In a fascinating leader this week The Economist heralds the arrival of a world it’s been holding out for for 170 years – one that is socially and economically liberal. Charting the change in attitudes amongst the young (approx. 18-30 year olds) The Economist claims that in Britain we have emerging in our midst a generation – of which, at 32, I’m probably just a part – less statist in terms of its political instincts and more tolerant in terms of its personal preferences.
Evidence? Consumer behaviour. Trends. Polls. For example, while 70 per cent of the pre-war generation, and 61 per cent of baby boomers, believe the creation of the welfare state is one of Britain’s proudest achievements, only 30 per cent of those under 30 agree.
The obvious counter-argument to their thesis The Economist is quick to raise and quick to dispatch. It is that you’re just more likely to be socially liberal when you’re young (but when you have kids you’ll start to care about sex and drugs) and less likely to be welfarist (until you start needing a bit of help, either when you start a family or as you age). No, says The Economist, young people are still more liberal now than previous generations.
Now I wasn’t around in the 1960s, but I get the impression that a lot of people felt that the social liberalism of the young was new then too. While the Labour administration which came to power in 1964 had been heavily influenced by the revisionism of Antony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism: a fact borne out by its greater commitment to liberalizing society than collectivizing the economy.
But what the 1960s comparison also suggests is that The Economist’s giddy excitement about the emergence of this new world is naïve. They have forgotten what to others is well understood: that in both the U.K. and the U.S. 60s ‘liberation’ in fact meant enslavement; that in terms of drugs, openness led to addiction; that individualism led to inequality and broken communities – and that all of these problems were amplified in the lives of the poorest.