There is the odd advantage to being (roughly) the same age as the prime minister to compensate for yet another unmistakeable sign of ageing.
This is that occasionally the prime minister mentions something from the past that has a familiar ring. So when David Cameron said in Russia on Monday that the Soviet authorities had sized him up during a visit to the USSR in 1985 I had a flashback to my own experience in Moscow the following year.
It is worth noting exactly what the prime minister said in his opening remarks at Moscow State University because he was careful not to mention the words spy or KGB. Some No 10 aides thought his message was missed by many in the audience. Showing his knowledge of Beatles songs, the prime minister said:
It’s great to be back in Moscow. I first came to Russia as a student in the year between school and university and I took the Trans-Siberian Railway from Nakhodka to Moscow. I went on to the Black Sea coast and when I was there two Russians, who spoke perfect English, turned up on a beach that was reserved for foreigners. They took me out to lunch; they took me out to dinner. They asked me intriguing questions about life in England, about what I thought about politics.
And when I got to university I told my tutor about this and he asked me whether I thought it was an interview. Well, if it was, it seems I didn’t get the job. My fortunes have improved a bit since then and so have those of Russia.
I’m pretty sure that David would have been a very good KGB agent. But in this case he would never had become prime minister of the UK.
I had a similar experience when I visited Moscow in August 1986. I too had an encounter with the Soviet authorities, though this was not by chance.
As a rather geeky teenager I wrote to Mikhail Gorbachev, who had taken over as general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in March 1985, to ask whether I could meet him. My generation grew up thinking that we might be incinerated in a nuclear holocaust, so the arrival of the reforming Gorbachev was a source of great excitement. Gorbachev’s two signature words, perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness), peppered conversations.
Not surprisingly I heard nothing by the time I set off for the Soviet Union, via China, a few months after posting my letter. It appeared that the leader of one of the world’s two superpowers was otherwise engaged.
But 30 minutes after checking into my hotel in Moscow in early August I was summoned down to the reception. A stern woman from Intourist, the USSR’s official travel agency, said that my letter had been received but that unfortunately the general secretary was on holiday in the Crimea. She then explained that the general secretary – she did not call him Mikhail Gorbachev – had asked for a series of meetings to be arranged for me. I doubted that Gorbachev had done this but it was a nice touch.
I was told to report to reception after breakfast the next day. My guide led me to a shiny black car, though not sadly one of the large ZiLs that whisked party officials around the streets of Moscow. I visited a youth leader at Moscow State University and met the head of the youth committee of the Communist party of the Soviet Union.
It was a pretty extraordinary set of encounters for a nineteen year old a few months before heading off to university. When I returned home an old family friend said I should not be surprised if the Soviet embassy invited me in for a chat.
Thankfully the invitations never came. I think the authorities struck me off the future spy list after most of the meetings in Moscow descended into slanging matches. Gorbachev may have been embarking on perestroika and glasnost but the officials I met appeared to be more attached to the hidebound ways of his predecessor, Konstantin Chernenko.
A low point came when one of the officials said the Soviet Union was immeasurably fairer than Britain because every child received a free education. In Britain, the official said, children could only go to school if their parents were rich. Perhaps the official had been reviewing Cameron’s file because she specifically cited Eton. The official was not amused when I pointed out that the vast majority of British children were educated in free, state-funded, schools.
Like Cameron, I was monitored. A car with two men followed me everywhere I went after my official black car had dropped me off at my hotel. They didn’t spot much. I just went to the opera.