Matthew d’Ancona’s generation was born around the late sixties and early seventies. They never solved the problems they inherited, and created a host of new ones all on their own.
They treated serious things with irreverence, and irrelevant things with seriousness. They were slavish to America, ignored China and took Europe for granted. Many of them backed the Iraq War and don’t understand why that means they can never be trusted with anything important ever again.
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This is a generation that hid, or squandered what intelligence it had. They believed in win-wins and public private partnerships, or giving each others’ talentless children plum jobs. Publicly concerned — no, obsessed — with equality, they presided over a society that became as unequal as the one Horace Walpole lived in. Incredibly, they oversaw a decline in the average life expectancy for the first time in 110 years. They never built enough houses. They thought Will Self was a novelist, and Amber Rudd a future Prime Minister. They answered every policy question with the word “education”, so now our cities overflow with miserable PhD-holding baristas.
Their greatest achievement? Maybe Britpop, or the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony, which are both ways of saying they don’t have one. Their lowest moment? The great triggering year of 2016 — which is when they collectively lost their minds. Ever since, these centrist Dads and Mums have faced their cultural twilight and political downfall with whatever the opposite of bravery is.
d’Ancona, whose book Identity Ignorance Innovation came out recently, is a flawless minor representative of this generation, and the age they lived in. He edited the Spectator and wrote columns about Westminster for the Sunday Telegraph. Like so many of his peers, he was a cultural populist, a believer in high-low relativity who never connected the culture of the nation with the court politics he obsessed over. He thought Brexit the “idiot option”.
So, of course, Brexit happened.
Then, from a new seat at the Guardian, d’Ancona dreamed his hideous dreams of post-Brexit Britain. We were duped. We were becoming a country in the mould of Philip Larkin: wintry, hopelessly nostalgic, ferociously bigoted, and alone — “an absurd and horrible vision”. He was finally finding his conscience as a peddler of big ideas, not backstage tittle-tattle. With Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back, d’Ancona successfully landed his vault into the world of sub-TED, high-altitude musing. Post-Truth was one of three books with the same title published in 2017. Each asked how 17 million fools could be so easily hoodwinked by a slogan on the side of a bus. The big idea in all of them was that politicians lie.
Identity Ignorance Innovation is more of the same from d’Ancona. Quite literally: there are whole anecdotes and phrases of the “Ignorance” and “Innovation” chapters that are hard to distinguish from sections of Post Truth. Sometimes, as with sections on racial injustice in Britain or how to make 20-somethings more employable, d’Ancona does a seal roll onto his side and burps his ideas out as bullet points, like a harried junior writing a summary for an executive, not a professional journalist writing non-fiction that retails for a mighty £20.
Like many writers of his generation, he views his ideas as “fiercely contemporary”. The self-image is that of the truth-teller: the bold intellect riskily crossing the lonely and treacherous frontiers of modern thought. “Countercultural” is the word he repeatedly uses, as if the ideas between the covers of Identity Ignorance Innovation are dangerous, or provocative, or fresh.
What are these ideas? It is hard to say in the sections on “Ignorance” and “Innovation”. The former is a lament about education, and how stupid grade-chasing has made the under-30s. They are “brilliant but ignorant”. Their potential intelligence has been crushed by “the deranged pressures of the digital microsecond” — the what now? Is it bold to think that the young are scandalously dense? No, it’s de rigueur, not just for d’Ancona and his generation, but every one since the Pyramids were built.
Is there a big idea then? Well, d’Ancona argues that liberals should view identity politics as an “entirely constructive adrenaline shot to the body politic”. Despite apologetically declaring himself a “one man privilege carnival”, he wants to grapple with race, cancel culture, Trans rights, statue-toppling and all the other deathless culture wars issues that vex our banana kingdom.
He thinks that these are trip-wire subjects that nobody else will touch and regrets that other commentators have “in the interests of a quiet life… crept away from this particular field of inquiry”. Have they? Has Matthew Parris shied away from writing about these issues? Has Janice Turner? Has Trevor Philips? That’s just a few columnists at The Times. Even people who have only picked up a pen by accident in the last 12 months have probably fired off a thousand word think-piece about J.K. Rowling. It is practically a beloved national pastime for us to argue about these things at this point, like making jokes about Charles assassinating Diana, or letting Michael Portillo make his television shows about train lines in the Balkans.
Identity politics is, d’Ancona thinks, at “an important and exciting moment in its development”. The rise of movements that place racial, religious and sexual identity at their core has encouraged “a little more humility and restraint”. Well, I read Identity Ignorance Innovation in the week when a group forced a teacher into hiding, and within a few days of David Lammy being told that he was not English by a call-in guest on his radio show. Both incidents were examples of where identity politics is taking us, and will continue to take us, if it is not challenged. Exciting moments indeed!
On behalf of no one in particular, except liberal-ish centrist Dads who he flies a flag for, d’Ancona wants to make an offer to the youngsters who will not “tolerate the quiet bigotries of the past”. Look to America — bastion of racial decency and good practice — and see what we could build as allies together. Affirmative action can be used to nudge cultural norms towards “benign outcomes” on racial issues. If that doesn’t end injustice, d’Ancona assures his younger readers, “stronger medicine” can be taken.
In return for affirmative action (we have to hope that, unlike America, these policies do not summon a splenetic white identity politics into being) d’Ancona would like Gen Z to let him undertake the modernisation projects he has been banging on about since the 1990s. An “overhaul” of parliamentary procedure; “a new second chamber”; “real power to metro mayors”; “a fully codified constitution”.
But these are the reforms of an old Westminster “moderniser”, not somebody who cares about young people. Will overhauled parliamentary procedure or petty tyrant metro mayors build ambitious, beautiful garden suburbs, where the young can live good, decent lives around our major cities? No.
I suspect the last time the young looked this scary was the late 1970s. And the Britpop generation, whether it is d’Ancona or Will Self, Rachel Johnson or Ian Hislop, are getting on a bit. They are approaching the same age Harold Macmillan was when Peter Cook began doing his humiliating impression of the Prime Minister. Nobody has really come after them, but all the material is there: Pooterish social climbing, Partridge-level crap ideas, Fawlty-like exasperation amid a changing world.
Ridiculously, they still carry on like they are hated by an establishment full of port-soaked aristocrats and Thatcherites who want Nelson Mandela to stay in prison. Wrong: all those reactionaries died a long time ago; they are the establishment and have been for decades. They will have their Macmillan moment.
Ultimately, of all the vague and uninspiring proposals in Identity Ignorance Innovation, it is that last one — the codified constitution — that is the funniest. Imagine the d’Ancona constitution being chiselled into stone tablets and hung around the land. His generation’s prejudices would be made into law, to bedevil the British for centuries to come.
It was bad enough to be their children. At least when their grandchildren write the histories of the Britpoppers, they may have enough distance to treat them with the fairness they scarcely deserve.