THE BLOG

Referendum Calls for an Intergenerational Choice

23/06/2016 09:18 | Updated 23 June 2016

By all accounts, voting intentions are showing a distinct generational bias in the opinion polls leading up to the UK referendum. More younger people than older people favour the "Remain" camp but then 18-24 year olds are half as likely to vote as 65 year olds. Older people's views will probably have more impact on the final result even though the young have more to gain or lose from it.

The votes of older people, in short, could lead us to quit the EU because they are more anti-Europe and more likely to vote. Younger people on the other hand will be far more affected by a vote to leave because they will be around for longer. They could be picking up the pieces for years to come if our economy slumps.

In the event of a vote to leave, it is the young who will be more isolated, have fewer opportunities to work and live abroad, be less engaged in European cross-border research, less likely to travel to European cities, find it harder to attend European Universities and so on.

I wonder if this is fair - whatever "fairness" may mean in a referendum that we probably shouldn't be having anyway. As we all know, it is a referendum brought about by fission in the Conservative party and the rise of UKIP, but is it really fair to play with the public in this way?
As Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher both commented, referendums "can serve the ends of dictators and demagogues." They reduce complicated issues down to simplistic 'yes/no' questions. They allow elected representatives to abrogate responsibility.

It seems clear now that membership of the EU is one of those issues where weighing up the pros and cons has been so technical that ordinary people are challenged with a simple "in or out" vote.

But it is not as though we can now duck the issue. If we vote to leave there will be no returning in five years or ten years' time.

This is potentially a perpetuation of generational inequity if we take the wrong choices. Inequity perpetrated through the ballot box.

In my view, popular engagement with the issues has been disappointing. I have seen little sign of the flourishing of ideas and awakening of political awareness that characterised the Scottish referendum, for example.

Much of the economic argument has really gone over people's heads. After several hours of what seemed at times rather like a heavy session of Britain's Got Talent in the Wembley Arena, a panel of BBC's vox pop interviewees on Tuesday night basically repeated their initial positions and gave the same reasons for leave or remain.

One interviewee parroted a line about, "bloody immigrants taking jobs." Somehow, during the campaign, it seems to have become more acceptable to voice such thoughts in public.
Europe is complicated. The EU is not perfect by a long way but in place of any measured or reasonable criticism, a naked bias and unpleasantness has filled the vacuum in public understanding.

Even so, the opinion polls tell us that up to a fifth of the population are undecided as to how to cast their votes.

The prevailing culture has been anti-empiricism. Oodles of reports and balanced economic evaluations have been issued by bodies as reputable as the OECD and the Bank of England, but almost no-one has read them.

A detailed evaluation based on thorough research can be rubbished in seconds by a "Yah booh" raspberry. The broadcast media meanwhile insult our intelligence by providing equivalence of air time for both cases.

It is easier to sound patriotic bugle calls than to deal with the facts. We cannot but be in favour of balance, but really - how helpful is this?

As Jeremy Corbyn commented, the shock of Jo Cox's murder in a sad, bizarre way, seemed to save the "debate" from spiralling beyond control.

One is entitled to doubt that a satisfactory "democratic" decision by the popular masses is likely to emerge. If Brexit, heavily influenced by generally more anti-Europe older people win, this decision will be imposed upon a younger more pro-European generation.

Let's not forget however that in the past decades Europe has held a beacon for "inter-generational solidarity and active ageing". Perhaps now is the time above all others to take this motto seriously.

The EU has achieved legislation to protect us from age discrimination, raised our sights on workplaces and welfare to work services to support older workers and job seekers and supported thousands of projects and tens of millions of individuals marginalised by age barriers of different kinds.

More than that, it has fostered social dialogue with employers and workers on how to live longer healthy more active lives; it has made a difference by supporting collective agreements dealing with these issues. Finally, the EU and its agencies have disseminated great innovations that work well and held a beacon for others to follow.

At this late hour in the campaigning, it behoves us to consider our decisions from an intergenerational perspective. I propose a way forward for anyone over 50 and still uncertain as to how to cast their vote.

Both sides in this week's final Question Time debate invoked the interests of their children. I say, "Give the decision to your children, or better still to your grandchildren."

If the Brexit campaign wins, the young will live through the remaining years of the 21st Century on the fringes of Europe, part of the same continental shelf but for all our country's influence, on a different tectonic plate. The young are the ones who will have to live with the decision far longer than you. Listen to them before you vote, or better still let them decide it.

Comments

CONVERSATIONS