What happened to the value of wisdom as we age?
Everyone, understandably, is focusing on the white ‘nostalgia’ bit of Vince Cable’s speech to the Lib Dem conference. His slur against older Brexit voters, whom he thinks voted against the EU because they want to go back to a world where ‘passports were blue, faces were white and the map was coloured imperial pink’, has caused a stink, and rightly so. But there was something else in the speech too that ought to send shivers down the spine of all of us who believe in democracy. Something which captured better than anything else in recent months just how fragile the ideal of democracy is in this era of political-class hysteria over Brexit.
It was the section where Cable talked about having been on a political journey. ‘I myself have been on a journey’, he said. He then described that journey:
‘[M]y own initial reaction to the referendum was to think maybe there was little choice but to pursue Brexit. I thought, you know, the public had voted to be poorer — well, that was their right. What changed my mind was the evidence that Brexit had overwhelmingly been the choice of the older generation. Seventy-five per cent of under-25s voted to remain. But 70 per cent of over-65s voted for Brexit.’
Read that again. Read it closely. What Mr Cable is saying here, openly, without shame, is that he initially thought the public had the right to vote for whatever they wanted but now he has changed his mind. His first response to Brexit was to disagree with what the masses voted for but to think to himself: ‘Well, that was their right.’ But now something has ‘changed my mind’. In short, he has changed his mind about democracy. He no longer believes the public has the right to vote for something that he thinks will be damaging to the nation or which will ‘crush the hopes’ of the younger generation, in his melodramatic words. Let’s whittle this down, shall we: Mr Cable used to believe in democracy but now he doesn’t. Journey? I’ll say.
Even worse, the reason Cable changed his mind about ‘their right’ — that is, the people’s right — to determine the fate of the nation is because ‘Brexit had overwhelmingly been the choice of the older generation’. So the fact that Brexit was more popular among older people than younger people has made Cable question the validity of this vote in particular, and more broadly, it seems, the right of the public to shape politics as they see fit. Consider the message this sends to older generations. It says they are worth less than the young. It says their votes do not, or should not, carry the same weight as young people’s votes. It tells older people that if they make up a large section of a mass democratic vote, then that mass democratic vote is problematic, and ripe for overturning.
It is a poisonous message. It demeans older people. It makes them second-class citizens.