Andreas Whittam Smith: A new generation replaces 'the elephants'

I had not heard of Barack Obama, Ségolène Royal, or David Cameron until about two years ago
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Imagine this. In three years' time the president of the United States could be Barack Obama, the young Democrat Senator from Illinois. He would be the first African American to reach the White House. France might have its first woman president in the shape of Ségolène Royal, Socialist daughter of a general, unmarried mother of four. And the British prime minister could be David Cameron. He is not so different from his predecessors, though he would have been called a "toff" in an earlier age. Admittedly if I were betting on this "treble", I would want attractive odds, especially as Mr Obama, while much fancied, is not yet a front runner in the race to succeed George Bush.

But the possibility exists that the three will lead their countries before long. The remarkable thing is that I had never heard of any of them until about two years ago. I imagine I am not alone in this. Goodness me, for years I have been following American politicians such as Senators Hillary Clinton or John McCain, both likely candidates, but Mr Obama only came to my attention as recently as July 2004 when he gave an electrifying keynote speech during the Democratic Party convention. At that time he had not yet been elected to Congress. Yet when he published his political testament, The Audacity of Hope, a few weeks ago, it raced to the top of the best-seller lists.

Mme Royal showed up on my radar screen even later when she began, a year ago last September, to seek nomination as her party's candidate for the presidential election due to be held next year. Unlike her two rivals, Laurent Fabius and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who once upon a time had been respectively prime minister and finance minister, she appeared as if out of a clear blue sky. And looking back, I am not sure that I had noticed David Cameron until Michael Howard announced his resignation as party leader and Mr Cameron's name began to be mentioned as having an outside chance of succeeding.

During the recent Congressional elections, Mr Obama, who was in constant demand to speak in support of Democratic candidates across the country, gave a good reworking of that classic speech of the hustings - "I've had enough". Indeed that is exactly why electorates are willing to contemplate turning to candidates who have apparently come from nowhere. They have had enough. In this country, we don't want any more command and control from an error-prone Mr Blair in Downing Street. The American electorate has just shown that it decides, not Mr Bush who not long ago stated publicly that he alone was "the decider". And the French Socialists dismissed Mme Royal's rivals as "the elephants".

Each of the three can show clean hands. Mr Obama is well placed in this regard for, unlike Mrs Clinton, he opposed the Iraq war from the beginning. Mme Royal cannot be blamed for France's high unemployment and low growth because when she was a junior minister at different times in the 1990s she covered environment, education and the family. Mr Cameron has the most difficulty in this regard for he was the author of the last Conservative Manifesto, large parts of which he has since repudiated. And he supported the Iraq war. But the public doesn't seem to mind as he has never been in office. Clean hands also means lack of experience, but in politics that has never been a criticism with much force.

There is also a generational change going on. Each of the three newcomers expresses this in a different way. Mr Obama criticises the "either-or" formulations of his elders who came of age in the 1960s. He has written that "in the elections of 2000 and 2004, I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the Baby Boom generation - a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago - played out on the national stage. The victories that the 1960s generation brought about - the admission of minorities and women into full citizenship, the strengthening of individual liberties and the healthy willingness to question authority - have made America a far better place for all its citizens. But what has been lost in the process, and has yet to be replaced, are those shared assumptions - that quality of trust and fellow feeling - that brings us together as Americans."

Mme Royal approaches the problem of the old politics from a different angle. One of her aims is to bring politicians closer to the people. That is why she uses her website to develop policy. She lays out an approach. She invites comment. Then she publishes a synthesis. Among the subjects currently being debated is the strengthening of the link between members of the National Assembly and their electors. Shouldn't elected representatives, she asks, be able to serve no more than two terms and then have to return to "la vie active"? Shouldn't members of the National Assembly bind themselves to participate in every debate that affects their constituents, shouldn't they account for their expenses directly to their electorates and shouldn't they commit themselves to using public transport whenever possible? This is a fresh tone and far from the thinking of the "elephants".

The symbolism of Mme Royal's propositions is more powerful than their details - after all, accounting for expenses or using public transport are gestures rather than policies. And you could say the same thing about Mr Cameron's more startling pronouncements. They are ringing mood music rather than firm proposals. Take two characteristic speeches, the one on the importance of family life and the other on "making our country a safe and civilised place for everyone". In the first he said that we should focus not just on national wealth but also on national well-being. More daringly he went on to say that there is more to family than marriage. "For the Conservative Party today, it's not just the case of the war on lone parents being over. The weapons have been put beyond use."

Even more bold for a Tory were Mr Cameron's remarks on "hoodies". He reminded his audience that the Bluewater shopping centre had banned hoodies and that Mr Blair had backed the ban. He said that we - the people in suits - "often see hoodies as aggressive, the uniform of a rebel army of young gangsters. But, for young people hoodies are more often defensive than offensive. They are a way to stay invisible in the street. For some, the hoodie represents all that is wrong about youth culture in Britain today. For me, adult society's response shows how far we are from finding the long-term answers to put things right."

For me these remarks presage a shift in the terms of political debate as do also, in their different ways, the thinking aloud of Mr Obama and Mme Royal. When Messrs Bush, Chirac and Blair leave the stage shortly, we shall immediately feel that they belong to history, that their periods in office were a bygone age and that we have moved on.