was a constant theme in current affairs commentary and learned academic articles. It gave a prism through which to see all other debates, be they about membership of what was then called the ‘Common Market’, the correctness or otherwise of Britain’s nuclear deterrent or the unstable industrial relations of the times. For most 20 year olds it was unbelievably dreary, hence...

Those once 50 yr olds are 80ish now, if they’re still around. & you don’t often hear the issue of ‘national decline’ being bandied about as an organising political theme. Mrs.Thatcher changed that. She smashed the Unions and created the conditions for what we used to call a ‘regressive modernisation’: a break from the past, an orientation to the new ‘shape’ of the global economy based on a fully marketised society. What this meant in practice for the UK economy was a strong shift away from mass scale manufacturing and towards high finance, business services and armaments. New Labour accepted this basic re-shaping of economic and political life, just as the Tories of the 1950s had, in very large part, accepted the Attlee/Beveridge/Keynesian political economy they found themselves managing. So the 50 year olds of today have accepted the ‘normality’ of this marketised society. (Well, apart from a few lefty oddballs like me....).

But what of today’s 20 year olds ? If the current credit crunch actually represents a ‘tipping point’ in the viability of the Thatcherite settlement then might their generation, as it ages, gradually rediscover the language of ‘national decline’ ? That debate might be pushed down either right or left channels obviously. So this is both my best hope for a re-development of an active left and my worst nightmare.

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