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Brexit was a harsh political awakening for young people

25 June 2016

2:54 PM

25 June 2016

2:54 PM

Since Brexit became a reality early on Friday morning, my Facebook feed has been filled with mournful posts written by friends who voted Remain. Those who voted Leave seem to be staying quiet. This is understandable. Most of my friends are in their twenties. They tend to be educated and globalist in their outlook. They have enjoyed the freedom of movement that the EU offered them, and feel they have benefitted overall from Britain being a member. It is painful to see the comity of the EU suddenly stripped away, and I sympathise on many counts.

The vote for Brexit will no doubt be a defining political moment for my age group. I sense that more people now feel politically engaged than ever before. Based on what I’ve seen on my Facebook feed during the past 24 hours, here are some observations about some of the main ideas being discussed.

Democracy

The first is that respect for democracy – and the act of giving people the opportunity to vote and have their say – seems to be fluid. On Thursday, over 17 million people voted to leave the EU. That is a lot. Meanwhile, a petition is doing the rounds on Facebook, which so far has over one million signatures on it. It asks parliament for a second referendum. People are already getting excited about it, because they think it can change things.

Yet this petition seems to suggest that 17 million Leave votes should be disregarded precisely because they have changed things. I find this interesting, in that it shows a belief that one vote can be overruled by another, in order to produce a different result. It reminds me of the protesters who gathered outside parliament after the last general election shouting ‘That’s not what democracy looks like/this is what democracy is.’ Last Thursday was what democracy looks like, as Brendan O’Neill observed. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always look the way you want it to.

Little London

The second observation is about London, where many of my friends live, as do I. There is currently another petition going round on Facebook which calls for London to become independent from the UK and join the EU. It currently has over 120,000 signatures. It is clearly not totally serious but I do think it offers insight into why London appears as a Remain bubble in the corner of an England that predominantly voted Leave.


I’ve seen quite a few people complaining about ‘Little Englanders’. My instinct, though, is that the ‘Little Londoner’ mindset is just as prevalent. London is already very distinct from the rest of the UK, in terms of its wealth and demographics. The idea that London should move even further away seems counter-productive, given how split things already are. It also seems to go against the grain of the socially liberal mindset that many young people support. Donald Trump talks about isolating America from the rest of the world. Do Londoners really want to isolate their city even more from the rest of the country?

Peace and Love

On a similar note, the third point is that for all the peace and love offered on Facebook before the referendum — someone posted that ‘a vote for Remain is a vote for love’– there is now a lot of hatred directed towards the millions of people who voted Leave. Yet clearly not everyone who voted Leave is a racist thicko, just like not every immigrant is a jihadi. There are legitimate concerns on both sides of the debate, but I do not see how it is helpful to characterise millions of people in this way. At its worst, it can seem like a language that the privileged use to sneer at the poor: a kind of moral snobbery. A striking social division has been exposed in this referendum, as James Bartholomew points out in his cover story for this week’s magazine. That was written before the vote. This graphic, from the Guardian, shows just how stark this divide is after the vote:

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Britain has never been more divided. As Fraser says in his essay for the Wall Street Journal, ‘The Brexit battle lines ought to be familiar: They are similar to the socioeconomic battles being fought throughout so many Western democracies. It is the jet-set graduates versus the working class, the metropolitans versus the bumpkins—and, above all, the winners of globalisation against its losers. Politicians, ever obsessed about the future, can tend to regard those left unprotected in our increasingly interconnected age as artifacts of the past. In fact, the losers of globalisation are, by definition, as new as globalisation itself.’

The 75 percent

The final point is about young people voting. There is a meme I have seen shared a lot on Facebook which suggests that three quarters of young people voted Remain. In response to this, the Guardian has begun referring to ‘the 75 percent’.

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Understandably this has generated much anger, given that young people will inevitably face the consequences of Brexit for longer. They feel screwed over and I have seen lots of posts about the baby boomers ‘destroying the EU’. But what’s missing from this meme is the actual turnout (the figure comes from a YouGov poll based on a sample size of 4,772 people) . As this graphic from the FT shows, turnout greatly increased with age in the referendum:

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So fewer young people are likely to have voted – and more older people are likely to have voted. Had turnout been higher among younger people its influence would have been even greater, but as is usually the case, there was a general trend for turnout to increase in line with average age. So yes, 75 percent of young people — who turned out — may have voted Remain, but there could have been far more older people (in real terms) who voted Remain than that meme gives credit to. And even more importantly, if more young people had turned out, the result may have been different. It might have swung it for Remain.

A political awakening

Many young people are feeling let down by a democratic system that produced a result that they didn’t like. Lots of my generation genuinely do care about the EU, but perhaps hadn’t realised the force they were up against. In recent weeks, plenty of my friends had been campaigning for Remain. Yet they were pitted against a pro-Leave campaign that had been on the roll for years — decades even — and had enormous momentum behind it. For all the love felt for the EU, there was a similar amount of loathing towards it – and no amount of last minute campaigning was likely to change that.

This seems a good opportunity to ask questions. If a social and political cleavage is deepening in our country, what can be done? Is this something we care about, or can we just ignore it? Do we now want to segregate the country even further, or try to unite it? Do we care about the people losing out from globalisation? Do we hate the people who took us out of the EU, or should we try to hear what they are saying? A democratic process has led to Britain deciding to leave the EU. There has never been a more blunt, painful and glorious expression of how democracy works – and if that has brought many of my generation into the political fold, so much the better.

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