The youth have been robbed.
A phrase repeated daily by Remain supporters as they point to a generation stripped of their rights to love, work, and marry in Europe. It is in these young people, who ‘voted overwhelming to Remain’ that the pro-EU campaigners pinpoint their hope, looking to them as a resource of passionate protesters ready to take their love of the single market to the streets.
Yet in my experience, the response from young people against Brexit has been lukewarm at best. Having attended the marches in Parliament Square and the recent People’s Vote launch in Camden, what was remarkable was, it must be said, the number of people who wanted to stop Brexit. But what was even more striking was that the vast majority of these protesters were grey-haired. Middle-aged. Parents. Where were these masses of indignant youths everyone was talking about?
Youthful reluctance to involve themselves in the movement can be explained by any of the factors that have been levelled at the rest of public. Principally, that Brexit is an ongoing issue. Yes, Article 50 will end in 2019. But then we have the transition period. There appears to be no conclusive turning point, as of yet, no meaningful event around which protest can coalesce. Rather, the media emphasise speeches as critical that are often just the same old spin, leaving pressing issues unresolved whilst the incremental, but overall significant, changes to our future constitution pass through Parliament undebated and unreported.
But the youth problem, in my opinion, is unique. Fundamentally, and ironically, what makes the youth a potential powerful source of resistance to Brexit – their enthusiasm, motivation or, in other words, idealism – is in fact the very reason why so many are ambivalent towards it. The issues that resound with the youth are those such as austerity, animal rights, and, most recently, the Windrush scandal. Whilst seemingly disparate these problems have one thing in common: moral certainty.
In contrast, the Remain campaign is imperfect from this idealistic moral standpoint. Most significantly, many young people in my experience are unable to escape the belief that the vote for Brexit was ‘democratic’, the ‘will of the people’ and so on. Any suggestion that the vote was uninformed, that we didn’t know what we were voting for, that a 2nd referendum can only be more, rather than less, democratic from their perspective is just obfuscation. Any deviation from the current course could only be dubious and vaguely underhand. Leave won. Get over it. Yes, many young people voted for Remain. But this is substantially different from campaigning to Remain after a vote had taken our country in the opposite direction.
The Remain campaign itself doesn’t help matters. The two people who most students commonly associate with Remain, such as Blair and Nick Clegg, were never going to win over the younger demographic. Although I myself was too young really to remember the Iraq wars, Blair’s style of eloquent but mendacious, slick yet immoral leadership is all too fitting with the perceived circumvention of democracy that to them Remain represents. These theme of betrayal is, potentially, even more critical when it comes to Nick Clegg. His decision to increase tuition fees during the coalition was a broken promise that drastically impacted mine and my peers’ academic lives. Meanwhile, as soon as accusations of homophobia surfaced about Tim Farron even the most committed Lib Dems were hardened against him. Chuka Umuna and his cohort are nothing more than neoliberal Blairites. The case is closed.
Furthermore, the EU itself is a nebulous concept. Even the most committed Remainers often shy away from painting the EU postively, let alone upholding it as a perfect institution. Many people also seem to forget that many young people support Jeremy Corbyn because he holds similar views to them on the EU – vague, ambivalent, faintly Eurosceptic – rather than in spite of them. Prior to the referendum, if the EU had cropped up in conversation the tone probably would have been negative rather than positive. I have heard the EU called a rich boys club, a neoliberal institution, undemocratic, cruel. Young people would have sympathised with Greece, not Germany.
One must also remember that we don’t know a life outside the EU. Although our vision of Britain as a country – its morals, its development, its place in the world – I believe is fundamentally entangled with the EU and its policies, it is invisibly so. Many of us are still under the illusion that our place in the world, our influence in international debate and politics, is down to some form of British exceptionalism. Not so. Our voice, in trade and in world discussion, is only heard through the loudspeaker of the EU. Yes, we may be a member of the G7 in our own right. But our international significance, post-WWII, has only been assured by our presence within the bloc.
Perhaps stereotypically, young people also take for granted an upward trajectory for society. We get new phone upgrades regularly and we hear our parents talk of days before the internet. We believe in the ideology of indomitable progress. But what we forget is that without the continuity of the EU that can act without the pressure of the election cycle, long-term policies that bring about this steady improvement are going to be lost. It is not difficult to envisage a world where the UK will be trapped in a series of short-term successes designated to win votes, but which finally lead us into stasis. Brexit negotiations themselves have already started off this process, taking up governmental bandwidth so that inventive policies remain unformulated.
Ultimately, Remain needs to get young people to ‘buy it’. They need to recognise, accept and counter young people’s moral qualms. Rather than repeating the mantra ‘Let’s Remain because we’re sick of Brexit’, Remain need to create a future vision of life in the EU post-referendum. They need to portray a Britain that would take on the responsibilities of reform, that would act as a leader on difficult issues, that would co-operate on an international basis, within and outside of the EU. Young people need to be shown an ideal of a future European Britain – and fast.