Three Years On From The Brexit Vote, My Family Relationships Have Never Recovered

Most young people I know see through the post-truth news created by the likes of Boris Johnson, but the Leave campaign wasn't meant to appeal to our generation, Abby Tomlinson writes.

In 2016, I was only just old enough to vote in the EU referendum, having turned 18 in March. I’m from a small village in the North West, and I’d become involved in politics through the prism of milifandom a year earlier, so was now sort of half in the political bubble that had been so alien to me a year and a half ago.

During the referendum campaign, not one person I knew in London, or who was heavily involved in politics, was particularly worried about the result. None of them actually thought that Brexit stood a chance of winning.

Even in my sixth form in Preston, I didn’t know any young people who weren’t voting to remain. It was only when I got home that I knew the Remain campaign might be in trouble.

“Facts are now up for debate because they’ve become associated with an establishment that people distrust.”

I’ve never really agreed with my dad on politics – he’s a swing voter, so voted Thatcher then Blair, and Cameron in 2015. I probably should have guessed if he wouldn’t listen to me then that he wouldn’t a year later. But in my mind, party politics was a whole different debate to the Brexit one. The referendum was to be decided on facts, on logic, on who was on what side of the debate.

Did I trust the scientists, the academics, the politicians who I felt represented me, all on the side of Remain, or did I trust those like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson? For me, and so many other young people, the answer was easy.

We’d spent the last few years watching news stories on Ukip’s sexism, racism, and homophobia. There was no way we trusted them to be on the right side of the debate. It seemed so obvious.

I think this is the main reason why I found it so hard to accept that so many members of my family were going to vote for Brexit. It was everyone apart from my mum, who was a teacher, and extremely distrustful of Michael Gove. Uncles, aunties, cousins, grandparents. Everyone I had asked was in no doubt: they wanted to leave the EU.

It was disturbing seeing the adults around me see the world so differently to how I and my friends saw it. Seeing them buy into these arguments that the EU was the blame for all their problems.

I heard friends’ parents repeating the racist rhetoric UKIP had been pedalling for years, blaming immigrants for NHS waiting times and the lack of school places and housing when there are basically no immigrants where I live – South Ribble as a constituency is 98% white. It just showed how deep the rhetoric had penetrated, how much people were willing to believe it.

Places in the North West like South Ribble had just seen six years of austerity. To me it was so clear that the slow-down in services, the increase in waiting times at hospitals, and the soaring house prices were down to the government.

But the Leave campaign offered a convenient scapegoat, and it was all too convenient to challenge for the Remain Tory politicians who had enforced the idea that austerity was really to blame.

By the end of the campaign, it wasn’t difficult for me to see why and how Leave had won.

But three years on, me and my dad still argue about it. Even if the facts weren’t clear in 2016, surely they are now. Surely he would now see that the Leave campaign had fooled and lied to him.

He doesn’t.

I’ve noticed from interactions with family that facts are, for a lot of people who voted for Brexit, not even a consideration.

Every time I try and argue with my dad about Brexit purely on a factual basis he just shrugs and says something like: “lies, damn lies and statistics”, or “everyone has their own version of facts”.

This is, for me, the most infuriating part of the debate, because this is how post-truth news works. No longer will everyone believe what qualified academics and scientists and businessmen say. Facts are now up for debate because they’ve become associated with an establishment that people distrust.

It’s politicians like Farage that have engineered this atmosphere because they know they can’t win their argument with facts. They simply made facts another enemy – another part of the establishment out to get you, another lie you’re being told. For so many people who felt left behind, it’s all too easy to buy into.

Most young people I know see through it and always have done, but it’s not meant to appeal to us. The Leave campaign never wanted our votes, they knew they didn’t need them. The challenge for us is fighting with older family members every day to try and get them to see Brexit and the people that wanted it for what they are.

In a way I’m grateful that I can understand why Brexit has happened. A lot of people, particularly those in Remain strongholds in London, still don’t. I think it helps with the anger over the result – over what we’re now facing – to have understood why people voted for something so obviously wrong to you, even if you wish you could have been able to change their mind. Three years on, I’m still hoping I can.

Abby Tomlinson is a freelance journalist


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