Are ageing lefties in denial?

Rik Mayall as Rik in the Young Ones and Alan B'stard in the New Statesman Student anarchist to Tory MP... a natural progression?

A study is being used to support the theory many educated, middle-aged left-wingers are in fact conservatives who can't admit it. Is this true?

It is the cynic's perennial view of youthful idealism: that each student radical will turn sharply to the right once the pay cheques start coming in and the mortgage needs to be paid.

By virtue of this stereotype, we might imagine rabble-rousing undergraduate Rik from 1980s sitcom The Young Ones by now having transmogrified into Tory MP Alan B'stard - an easy enough exercise, given that both men were played by the same actor.

But an academic study has been seized on by centre-right commentators as evidence that this is more than just a cliche.

Champagne socialists

Dr James Rockey, of Leicester University, analysed the stated values of 136,000 people in a survey carried out in 48 countries, and found that the well-educated were most likely to misplace themselves on the political spectrum.

Start Quote

Toby Young

They have this vision of their younger selves wagging their finger”

End Quote Toby Young Journalist

A tendency was observed among this group to identify as left-wing, and vote accordingly, despite holding views on wealth distribution that placed them further to the right, Dr Rockey reported.

In his paper, Dr Rockey suggested that this was due to the fact that "people compare themselves not to the population as a whole but to the people they know" and that "political preferences change over time".

The Daily Telegraph pounced on these findings, proclaiming them as evidence that "many middle-aged 'champagne socialists' fail to notice their views shifting" and have become, despite their left-wing university days, right-wingers who cannot bring themselves to acknowledge the fact.

The newspaper's editorial stated that the research proves "the facts of life are, as Margaret Thatcher had it, conservative", and that those who do not face up to this are simply displaying an inversion of the Marxist theory of false consciousness.

Conservative 'coming out'

The journalist Toby Young - who, in his own words, "came out" as a Conservative voter for the first time ahead of the 2010 general election - thinks the Telegraph has a point.

Start Quote

John O'Farrell

What it comes down to is that right-wingers don't understand us... they don't get why we would still want to make the world a better place when we're better off”

End Quote John O'Farrell Author

He believes that prime minister David Cameron has been largely successful in "decontaminating" the Tory brand - falling short only among the intelligentsia, who from their university days belonged to social circles that automatically viewed right-wing ideas with contempt.

"As students, most people will have been on the left," he believes.

"With the onset of wisdom, they become more realistic and realise the utopian dreams they had when they were young were impractical. But they have this vision of their younger selves wagging their finger."

However, the writer and long-standing Labour activist John O'Farrell argues that the Leicester study is far from comprehensive enough to back up the thesis.

He admits that his younger self might be dismayed that he now subscribes to Sky TV, and bemoans Guardian journalists who educate their children privately.

Better off?

But he insists that with age comes experience - and the wherewithal to translate egalitarian principles into practical action.

"What this comes down to is that right-wingers don't understand us," he says. "They can see why we're on the left when we're students, but they don't get why we would still want to make the world a better place when we're older and better off.

Start Quote

Billy Bragg

Yes, I live in a nice house now - but does that mean I'm meant to ignore my mum and all the people I grew up with in Barking? ”

End Quote Billy Bragg Song-writer/activist

"But when I was young I used to go on demos, chanting 'Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out.' Now I'm chairman of the governors of an inner-city comprehensive - and I think I'm doing far more to turn my values into reality."

The left-wing singer-songwriter Billy Bragg agrees, citing the veteran socialist Tony Benn - who started out as a moderate and grew more radical with age - as an example he would like to emulate.

"When you become a father, you realise that everyone is someone's child. As you get older, you worry about who is going to pay for your pension," he says. "It seems that the logic of organised compassion makes more sense to me than ever.

"Yes, I live in a nice house now. But does that mean I'm meant to ignore my mum and all the people I grew up with in Barking? That would be the most hypocritical thing of all."

Left and right may always find themselves set in opposition.

But if each side fails to appreciate what motivates the other, the prospect of achieving any kind of consensus seems remote. Alan and Rik would understand.

