Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW : The War on the Old by John Sutherland

The War on the Old is a book published in 2016, shortly after the Brexit referendum result, written by John Sutherland. It’s a short book which is a slightly whimsically written title with a serious message that the elderly population is being treated badly by the Government and by society. There’s a clever touch throughout the book where everyone who is quoted has their age in brackets. This is of course irrelevant, but that’s the point of the mechanism, to show that people shouldn’t be judged by their age but instead by the quality of their arguments and contributions.

There is a relevance to Brexit here as the author argues that the post-referendum debate was framed to suggest that the elderly population voted in a way that was to the cost of the young and the author wanted to re-examine the logic behind that. He is critical of Giles Coren who wrote in an article that “the referendum shows that old folk can’t be trusted with big decisions. They’re always wrong about everything”. He also notes that baby boomers have been said to have “trouble as their middle name”. He is right to pull up journalists on these lazy tropes, even if Coren was intending to be deliberately provocative.

The book does address serious points, including the Southern Cross debacle where one of the largest care home companies in the country collapsed following poor decision making and the racking up of debt. The ultimate losers, just as when pubs were purchased in vast numbers by corporate giants, were the customers, which were the elderly in the case of the care homes. Although written in 2016 and using examples from newspapers at the time, these type of problems still persist and care home scandals are a recurring and unfortunate reality today.

However, the book does feel a little unstructured and doesn’t always particularly flow well as if it has been a long article that has been extended. The author complains when health checks were expanded so that everyone between 40 and 74 could visit their GP every five years, as if this was somehow unfair to those over 74. It would have been, but those over that age are entitled to checks every year, a case noted by GP surgeries up and down the land, so the point seems unclear.

The author makes an underlying point that the elderly are being put in a dangerous position by Government policies and how they are treated. This is no doubt true in many cases and during lockdown it was the situation that those in care homes weren’t always treated with the respect that they should have been. But, giving Part II the title of “Final Solution” and a section header of “Mein Kampf” are odd and sit uncomfortably. The whimsical nature of the book doesn’t sit well with using Holocaust related terminology, especially when there is no serious effort made to explain with clarity why those terms are being used.

The book’s underlying premise is though one that should be explored and John Sutherland is an impressive author with a long career in ensuring a message is put across clearly to readers. There aren’t a lot of solutions offered and the author comments that the “pension triple lock is trivial financially”. However, the cost of pensions have gone from £70 billion in 2010 to £105 billion in 2021 and making no comment in this review on whether that is right or wrong, there should perhaps be some explanation in the book of how the author would deal with the challenges of an ageing population simply in terms of financing it.