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Heavy petting, pregnant brides, birth rates... and David Willetts

Screen shot 2010-02-26 at 07.48.05 A Book Review By Paul Goodman of "The Pinch" by David Willetts.
Atlantic Books, £18.99.

The index of this work sets the words "Jane Austen" against page 95, and "vampire bats" against page 96.  Welcome to the world of David Willetts.

Please don't all leave at once.  Admittedly, it's not always easy to take in the sheer range of the landscape or keep up with the breathless enthusiasm of the author.  But the world of Willetts is a wonderful place to visit.  During my brief trip, I discovered that:
  • The year 1964 saw a record number of pregnant brides.
  • A study of the Ache, Hiwi and Hadza groups in South America and Africa tells us at what age members of hunter-gatherer tribes became net recipients of calories generated by others.
  • The microwave oven has raised IQ.
  • Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi teenagers overtake white students academically between the ages of 11 and 16.
  • The most effective strategy for playing repeat games of "Prisoners' Dilemma" is called "Tit for Tat".
  • Paul Zak has shown that infusing the human brain with moderate does of oxytocin can induce people to trust strangers with one's money.
  • For at least 750 years, successive generations of young English couples tended to avoid full sex, "settling instead for elaborate forms of heavy petting".
  • The original British edition of "Clockwork Orange" had a happy ending.
  • Between 1970 and 2005, Britain's population rose by 8 per cent, but the number of households rose by 30 per cent.
  • We know how traders worked without enforceable laws of contract in the Middle Ages partly because of "an extraordinary cache of eleventh-century documents found in an ancient synagogue in old Cairo".
There is much, much more.  But all for the purpose of developing a theme.

"The Pinch" of the title is what Willetts believes the baby boomers are doing to nearly everyone else – and to their offspring in particular.  He seeks to explain, in the words of his sub-title, "how [they]  took their children's future - and why they should give it back".  The detail is so compelling and the digressions so serviceable as to risk distraction from the big picture.  Let me check if I've understood it by using a Willetts-type story to explain.

Imagine you're a male baby-boomer - born in 1956, more or less right in the middle of that generation and, by coincidence, the same age as Willetts himself.  Your parents are more likely to be married than those of later generations and thus - we know from research - more likely to stick together, which helps your life chances.  You are also more free as a child to play outside your home and explore the world around you than those generations will be.  If you're bright, you may well make it into a good school, during an age when social mobility was greater.  You will then go on to University where you will get a grant and not have to pay tuition fees.  When you leave, Britain is entering an age of relatively strict immigration control, so you're not undercut in the labour market by competition from abroad.  The house you buy will increase enormously in value over the next 30 years or so, assuming you don't trade up by selling it to buy another, and don't have to sell during a recession.

As you enter your 50s, you're still in demand, because you possess the "soft skills" - Willetts particularly identifies "grit" - that some younger workers just don't seem to have.  And when you reach retirement, you will be able to draw your pension earlier than successor generations, who will have to fund it from the taxes they pay.  In other words, the paunch will help to sharpen the pinch - and add weight, if generational tension turns to outright conflict, to the punch.  Weight, or size, is a key concept here - because the sheer size of the baby boomer cohort sets trends and influences politicians who fear, in this instance, the grey vote.

That's my take on Willetts's main theme, anyway.  Needless to say, some of the reviews have had more to say about Willetts himself than his themes or his world.  You know how it goes: "Birmingham upbringing...Lawson's private secretary..."two brains"...Centre for Policy Studies...enters Commons......makes front bench...sent to Whips' Office to experience more bracing side of of bother about way up of bother about grammar schools...slips down way back up it this space".

All this rather obvious political commentary tends to overlook Willetts' contribution to the Conservative movement both generally (i.e: during the past 20 years or so) and particularly (i.e: in this book).  Let me try to sum this up in three points - pausing first, as I should have done right at the start, to declare an interest: I worked in his Shadow Work and Pensions team for about two years, and rather enjoyed it.

First, Willetts is a Conservative.  This may seem a statement of the obvious.  But there's a temptation in some quarters to believe that anyone so clever is smart enough to be able to transfer his beliefs elsewhere if necessary.  This is simply wrong, at least in this case.  Willetts has been banging on about Conservatism and community for as long as David Cameron thinks some Party members have been banging on about Europe - longer, in fact.  Willetts spotted during the early 1990s that economics was not enough: that Conservatives had to have something to say about making society bigger as well as making the state smaller, and has ploughed that furrow since with the steadiness of an ox, while others, no less gifted, have flitted from one ideological branch to another like butterflies.  If you doubt it, unearth a copy of his "Civic Conservatism", published as long ago as 1994, or read the chapter "Who we are" in this book, in which Willetts once again endorses Alan Macfarlane's vision of the English as mobile individualists.

Second, Willetts has been unlucky.  I don't mean personally.  But he must surely reflect at times that he's part of an unlucky generation as well as a lucky one.  The lucky generation, as we've seen, is the baby boomers.  The unlucky one is the Conservative Commons intake of 1992.  It arrived in Parliament just as the Thatcher boom was over.  The only way to go was down.  The Major bust duly took place.  Willetts and his intake have thus spent some of the best years of the lives - years in which their brainpower and ability, married to Ministerial office, could have produced radical Conservative change - during what for the Party have been recession Parliaments, grinding away at Opposition Day debates on the wrong side of the Commons floor.  Books are no substitute for bills - to practical politicians, anyway. My sense is that this grind has had an oddly liberating effect on this book.  "The Pinch" is more free of the name-checking of colleagues, the obligatory nods to the powers-that-be, than some of Willetts' previous works.  He's writing about matters he cares about and thinks over deeply.

Third, Willetts is a politician.  Again, this may be a statement of the obvious.  But it's been startlingly neglected in the context of this book.  If it's now rare for politicians to write books at all, it's even rarer for them to publish immediately before an election.  The Party managers must have raised an eyebrow and twitched several fingers at the news.  But Willetts has written (when did he find the time?), published, offered no apparent hostages to fortune, and reminded anyone who'd forgotten that he's around.  Inevitably, the proximity of the election means that "The Pinch" offers more questions than answers.  What should government do (if anything) if the baby boomers won't give their children's future back?  By and large, the author isn't saying.  But this unusual reticence shouldn't deter the reader from diving into this book in much the same spirit as its author enjoys dipping into the Solent.  Before closing, you'll want to know about those vampire bats.  Apparently, they "come back from a night's hunting with lots of blood and regurgitate some to share it with other vampire bats who were less successful…Maybe vampire bats are caring, sharing creatures after all..."

> Buy The Pinch on Amazon


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