Interview: David Willetts

It’s taken David Willetts two years to sum up the problems facing Britain in the coming two decades.

By Alex Stevenson

The Conservative ex-minister, who currently holds the higher education portfolio in David Cameron’s shadow Cabinet, takes a philosophical view of the rigours of being out of government. Apart from anything else, it opens up more time.

“In politics we’re all so busy with the day-to-day that it can be hard to take some steps back and look what’s happened to the country overall,” he explains breezily. “For me personally, being in opposition has been a fantastic opportunity to do just that.”

The Pinch is the result of this semi-sabbatical. Its 313 pages are categorised by the publishers under ‘economics’, but this work’s ambition extends far beyond the dismal science. Willetts draws on philosophy, game theory and history as he explains the consequences of the unusually large baby-boomer generation. Being part of this larger cohort was a “fantastic advantage”, it turns out.

Listen to the audio interview in full:

“Because the baby boom is such a big cohort we can track their progress through society like a python eating a pig – watching the bulge work its way through,” he says. “But this large generation are now in positions of enormous power. We’ve ended up with a world which very much operates in our economic interest.”

Those born under Harold MacMillan, not their parents, have turned out to be the ones who never had it so good. Think about it: those now aged between 45 and 65 have benefited hugely from the house price boom. They haven’t experienced the same pressure on wages as the younger generations, who have seen theirs fall behind the older workers. There are pensions problems now, of course, but these are nothing compared to what’s ahead.

Willetts asks whether any of the old people I know genuinely complain about their status. Perhaps it’s just me, but all my old relatives all insist they were glad to grow up when they did. Willetts nods, satisfied, as he explains how the “hard economic evidence” backs up this claim that the younger generations have had a “rawer deal”. The low point is expected to come by around 2030. He writes: “Demographic pressures, climate change, energy security, pressures on water and food supplies: all this adds up to a time of peril for humanity.”

Being long in opposition, Willetts has had a lot of time to think about the implications of this ‘long emergency’. Doing so, he claims, has raised the book above everyday politics. It takes a longer-term view, far above the scrappy exchanges usually to be found in Westminster. Worries about the baby-boomers’ legacy are “well-grounded”, he insists – but this is not the political debate. “The political debate is what you do about it.”

Instead his interest is in pointing a way out of this generational deadlock. The solution, he argues, is simply to persuade the baby-boomers that they need to take steps to give some of their prosperity back. He insists this is easier than it sounds. “I always find people are most susceptible about their obligation to future generations. I think it’s a very powerful argument.”

Powerful, maybe, but not necessarily compelling. At the heart of The Pinch is a tension between the apparently unstoppable demographic juggernaut that is the babyboomers, rampaging their way through the second half of the 20th century and beyond, and the vain hope that individuals can make a difference to change this. Is it really possible to defy the baby-boomer tsunami?

His reply reveals the answer: breaking down big socio-economic trends to a scale we can all understand.

“People lead such segregated lives I sometimes think the baby-boomers are just unaware of what’s happening in other generations,” Willetts says, after explaining his theory that contact between the generations has contracted to families only. After all, it was my grandparents I thought of when asked to think about the attitudes of those born after the Second World War. “My belief is – and perhaps I’m just being a naive optimist – if you just get people to think through the prism of succeeding generations, that itself can change their behaviour.”

The Pinch may not come up with the answers in practical terms, but this general solution is fundamentally reliant on a very Conservative preoccupation: the family. The book’s first chapter is devoted to the very British evolution of this institution, which he argues was always smaller and more compact than on the continent. He shows how Britain’s socio-economic culture led to the baby-boomers – and how the recovery from the crisis they will present the country with in the coming years could be rooted in the family.

“Many boomers are very worried about the prospects for their own kids. “This obligation between the generations is a very powerful part of human nature.” So when it comes to the tough decisions we face, he suggests, the best argument to put forward is that “we have an obligation” to pass on the prosperity to the next generation.

Having dismissed the party political element from the subject covered by his book, Willetts goes on to claim it is the book’s long-term focus, rather than its interest in the family, which makes it inherently Tory.

“Surely one of the things that makes life worthwhile is you really want to pass on something to the next generation at least as good if not better,” he protests. “That sense of picking up the baton… for me is very Conservative because it’s not short-term. The book is not written from a narrow partisan perspective – but deep down I hope there is some Conservative thinking behind it.”

Whether other parties would agree with this statement is, of course, a matter of party politics. It might have been better not to raise the question at all: for the whole point of this unusual interest in the longer-term view, far above even the five-yearly election cycle, is that partisanship becomes somewhat muted.

For Willetts it’s been an enjoyable exercise. The intellectual tag is not one he will readily admit to, despite the nickname ‘Two Brains’ having stuck many years ago. Yet it’s clear he’s thoroughly aware of the rarity of this status within the Commons.

“Politicians come in all shapes and sizes with different interests and different aptitudes,” he says, smiling.

“I’m not sure the world wants 650 MPs writing books and there are other colleagues who contribute to public life in different ways. This is just the way for me personally. I try to make a contribution.”

The Pinch, by David Willetts MP, was published in hardback by Atlantic on February 3rd