Richard Ingrams' Week: Better a man of 71 than a child for a nation's leader

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The Independent Online

That is no country for old men. W B Yeats's line is currently on the placards as the title of a new western. But the thought doesn't apply to the US where nobody seems to think the worse of Republican front-runner Senator John McCain because he is 71.

If anywhere is "no country for old men" it is the UK, where if McCain were to offer himself as a would-be prime minister he would never stand a chance.

Look what recently happened to poor old Menzies Campbell, at 66 not even as old as McCain, and hassled out of office as if he were some poor old geriatric has-been propped up on a zimmer frame.

When Vince Cable stood in as a part-time replacement he won plaudits, and many observers that thought he was the natural leader in succession to Menzies. But Cable decided not to stand, considering himself too old at 64. The result of all this is that two of our political parties are now led by smiling teenage non-entities with little experience of life or even of politics.

At least in this one respect the Americans have got it right. Otherwise we ought not to get too carried away by events across the Atlantic. America, they keep telling us, may soon have its first black or its first woman president. But Barack Obama doesn't look all that black to me and Hillary Clinton is where she is thanks only to Bill.

If she makes it to the White House, America won't have its first woman president. It will have its first president who is the wife of a former president.

Moral fabrics are dangerous ground

It hasn't taken David Cameron long to realise that his hug-a-hoodie image was failing to make him friends, not to mention alienating many of the more old-fashioned members of his party.

So his latest speech marks a complete and cynical reversal. He now talks about something called the "moral fabric" of the nation which he says has been eroded by the long years of Labour government.

"Aggression is feted," he says, "verbal abuse celebrated. Contempt for others rewarded. Our society is creeping slowly to a state of cultural and social acceptance of violence."

The answers are predictable: zero tolerance, more prison places, an end to the red tape which prevents the police from doing their job properly. But above all is the need to "rebuild the ties that used to bind people together".

Like Blair, Cameron seems pretty ignorant of the past. Otherwise he might be aware of all the pitfalls lurking for politicians who start talking about things like moral fabric. Even with his meaningless slogan Back to Basics, John Major was constantly charged with humbug in the press every time a Tory MP was caught with his trousers down.

Apart from that, there is a purely practical point. It may be the case that all the things Cameron says about the decline of modern Britain are true. But, aside from preaching, there is very little he can do about it.

No more than Labour the Tory party cannot make people behave better. All they can hope to do is to try to create the kind of economic conditions which might turn them in that direction – one obvious goal being the provision of cheap housing. But such things require a radical approach. It's much easier just to sermonise.

* A correspondent in The Independent reports that his local BT telephone boxes no longer have cash boxes. You can only use a card. This, he says quite rightly, is in line with a long-term scheme to make it difficult for people to use phone boxes and so get rid of them eventually.

It is all part of a general trend. Nowadays you may be penalised for not using direct debit to pay your bills. Many high street shops will no longer accept cheques. So that's another thing that is probably on the way out.

Post offices are being run down so they too could soon go the way of the telephone boxes. Pensions must be paid directly into a bank account. Letters are already considered an expensive and old-fashioned way of communicating with other people.

Newspapers, as this one reminds us continually, are all on the decline. If you want information nowadays you can get it from the internet. The same excuse will be given to those complaining about the closure of more public libraries. There is no longer a need for such things as reference books. Data can be found much more quickly on the net. Schools can therefore save money and space by getting rid of all those expensive books cluttering up the shelves.

So it is perfectly possible to imagine a world in 20 years' time when there will be no letters, no cash, no libraries, no phones – a world in which it will be impossible to survive without a BlackBerry, several credit cards and a computer.

Luckily for me, I won't be around by then.

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