Tuesday, January 04, 2005

A sideways look

We have received this commentary from a respected former Times journalist, Jim McCue, for publication on our Blog. Jim calls his piece "Wasting a Generation".

Not directly related to the EU, it nevertheless fills in the gaps in the broader social and political environment in which constructs like the EU can and do operate. In so doing, McCue points up the lack of moral "centre" and the vacuum in politics, all of which demonstrates – as indeed we have before – that the EU is only part of the problem. In some respects, it is only a symptom of the problem.


When my nephew Peter won a scholarship to Winchester, I was delighted – and a little envious – to think of the fun he would have mixing with some of the cleverest people of his generation. It is an unconventional place, after 600 years of going its own way, and likes to challenge every kind of rule, but the thing it prizes above all is brains.

Because Peter and I are close, I've been lucky enough to meet a good many of his friends from Winchester and then Cambridge, and some of them have become close friends too – greatly valued by me for their knowledge and wide reading, their spirit of adventure, their integrity and loyalty.

But now they are in trouble. In their mid-twenties, after trekking round the world and taking their double firsts studying everything from Homer to homeland security policy, they find that they don’t fit and don’t know what to do.

A former girlfriend of Peter's has just died of heroin. Three other friends have been killed, separately, in car crashes. Bad rolls of the dice, perhaps, but there is something more.

They are becoming a wasted generation, because they cannot find outlets for their talents. After all that education, they find themselves set loose in a society that doesn't care about brains – indeed despises them.

So they are working in pubs and hospitals, as tourist guides, or taking further degrees for the sake of finding a little funding. They are living virtually in squats because London accommodation is so expensive, and they don't have any plans beyond tomorrow.

Why the paralysis? Why aren’t they on the career ladder? Because, I think, they cannot face the lies they would have to tell in almost any job, and the truckling that is now involved in all walks of life.

When one of them got a job on a national newspaper, he was night-editing the foreign pages within six months, and gave me an eye-opening analysis of how the newsroom was mismanaged. He wanted things done properly, and found the cowardice and spin intolerable. Now he has gone to Jerusalem on an academic pretext, full of sympathy for the Palestinians.

Meanwhile Peter has worked in care homes and restaurants, as a chess tutor, on a farm and in nursery schools, but he won't have anything to do with conventional graduate jobs because the demands are so compromising.

Politics, more intensely and more obviously than ever before, now involves abasing oneself before ideas that any intelligent person can see are stupid and self-contradictory. Almost all journalism is the same, and so are advertising, marketing and work for any large company. The values of big businesses are contemptible, and so are most of the products. And in addition, companies are now cynically managed in a thousand ways merely in order to comply with nonsensical regulations, the constant threat of litigation and the demands of all-powerful health and safety officers.

The public services, notoriously, are worse. The police are afraid to make an arrest because it means five hours of paperwork; hospitals have more office workers than nurses; teachers are terrified of their pupils and cannot teach. And whether publicly or privately funded, the great professions, medicine, the law and education have all been corrupted by illegitimate political demands.

Political stupidity has brought the pensions and financial services industry to its knees. And regulation – largely stemming from the EU, a law-making machine that no one knows how to turn off – is about to drive out of business thousands of household electricians, just as it has bankrupted so many abattoirs, fishermen and nursing home owners. No one in his right mind would set up his own business today, or even dream of employing another person.

So what is left? My nephew is working, unpaid, for the Green Alliance. It's one of the few places he can imagine working that wouldn't make him feel grubby. Gradually, though, he is coming to the conclusion that carefully argued environmental plans cannot realistically expect to make any headway against the endless jobbery and pandering of public life, against the quangos and lobbyists, the absurd shibboleths and tokenism, and a system of political bartering which so often achieves the worst of both worlds. What is the point of scrupulous analysis, when what happens depends upon mere accidents of personality?

For all their energy and knowledge, some of the best brains of the rising generation are unable to find any place to start or anything to be loyal to. It's not just that George Bush is lying and dissembling, but that John Kerry was too, and so is everyone else. It's part of the game. You have to do things that you know are wrong to survive. Shut your mouth and hold your nose, fiddle your expenses and do as you are told, play the system and then get out.

Is that the best we can offer?

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