On Thursday, like a majority of the British electorate, I voted to leave the European Union. Yet as an 18 year-old I stand as an oddity – according to Lord Ashcroft’s analysis, as much as 73% of 18-24 year-olds voted to remain. Those 60 and over, meanwhile, voted to leave 60-40.
It would be easy to disregard this demographic chasm between younger and older voters as being typical of the left-leaning tendencies of the young. Yet since this historic vote has revealed a country divided not on the typical left-right divide but on a more nuanced difference between those who have or have not benefited from globalisation, the overwhelming support for the EU amongst millennials needs closer consideration. It’s crucial to do so not just to better understand the motivations behind the vote, but also for our next Prime Minister to reunite the country behind Brexit and to prevent the creation of whole generation of disenfranchised and apathetic voters.
It’s of no surprise that those born with the internet – the very embodiment of a borderless world not defined by nation states – saw Brexit as a non-option given that the referendum was, to the benefit of the Leave campaign, squarely focused on borders, immigration, and what divides Britain from Europe.
To me, and I think to the classical-liberals at the front of the Leave campaign including Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Daniel Hannan, it’s of some regret that as a consequence of this vote-winning issue being at the centre of national debate, those who did not support the cause will now see the decision to leave along those lines. Thus millennials are now despondent, sensing that their elders have over-ruled them to make Britain a more inward-looking country. Yet this need-not be the case – the EU, by virtue of its common external tariffs that have discriminated against any non-European nations wishing to trade with us (damaging the economies of developing countries wishing to grow out of poverty), and by the free-movement of people forcing European governments to impose harsh immigration controls on non-EU citizens yet leave an open-door for everyone else, is at its core an inward-looking entity.
Britain has now freed itself from this, and will, I hope, open itself to the world and pursue truly global free-trade not arbitrarily defined by a regional area. Yet young voters do not see it this way, and it is incumbent on the ‘Brexit government’ that will follow a hotly-contested summer leadership contest to change this – not only through rhetoric, but through the way in which our new relationship with Europe is forged during the exit-negotiation.
This generational divide had been brewing long before the referendum. After the ’08 crash, and the austerity measures that followed, the Cameron/Osborne mantra of us all ‘being in it together’ was I think a noble one and one that they believed in. We needed to control our public finances, and predictions of the rise of a ‘chimney-sweeper’ class and a return to a Victorian worker-boss divide as the result of sensible measures to curb excessive public expenditure were mostly hyperbolic. Yet as Britain recovered, and the 2015 general election approached, there was a slow and conscious effort to narrow the targeting of cuts to areas which would have the most limited political repercussions. NHS spending protected. A ‘triple-lock’ on pensions. These measures were well-intentioned but the affect has been to focus the benefits of the recovery on that 60+ demographic. This isn’t a criticism of the Cameron/Osborne project per-se, however, I do feel that given the way in which younger people voted in the referendum, the effect of future cuts on different age groups has taken on a new importance for the future Tory leader.
Given the degree to which younger voters rejected Brexit, which is now the status-quo, a sense of disenfranchisement is likely to arise which will only be confirmed if the government has nothing to offer young people. We are already seeing this with the millions of votes amassed, mostly from young social media users, for petitions calling for a second referendum. This is in part a reflection of the unique upbringing my generation has had. ‘Safe-space’ and healthy-and-safety culture has created a degree of self-entitlement that is borne out by younger voters feeling as though, by virtue of them being young, their vote somehow should count for more than their elders. It should be noted that Ashcroft’s research also found that turnout amongst the 18-24 demographic was a meagre 31.56% whilst 72.16% of the nation as a whole came out to vote. This figure alone should give angry young Europhiles pause for thought, and make calls for another vote on the basis that younger voters were ‘ignored’ at best laughable and at worst anti-democratic. Yet the hypocrisy that underpins much of the youthful protest should not diminish the imperative to reconcile with the younger generation’s sense of being left behind.
Whilst the new leaders of the country should have their minds focused on paving out a secure future for the UK outside of Europe (and I haven’t even mentioned Scotland), if they do so without recognising that their mandate did not include their children’s generation, they risk the disunity of the United Kingdom on personal, family lines.
You might think that I, as an activist in the youth-wing of the Conservative Party, say this out of concern for a future Tory leader losing the youth vote. Yet Conservative Prime Ministers have been elected without young voters before and they will likely be again. My concern is that this vote has exposed a younger generation who’s thinking that is so shaped by a technological era is, in their minds, not compatible with the politics of today. This will lead to not just an evaporation of the Tory youth vote but of the youth vote itself, which would be a serious blow to a country that, more than ever, needs talented, forward-looking young voters to shape and discuss national debate as we find our new place in the world.