‘The ability of middle-aged gatekeepers to control the agenda has been usurped by a new generation of activists,’ writes the 62-year-old Billy Bragg , as he explains to Guardian readers ‘why young people are angry’. This, of course, is in response to a growing rejection of ‘cancel culture’ by formerly revered figures of the liberal establishment.
Old lefties are feeling unsettled, even threatened by a younger generation who are striding out in a new direction. And that’s how it should be. This is traditional, perhaps even psychological. Back in the days when Owen Jones was not yet in short trousers, and even Billy Bragg himself was a relatively young man, exactly the same process could be seen.
The following is extracted from Rejoice! Rejoice! Britain in the 1980s.
There was a growing weariness among the radicals of the 1960s generation, a sense that their dreams of progress towards a new Jerusalem had been cruelly crushed. The theme of disillusion was to become almost a commonplace in the decade.
‘You start asking yourself: all this activism and commitment – where does it get you, what good does it ever do?’ asks a 52-year-old university lecturer in Robert Barnard’s novel A City of Strangers (1990). ‘Remember when we used to laugh at Feiffer and Peanuts, and sing “Little Boxes”? And where did it all get us? A decade of Thatcher and the market as God.’
The middle-aged middle-class were losing their faith. ‘I don’t believe in anything,’ despairs Alix in Margaret Drabble’s The Radiant Way (1987). ‘I believe it’s all hopeless. Hopeless. It’s all over. There’s no way back, and no way forward that we can go. We’re washed up.’
Even those who didn’t quite give in to such levels of misery were often just going through the motions. ‘He had been too publicly committed and for too long to renege now,’ wrote P.D. James of her left-wing character Maurice Palfrey in Innocent Blood (1980). ‘He felt like an old campaigner who no longer believes in his cause but finds it enough that there is a battle and he knows his own side.’
It was not just the triumph of the right that was giving concern, for the new, more aggressively proletarian left was equally threatening. Palfrey feels an instinctive antagonism towards those in the next generation with whom he might once have sided: ‘He had become increasingly petty, irritated by details, by the diminishing, for example, of their forenames, Bill, Bert, Mike, Geoff, Steve. He wanted to enquire peevishly if a commitment to Marxism was incompatible with a disyllabic forename.’
In John Mortimer’s novel Summer’s Lease (1988) the elderly Haverford Downs (played in the television adaptation by John Gielgud), although still writing a column for a leftist magazine, notes ‘with a sense of humiliation and disgust that the pages of the Informer were now given over to articles on gay rights, the “politics of feminism” and peer pressure towards glue-sniffing in the inner cities’.
This feeling that the young left – whether they were attracted to Trotskyism, Bennism or identity politics – no longer respected their elders and betters was not confined to fiction. In a 1979 essay in Encounter magazine titled ‘Inquest on a Movement’, David Marquand, a former Labour MP and a leading disciple of Roy Jenkins, had complained that the party had become dominated by a proletarianism that allowed little room now for the middle-class intellectual strand that had been part of the left from the outset.
In the words of Jenkin Riderhood in Iris Murdoch’s The Book and the Brotherhood: ‘Learned people, intellectuals, have lost their confidence, their kind of protest is being esoteric. And at the other end it’s smashing things. There’s a gap where the theories ought to be, where the thinking ought to be.’
Perhaps the inevitable conclusion came with the 1981 television version of Malcolm Bradbury’s 1975 novel The History Man about Howard Kirk, a self-regarding sociology lecturer whose radicalism had made him a big fish in the small pond of his redbrick university, but who is starting to feel the pinch. The last episode ended with a caption explaining that Howard voted for the Conservatives in 1979.