Financial Times, by Simon Kuper
I didn’t want Brexit, but I assumed the Brexiters had a plan. I didn’t think Donald Trump had a plan, but I assumed the Republicans did. They didn’t. Whether you like these people or not, the question is: why are they incompetent? It seems that the Brexiters really thought the EU would just bow to their demands; that they never imagined the Irish border might be a problem. Even now, the cabinet still hasn’t discussed what sort of Brexit it wants. Last week’s deal with the EU may leave the UK tracking Irish regulations for ever (or as Brexiters call it, “freedom”).
In the US, when Republicans finally got their chance to abolish Obamacare, it turned out they had spent seven years not preparing an alternative. Much of their tax bill got handwritten overnight by lobbyists. And Russiagate’s key characteristic is amateurism. Mike Flynn and others didn’t declare obvious contacts with foreign officials, assuming nobody would notice. Trump appeared to incriminate himself by tweeting that he knew Flynn broke the law, but then his lawyer said he’d written the tweet. Richard Nixon’s downfall was not his crime but his cover-up; this time there’s hardly any cover-up. The only comparable folly in recent US-UK history is the Iraq war. So what explains this incompetence? It’s useful here to recall the contrast — often drawn in the US in the 1990s — between the “greatest generation” who fought the second world war, and the baby boomers. From the 1940s until the 1990s, most politicians in both countries were men who had fought a world war. That experience shaped them. Harold Macmillan, British prime minister from 1957 to 1963, had been wounded five times in the first world war.
Once, after being hit in the knee and pelvis, he lay in a shell hole for 12 hours, medicating himself with morphine, playing dead when Germans came near, and reading Aeschylus in the original Greek, writes Richard Davenport-Hines in An English Affair. Macmillan reflected much later that posh officers such as himself, leading working-class troops, “learnt for the first time how to . . . feel at home with a whole class with whom we could not have come into contact in any other way”. In addition, he was responsible for their lives. No wonder he never afterwards shook the “inside feeling that something awful and unknown was about to happen”. As prime minister, writes Davenport-Hines, he sometimes spent weekends hiding in bed. You could tell similar stories about Clement Attlee (badly wounded in Iraq in the first world war, prime minister 1945-1951), John F Kennedy and George HW Bush. In 1975, 81 per cent of US senators were military veterans, says the Pew Research Center. Experience of war doesn’t guarantee seriousness (see Flynn) but it helps. Other 20th-century leaders of these countries — Lyndon B Johnson, Bill Clinton, John Major — had a different visceral experience: poverty. They too knew in their bones that government mattered. But both countries have now fallen into the hands of well-off baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964 — the luckiest members of the luckiest generation in history. These people had no formative experiences, only TV shows. They never expected anything awful or unknown to happen. They went into politics mostly for kicks.
The paradigmatic shift was from George HW Bush (born 1924) to his son (born 1946). Like Trump, Bush Jr spent much of his early presidency on vacation. Then 9/11 jolted him into frenzied activity: the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s often said that today’s politicians have no experience outside politics, but they do. Bush Jr ran a baseball club, Boris Johnson wrote funny columns, and Trump played a successful businessman on television. Along the way they learnt a skill their predecessors mostly lacked: performing on mass media. Then came populism, which validated amateurism. No need for “experts” — anyone could do the job. Thoughtful people who couldn’t bellow simplifications on TV drifted out of politics. Populism polarised. So the new governments selected people for their loyalty to the cause. Theresa May, as prime minister, had to give the “three Brexiteers”, Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox, jobs for which nothing in their experience had prepared them. Days after Trump’s election, his daughter Ivanka seized control of a transition meeting, praised Flynn’s “amazing loyalty”, and asked him, “General, what job do you want?” This month in Alabama’s senate race, Trump endorsed another loyalist: alleged paedophile Roy Moore. So we’re left with an insouciant, inexperienced political class of mostly ageing white men.
Thankfully, that will soon change. Everyone raised under baby-boomer rule has learnt that awful and unknown things can happen anytime. Brexit and Trump have mobilised a generation of young people, taught them that government matters, and shown that not screwing up is a lofty goal. Unprecedented numbers of US women — most of them born post boom — are now seeking election at every political level. In the Senate, there are about 10 times more female candidates than in 2014. They will have a generation’s worth of mess to clean up.