This week, we saw a real British revolution: the handover of power from a Labour government to the Conservative-Liberal Democrat adminstration, this country’s first coalition government since World War II.
But another transition took place this week, that may prove to be every bit as important. The baby boomers’ generation, embodied by the outgoing Labour prime minister, Gordon Brown (born 1951) and the party’s deputy leader, Harriett Harman (born 1950), were sent packing.
In their place came Conservative prime minister, David Cameron (born 1966) and Liberal Democrat deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg (born 1967). They are both representatives of what the American commentator Jonathan Pontell calls Generation Jones. This cohort was born between 1955 and 1967 and they are the real children and not the “flower children” of the 1960s, part of a demographic bridge that came between the “boomers” and Generation X, born between 1968 and 1980.
Pontell describes Generation Jones as:
practical idealists, forged in the fires of social upheaval while too young to play a part.
Yes, the UK has cabinet government, not a presidential system and some of the new coalition’s key players and senior office holders are not part of Generation Jones. The chancellor, George Osborne (born 1971) is a GenXer. The business secretary, Vince Cable from the Liberal Democrats, was born during World War II. Tory “big beast” Ken Clarke (born 1940) predates them all.
But the demographic tilt is unmistakeable. The foreign secretary, William Hague was born in 1961. The home secretary, Theresa May was born in 1956, the education secretary Michael Gove in 1967 and the defence secretary Liam Fox in 1961. On the Liberal Democrat side, the chief secretary to the Treasury, David Laws was born in 1965.
And the new parliament is dominated by Generation Jones. Dods Research has found that 291 of the 649 MPs elected so far were born between 1955 and 1967.
These UK politicians join other Jonesers who have reached the top of politics in recent years: Frances’s president Nicolas Sarkozy (born 1955), Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel (born 1954), Australia’s prime minister Kevin Rudd (born 1957), London’s mayor Boris Johnson (born 1964) and New Zealand’s prime minister John Key (born 1961).
What marks these leaders out is their efforts to leave behind old political battles, and, perhaps, core ideologies. Sarkozy would rather that France forgot all about Paris in May 1968. Key was too young to protest against the Vietnam war and, astonishingly, once said that he could not remember whether he was for or against the 1981 Springbok tour. And, of course, Barack Obama offered Americans the opportunity to move on from the culture wars that started in the 1960s. He came to prominence by declaring, “there is no red state America, there is no blue state America; there is the United States of America”.
But whether they stand on the moderate left or the moderate right, the leaders from Generation Jones have been less clear about defining what they stand for, as opposed to what they want to cast aside.
The UK’s new leaders seem to fit the Jones pattern. David Cameron defined himself by breaking with Thatcherism and insisting that there is such a thing as society after all. Nick Clegg is the first leader of the Liberal Democrats who has not belonged to either the Liberal Party or the SDP. Much of the analysis of the UK’s new coalition government has focussed on the prevailing “pragmatism” of Cameron and Clegg. [Click here, here and here.]
Yet there may be more to Britain’s Jonesers than pragmatic politics; the "new politics" is not value-free. The May 2010 issue of Prospect magazine features a lengthy article about what David Cameron stands for. The writer, Wendell Stevenson, concludes that Cameron is motivated by the need to serve and to lead but has not yet formed a clear vision of where he wants to take the country. Cameron can point to a big idea: the “big society”, based on community and volunteerism, even if he has not been able to explain what it really means.
Nick Clegg has written and spoken extensively about:
"a progressive politics [that is] about empowerment, reducing dependency on the state, increasing social mobility through individual empowerment, releasing power from the centre politically . . ."
Many times he has described his mission as to “change politics and change Britain.”
After the election resulted in a hung parliament, Cameron reached out to Nick and offered to begin talks aimed at sharing power in government. They succeeded; the Lib Dems did very well, despite coming to the table with a poor hand. Whatever anyone thinks of the new alliance between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, nobody can doubt that for both parties, it’s a risk of historic dimensions. Both Cameron and Clegg have put themselves and their parties on the line to make the “new politics” a reality.
Practical idealism, or what?
Welcome to the age of Generation Jones.