Daniel Johnson: David, your new book, The Pinch, has been called "the great political book" of this election, but it's not a very party political book, is it? It's a wonderfully broad cultural-historical-economic tour d'horizon but it does have a hard thesis at its heart about the baby boom generation. Philip Larkin famously said that sexual intercourse began in 1963 and you've demonstrated that it sure did that when the boom peaked. Would you like to briefly summarise what you think is the absolute core of the book?
David Willetts: I believe that obligations between generations are what hold society together, and that a lot of what we can see going wrong with a society is caused by a failure to honour the principle of fairness between generations. A large cohort, a big generation — like the baby boomers — can disrupt fairness between the generations.
This great big generation born between 1945 and 1965 has ended up creating an economy and social system that works for them but is very tough on their kids. This book is an appeal to their better natures, that we have an obligation to pass on a world that is better for our children. If you put together the burden of government debt, through to low social mobility, through to the costs of adjusting to climate change — in lots of ways we can see that the baby boomers have been throwing the party and leaving their kids to clear up the mess.
DJ: Frank, do you find that persuasive, speaking as someone who is not quite a baby boomer but born just before? Looking at it from a bird's eye view, are the baby boomers as bad as David makes out?
Frank Field: Might I just preface my comments — because I am critical of the book — by saying I'm full of admiration for David? In a review of it, I've adapted Mrs Thatcher's phrase, "every Prime Minister needs a Willie [Whitelaw]" to "every party leader needs a David Willetts", because he can reach parts of the electorate that the Blairites and the Cameroons can't. I think it's the most wonderful exercise and it's a great tribute to his abilities that he has done this.
With all the other things he has to do, he has found the time to marshal a very impressive argument. Where I disagree with David is that I was slightly surprised that there was this contract going on between the generations. I wasn't quite sure where it had all come from.
Second, I didn't think that you could read the book and think that somehow the baby boomers had engineered this set of special circumstances that they are protecting. I think that they neither engineered them nor are they protecting them.
The third criticism that I have, but it's within that framework of how impressive this work is, is that there aren't really any policy proposals here. I raise the question of whether if you are a frontline politician, like David, you cannot now raise — at any time in the electoral cycle — serious considerations of policy leading on from your analysis without expecting to be done over by the media and the other side. In that sense I think that's been a real loss for political life. Therefore I see David describing Mrs Rochester (the baby boomers), with her incendiary tendencies, rushing about, trying to burn up this inter-generational contract — and yet we find no measures for the baby boomers or others to drive Mrs Rochester back into the attic before the contract is finally destroyed.
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