Joyce McMillan: UK divided between the young and the old

Kezia Dugdale made the parliamentary speech of her life, but are such attacks hitting home asks Joyce McMillan.
Kezia Dugdale made the parliamentary speech of her life, but are such attacks hitting home asks Joyce McMillan.
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We are now in the hands of a demographic who have simply had enough of progressive concepts says Joyce McMillan

Tuesday of this week, in the Scottish Parliament; and MSPs are debating the Conservative government’s notorious “rape clause”, the provision which exempts mothers from the recent legislation limiting state family credits to two children, provided they are willing to fill in an eight-page form proving that their third or subsequent child was conceived as a result of rape.

In a rare show of unity, the SNP and Labour parties unite to condemn this horrible piece of legislation; indeed the Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, makes the parliamentary speech of her life, reducing the Tory ranks to what seems like a stunned and ashamed silence. And their leader, Ruth Davidson, looks particularly uncomfortable - as befits a social liberal who helped to kick-start the recent Conservative revival in Scotland by shaking off the Tories’ “nasty party” image, and giving the party a younger, more tolerant and more compassionate look.

As the debate unfolds, though, it’s difficult not to feel a sense of futility, as if the criticisms of the measure - however eloquent - are simply failing to hit any target that might actually make a difference. For of late, something has happened to right-wing politics in Britain, and perhaps across the western world; a sharp swerve to the right - typified by the Tories’ sudden shift towards a ‘hard Brexit’ - that seems to have left many voters impervious to arguments about the cruelty or bigotry of the policies they support. It first became obvious during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, when his supporters resolutely refused to be shocked by any of his comments, whether racist, sexist, or downright abusive.

And since the EU referendum, it has become increasingly clear that here in Britain, too, our politics is now being driven by a large group of mainly older voters who have simply had enough of the 21st century and its supposed values, and want to dial back to some imagined past. By the time the polls close on 8 June, Scotland will have endured no fewer than six major elections in less than 1000 days; and it is a fact that if only voters under 40 had taken part, at least three of those six would have had radically different results, with Scotland becoming independent, all the countries of the UK remaining in the EU, and Jeremy Corbyn now looking forward to moving into Downing Street.

Yet thanks to high voting figures among older age-groups, and the increasingly right-wing views of that group, the Britain in which we are living - overwhelmingly Tory, and committed to a hard Brexit despite a wafer-thin majority for any Brexit at all - has become a country shaped largely by older men and and women, according to their own priorities. It’s not, of course, that all younger people are radical and progressive, and all older people reactionary and illiberal; to generalise about whole generations is always to do a grave injustice to those who do not fit the stereotype.

To judge by their voting patterns, though, we are now in the hands of a demographic who have simply had enough of a whole raft of progressive concepts like social justice, racial and gender equality, European unity, environmental protection, workers’ rights, or anything at all to do with tackling climate change. And increasingly, they are not interested in arguments about just how morally repellent and practically counter-productive many right-wing policies are. They know all that, just as Donald Trump’s supporters knew all about their candidate’s character; and it simply makes no difference.

All of which leaves British politics in a very strange place, and Scottish politics in an even stranger one. When Ruth Davidson set out on her Scottish Conservative journey, David Cameron was Prime Minister, social liberalism was in vogue in Downing Street, and her task in Scotland was to replace the hard-faced image of ideological Thatcherism with something more up-to-date, genial, practical and pleasant.

Now, though, Ruth Davidson finds herself at the head of a party that is flourishing in the polls not as the cheerful, forward-looking friend of Scottish business, but as the go-to destination not only for diehard Unionists of all shades, but also for a high proportion of Scotland’s Brexiteers, including some from the SNP, and - presumably - most of those Scots who voted Ukip in the last EU elections. Over the last few years, we have seen images of Ruth Davidson riding all sorts of animals, including a rhinoceros; but now, she may often find herself riding an elderly, bad-tempered tiger - one whose views she does not share, and which has an alarming tendency to veer off in a rightward direction.

None of that, of course, will detract from the Scottish Tories’ intense pleasure at establishing themselves ever more firmly as Scotland’s second party, and doubtless taking a handful of Westminster seats from the SNP, who will struggle - given the increasing concentration of the Unionist vote - to repeat their remarkable near-clean-sweep of 2015.

Only a politician with exceptionally blinkered vision, though - and Theresa May perfectly fits the bill - could fail to be concerned about the fate of a UK so profoundly divided between the priorities of the old and of the young, and so bent on a direction of travel that seems driven more by nostalgia for Britain’s past, than by any convincing vision of its future. And while there are liberal Unionists in Scotland who say they are thinking of voting Tory this time, because Ruth Davidson doesn’t seem too bad, they should be careful, before they mark that ballot paper, not to underestimate the extent to which the Tory party at Westminster has changed, since the dramatic events of last summer.

For in the end, their vote will be a vote not for Ruth Davidson, but for Theresa May, for more savage austerity, for the post-Brexit slashing of social and environmental protections, and for the baying ranks of Westminster Toryism, bent on further Atlanticist military adventures in the age of Donald Trump. And for all Boris Johnson’s famous “wit”, as he quips his way around the world in the role of Foreign Secretary, that prospect is no joke; not for Scotland, and not for the UK as a whole.