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The petrol queues seem like a throwback. But at least in the 70s our leaders weren’t so callow

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA</span>
Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

Among the words that will send the collective British psyche into panic, three are among the most potent: Christmas, petrol, and winter. Put them together, and you have the perfect ingredients for a crisis, made all the more surreal by the fact that one of its key causes – Brexit – is a word no one in politics wants to mention.

Despite ministers’ assurances that the lack of fuel is all in our heads, queues at garage forecourts extend into the distance. Supermarkets are full of empty shelves; rising energy prices threaten household budgets. Everybody knows that the UK’s labour shortages are dire, and that a deficit of 100,000 hauliers is serious indeed.

The government, meanwhile, is once again all over the place, first refusing to look at its impossibly stringent visa rules, before announcing yet another U-turn. We are now, it seems, offering EU workers who have gone home the most Brexity of re-enticements: 5,000 fuel tanker and lorry drivers, along with 5,500 “poultry workers”, will apparently be eligible to work in the UK until Christmas Eve … whereupon, having ensured the festive season can go ahead, they will be sent packing.

Headlines over the past week have repeatedly drawn comparisons with the fabled winter of discontent of 1978-79. For a few people, that might also evoke hopes of some Margaret Thatcher-esque saviour sooner or later coming to clean up the mess. But most seem to implicitly acknowledge that, with the endless consequences of Brexit and the unfolding effects of the climate crisis, life is going to be full of trouble and uncertainty for a long time to come. That, in turn, leads to two questions: who might have the skills to somehow lead us through it all? And why do our current front-rank politicians hardly inspire confidence?

The answer to the latter question, it seems to me, is partly generational. Not long after the 2008 crash, I interviewed Denis Healey, the Labour elder statesman who had been chancellor from 1974 to 1979, in truly dreadful circumstances. When we met, Gordon Brown was sliding towards eventual defeat, while the comparatively callow David Cameron and George Osborne prepared for power.

Healey’s time as chancellor, he told me, had been defined by “fucking disaster”. We talked about inflation, strikes, shortages and a plunging pound. And about the stress such things caused: he had developed shingles, as well as repeatedly suffering colds and flu. “I wanted to make a success of the job,” he said. “It was very tiring, but I’d been in the army for five years in the war, so I’d learned to put up with things.”

This latter point was rather understated: his political generation had come of age in the 1930s, put their lives on the line as the world fell apart (while serving with the Royal Engineers, Healey was a beachmaster at the Battle of Anzio in 1944), and then played their part in both postwar reconstruction and managing the social and political disasters that followed the oil price shock of 1973. What they experienced highlighted something latter-day politicians often seem not to understand – that power is usually not about great political victories or even modest success, but crisis management, the probability of failure, and the skills and experience needed to cope.

As well as recklessness and ideological zeal, Thatcher – who was born in 1925 – had some of the war generation’s air of heft and seriousness, but such qualities began to dwindle away in the John Major years. And when New Labour took power, though Brown often resembled the kind of politician that had defined the decades after the war, Tony Blair heralded the arrival of something much flimsier. Healey told me it eventually amounted to “bullshit and nothing else”; JG Ballard caught its essential flavour when, at the end of the Blair years, he wrote about a politics of “fleeting impressions, [and] an illusion of meaning floating over a sea of undefined emotions”.

And then came people of my age, members of what was termed Generation X. On the whole, the more privileged members of that cohort had cut their teeth in a world that was economically stable, in which consumerism was king. Some were maligned as slackers, but other accounts of Generation X tended to include such adjectives as “pushy” and “motivated”. After the Berlin Wall came down, party politics was eventually erased of much ideological content, and personal ambition often seemed to be the main currency. Besides, among many who either considered themselves bright and capable or were told they were, politics seemed to be the last thing anyone wanted to get involved in (“I saw the best minds of my generation accept jobs on the fringes of the entertainment industry,” wrote Zadie Smith).

These days, I sometimes wonder whether the few members of my generation who chose that vocation simply ended up in over their heads. The years of Cameron, Osborne and Nick Clegg, and the calamities they caused, are a good case in point. So too is the recent history of the Labour party: in 2015, in the race to succeed the Gen-Xer Ed Miliband and up against three leadership candidates of a similar age, the then 66-year-old Jeremy Corbyn presented a picture of conviction and authenticity and won a massive victory. But when the baton was then passed to his younger parliamentary allies, the movement he had spawned fell apart.

In the US, Gen X’s lack of impact on liberal politics speaks volumes: the Democratic party’s last nomination contest came down to a choice between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, and radical hope now lies with that inspirational millennial Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer are at the upper end of the Generation X demographic; given that he was born in 1962, Starmer might actually belong in the dread category of Boomer. But they and many of their colleagues fit the profile of people big on ambition yet devoid of substance and grit. In search of those things, both reach for scripts left behind by previous political generations: Johnson has his Churchill fixation; and in his half-cocked confrontations with his party’s left and use of a very clunky political argot (repeated mentions of people who “work hard and play by the rules”, the tired cliche of “hardworking families”), Starmer looks like someone bumbling through a school play about Blair.

Given time, perhaps younger people who have come of age in an increasingly troubled world and have no notion of returning to old and comfortable certainties might do a better job. For now, there is only the unsettling combination of a mounting social and economic crisis, and political responses so unconvincing they suggest the Nirvana lines to which I and my fellow Gen X-ers once bellowed along, almost as an apology: “Oh well, whatever, never mind.”

  • John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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