For Sweden’s Axess magasin
The greying of Europe is changing the politics of Europe, although all people want to talk about now is how it is changing the continent’s economy. It is, of course, always worth asking whether society can afford to spend more on pensions and healthcare. But what kind of society we are becoming is a more important question still.
In Britain, the rise of the UK Independent Party to become the third most popular party in the country has given us a foretaste of a future dominated by an elderly population. Established politicians do not know what to make of it. Leftists denounce Ukip as a “far right” party. But although all kinds of extremists have joined, the label is a libel, as Ukip has no connection with the European fascist tradition. Meanwhile Conservatives do not know whether to cheer it for shifting British politics to the right or to worry that it will split the right-wing vote. In their happier moments, they say Ukip supporters will realise that only the Conservative Party can deliver the tough measures against immigration and the European Union they want, and vote for David Cameron. But they may be deluding themselves.
While it is true most who vote UKIP are against the EU and immigration, their main motive is a nostalgia for lost order of the mid-20th century the metropolitan Cameron will find hard to satisfy. As I keep saying, Britain is distinct from the rest of Europe. The communists and the Nazis never invaded. There were no collaborators here. Unlike Ireland, Sweden and Switzerland, Britain not only avoided occupation, but fought and won the Second World War on the victorious side. This fact alone explains why the British are more reluctant than most submerge themselves in the European Union. Our past is not tainted – or so we like to think.
In my youth in the 1970s, television, film and the press still ensured that the Second World War and the values that saw Britain through to victory were everywhere. I grew up under their long shadows. But all shadows fade, and a socially and economically liberal elite – the children of the 1960s – replaced the old patriotic order. If you are under 50, the values of mid-20th century Britain are unlikely to make a great deal of sense.
When a wealthy British Conservative paid for a huge poll of Ukip voters, he found they possessed a deep suspicion of the modern world. They told the market researchers that politically correct institutions sneered at their patriotism and Christian faith. Liberals stopped schools from producing nativity plays for fear of upsetting Muslims, and treated England’s national flag as a racist emblem. You couldn’t even smack your children these days without being arrested, or get social housing unless you were an immigrant.
As it happens, there are no laws against nativity plays or flying the flag. But Ukip’s persecution complex is not wholly paranoid. Broadcasting, academia and the progressive bureaucracy have no sympathy with their traditional patriotism. An established order, which once supported their values, now rejects them. Ukip supporters feel as if they have given their loyalty to the British state only for the state to turn round and say, after a lifetimes of service, that it despises them.
So what, you might ask. The old always find the new frightening. But the old are growing in number and staying with us for much, much longer. Britain now has twice as many pensioners (12 million) as 18 to 24-years-olds (5.9 million). Those pensioners are also far more likely to vote.
UKIP will never form a government. It may never even win a seat in Parliament. But all political parties want the votes it attracts. Politicians are already cutting benefits for the young but leaving pensioner entitlements alone for fear of the electoral consequences. They will bend the knee many more times before the power of the grey vote.
Britain’s future will not be far right, but suspicious and cantankerous. I cannot see a way out of it.
Equally, I cannot see how an arthritic country in an arthritic continent can do anything other than decline.