By Max Hastings in THE TIMES, 24 March 2020
Monday’s broadcast by the prime minister reflects the fact that we are witnessing the unfolding of a global tragedy, of which the economic dimension is likely to prove more devastating than the viral one. The old merit special compassion so long as they are alive because some are among the most vulnerable and loneliest members of our society. I, by contrast, am among the privileged old. But, as a 74-year-old, age empowers me to add what the young cannot say: should we die, we deserve fewer tears than do those who come after us.
We are the most fortunate generation in history, many of whom have shared in unparalleled prosperity. We have been spared the obligation to fight in a war; played our part in wreaking probably irreparable damage upon the planet; known wonderful times.
Polite discourse holds that the old are nice old codgers and biddies, benign grandparents, upright citizens. Individually, many indeed are. The old as a collective, however, are monumentally selfish. Consider how grey electoral power has been wielded, to serve our interests and injure those of our children.
Despite our affluence relative to the young, the grey vote has fought tooth and nail against the BBC’s sensible termination of our free TV licences; deterred politicians from means-testing free travel passes; resisted fiscal curbs on our pension privileges, and the entirely just depletion of personal resources to fund care home costs. Many of the most vociferous deniers of climate change are those who will not be around to suffer its consequences.
Politically active oldies shamelessly deploy those unworthy phrases “after working hard all my life I deserve . . . ”, or even “I didn’t fight in the war so that . . . ”. Scarcely a politician of any party dares to tell elderly voters that our good things are sustained only by heaping liabilities upon future generations.
Some of Britain’s most influential newspapers have become cynical standard-bearers for their overwhelmingly elderly readerships. They shrink from editorial advocacy of what is morally right or fiscally prudent; of what would best serve the interests of future generations. They merely seek, with impressive success, to terrorise governments into bowing to the will of geriatric Britain.
Passion seems appropriate to this discussion, because we are living at a historic moment, when the young are threatened with paying an appalling price to preserve some hundreds of thousands of us oldies, overwhelmingly the likeliest victims of coronavirus, from a slightly premature but inevitable extinction. One of my wife’s favourite observations is that “none of us is going to get out of this alive”, and never has this seemed more obvious.
Some of the young men who fought in the Second World War observed the irony that they were risking their lives to redeem the folly of the old folks who had got Britain into it. Guy Gibson, the Dambuster VC, wrote in his angry memoir Enemy Coast Ahead about those responsible: “Rotten governments, the yes-men and appeasers who had been in power too long. It was the fault of everyone for voting for them.”
Gibson continued: “If, by any chance, we had a hope of winning this war . . . then in order to protect our children let the young men who had done the fighting have a say in the affairs of state”. He himself was killed, aged 26, in September 1944, shortly after completing his book, which was published posthumously.
Today, our children are not required to fight and die to save our necks. Instead, as Matthew Parris observed on these pages last week, they are merely invited to keep smiling while their economic prospects are wrecked. The British government, like all world leaderships, deserves some sympathy in its decisions and indecisions, because all the choices are brutal.
But we, the old, should recognise that our first responsibility is to do everything in our power to avoid becoming literally a dead weight upon the health system. If the price is that we remain isolated for a period even after the rest of society resumes socialising, so be it. We must sustain a rational public debate about how to balance the medical demands of containing the virus with the economic imperative of promoting a maximum of activity among the less vulnerable age groups.
The great principle upon which mankind has functioned since the beginning of time is that each generation, as it attains senility, should pass the baton to the next, if possible with good grace. Today, many people of my age are haunted in the hours of darkness by fears not for ourselves, but instead for what we are bequeathing, or rather not bequeathing, to our successors.
My dear friend Margaret MacMillan, a magnificent historian roughly my own age, ruminated last week that she wonders if posterity will look back on what we are doing — crippling our economies rather than, in some measure at least, toughing out the pandemic — and conclude that we are mad.
There is probably no choice; certainly, the epidemiologists think not. But we should be clear-sighted about what is happening. Even if the public finances recover relatively quickly from government money printing, as experience after the two world wars suggests is at least possible, the social and economic disruption imposed by corporate bankruptcies will impact hugely upon the lives of the young. We, the old, should acknowledge that they are the people whose plight matters most here, because they are the future, while we are the past.