Below is a selection of your comments

This reminds me of the quote often wrongly attributed to Churchill: "If you're not a liberal when you're 25, you have no heart. If you're not a conservative by the time you're 35, you have no brain."

John, Glasgow, Scotland

Ageing right-wingers and Tory voters are simply selfish and reactionary. They've bought into the hypocritical idea that all the social and political problems in the world are nothing to do with them (even though they make money out of the status quo) and consequently they couldn't give a damn about others anymore. This is an infantile regression, not a state of maturity.

Gary McGhee, London

Does John O'Farrell think that Tories aren't idealistic? We want to make the world a better place too. We just believe that the best way to do this is for government to promote individual responsibility while taking care of systemic risk, rather than being paternalistic and prescriptive. Or, as the last government did, by cynically overspending to inflate the economy; then claiming you can overspend your way out of the deep, deep hole you created.

Vix, London

I am a graduate, a teacher and in a very comfortable income bracket. I, like Billy Bragg, cannot deny my roots. I am also the great grand daughter of coal miners, slate workers and the daughter of an ASLEF union convener. I disagreed with Mr Blair's policies and have continued to be socialist in my political leanings. Becoming more affluent has made me realise we need to care more for others not less, and in my experience this is not the Tory way.

Gilly Holmes, Birmingham, England

The problem is a lot of people are neither "left" or "right" wing. They are just "trendy" and would frankly follow Orville the Duck's political manifesto if they deemed it cool enough. Think for yourself, not just within the tramlines of others.

D Dortman, Durham

Like it or not we are all heavily influenced by the envionments we grew up in. Educated professionals very often come from conservative middle class backgrounds. As we age the opinions and beliefs of our parents and early peers tends to re-surface whether we like it or not. We become like our parents - God help us.

Keith Lillis, London

Where's the space for us less-than-trendy old-school liberals? This false dichotomy between left and right has long been shown to be too simple for its' own good. As a social and economic liberal, with too much real-life experience to be a libertarian, I find articles like this to be bizarrely over simplified.

Tim Oliver, Leeds, UK

Its all about wealth creation. Young people think that the wealth should be shared, preferably in their direction. Older people realise that someone has got to create the wealth and that will only happen when those who create it have enough motivation. Sadly altruism never seems to be enough motivation, mankind's instinct for self preservation has the greater say. Experience teaches this, so we lean to the right as we age. Meanwhile we all need a wealth making job not a wealth consuming one!

D Byrne, Aberdeen

As a student you are taught to use your faculties to analyse the world around you. What you discover is a world full of unfairness fuelled in the most part by greed and self-centredness, logically you lean to the left rebelling against your findings. Many people stop using the faculties they developed as students and passively allow their analysis to be informed by the Telegraph, Mail, Express et al. Moving to the right as you get older and more comfortable is an indication that you have either stopped thinking or you have succumbed to the lure of self interest - or both.

F. Bolloscznoski, Ramsgate, England

The truth is that as we grow older and wealthier, we become more aware of the problems in the world, but are also more practical about how they can be fixed. This ends up towards a position of "progressive aims, conservative means", which equally describes the general views of Tony Blair, David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Very few British people these days would support either the US Tea Party movement or the Socialist Workers Party.

Tim, London, UK

I think in this era it is too simplistic to speak of being Left or Right. Most of us choose a mixture of policies that will suit us as individuals. The realisation is, that on some topics, ie law and order, or education, we may want to choose policies that benefit our families or us as individuals. The problem may be that, as we get older, we have more decisions to make and therefore we find political loyalties are not as simple as when we were younger.

G Fitzpatrick, Birmingham, UK

More on This Story

In today's Magazine

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


  • Peaky Blinders publicity shotBrum do

    Why is the Birmingham accent so difficult to mimic?

  • Oliver CromwellA brief history

    The 900 year story behind the creation of a UK parliament

  • Image of Ankor Wat using lidarJungle Atlantis

    How lasers have revealed an ancient city beneath the forest

  • TheatreBard taste? Watch

    Are trailer videos on social media spoiling theatre?

  • A dog being dragged along the roadFlesh search

    An abused dog leads to an online hunt for the perpetrator

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.