Britain’s young people are anything but a homogenous pro-Remain bloc

Britain’s young people are anything but a homogenous pro-Remain bloc

Brexit has taught us many things as a country. One of the harsher lessons is that mainstream politicians, along with the media and policy communities, can no longer be trusted to provide an accurate and comprehensive account of why important political events happen. 

The Leave result delivered back in June 2016 has greeted by a range of simplistic explanations framed in binary terms: left versus right; educated versus uneducated; cultured vs uncultured; North versus South; open-minded versus narrow-minded. But the dominant narrative which has emerged is the “intergenerational divide”.

This intergenerational difference sees Britain’s older pro-Leave generation being “at odds” with the country’s younger pro-Remain generation. In keeping with the unfortunate melodrama and hysteria which surrounds Brexit, this framing paints a simplistic picture of elderly, nostalgic throwbacks who are near death’s door, snatching the future away from the open-minded, tolerant, cosmopolitan internationalist British youth. This was perfectly represented by VICE, which ran with a piece the day after the referendum titled Oh My God Grandma: What the F*** Have You Done?

This intergenerational framing, as well as clearly being driven by an abhorrent form of gerontophobia which has seen some Remainiacs design platforms which supposedly calculate how many Brexit voters have died since the vote took place, it also misses an important reality – that a notable section of Britain’s younger population hold eurosceptic views.

With our collective understanding of the social values and political attitudes of young Leavers being far from developed, my new report for the Henry Jackson Society, A Lost Tribe: Britain’s Young Eurosceptics, strives to add some much-needed balance in this particular area of research. Based on a nationally representative survey of British people aged 18-30 in the month preceding the June 2016 vote, it delivers findings which counter the prevailing narratives about young people and EU membership.

While economistic ‘left behind’ explanations are partly useful, the role of socio-cultural factors and social attitudes in shaping views on EU membership should not be underestimated – especially when it comes to Britain’s young people. 

One of the sharpest points of difference between young eurosceptics and their pro-EU counterparts was not on the basis of education level or socio-economic status – but their perspective on cultural diversity. For years, the Westminster political class has generally adopted a celebratory view of the cultural diversity which has come to characterise “modern-day Britain”. But 46.7% of pro-Leave young people held a negative view of cultural diversity, with only 6.4% of their pro-Remain counterparts following suit – a difference of more than 40 percentage points. 

Demonstrating their more “security-oriented” credentials, young British eurosceptics were more likely to prioritise immigration, crime, defence and terrorism as important issues facing the country, in comparison their pro-Remain peers. Post-material concerns were more widely shared among young Remainers, who were more likely to prioritise the environment as an important issue than their pro-Leave counterparts. This suggests that young pro-Remain people were far more likely to hold the view that the UK’s membership of the EU is an integral part of a broader collective effort to address environmental challenges such as climate change and waste reduction. 

Another major policy difference between young Leavers and young Remainers is the extent to which education was prioritised as a key issue for the country at large. Not prioritising education as a major issue for the UK was significantly associated with pro-Leave sentiments among younger sections of the British population. While Brexit-related narratives have tended to focus on levels of educational attainment, attitudes towards education as a public policy issue appear to be heavily implicated in the Leave–Remain divide among young British people. 

The importance of education-related factors is further demonstrated by the Leave-Remain gap when it comes to trusting educationalists. In line with the “anti-expert” narratives constructed by pro-Leave campaigns in the build-up to the referendum, Britain’s young eurosceptics were far less trusting of academics and teachers when compared with their pro-Remain peers (even though it is important to note that the education sector is far better trusted on the whole when compared to other sectoral groups such as the media, business leaders, and politicians).

But perhaps one of the most important differences relates to gender. 64% of the pro-Leave subgroup analysed in the report were male – a gender-gap difference of 28 percentage points. On the other hand, the pro-Remain subgroup was divided almost evenly (male 49.9%; female 50.1%). This is part of a burgeoning strand of research that emphasises the role of gender in contemporary voting behaviour – and the UK is not unique in this respect. 

In the 2016 US Presidential Election won by Donald Trump, 63% of women under the age of 30 voted for Democratic presidential candidate Hilary Clinton; the corresponding figure for men under the age of 30 was 47%. This gender gap in Democratic Party support among younger voters was larger than the gap for both the 2008 and 2012 US Presidential Elections. These gender differences in voting have the potential to impact on the democratic politics and policy debates in Western liberal democracies, including the UK, for some time to come. 

While metropolitan pro-Remain politicians continue to portray their efforts to overturn Brexit as a virtuous pro-youth endeavour, we would all do well to remember that a notable section of Britain’s young people are pro-Brexit – an unheard tribe which is concerned over immigration; by and large sceptical of cultural diversity; and more likely to prioritise issues such as national defence over the environment. 

Nuance is imperative in these times of politically-motivated simplification. Britain’s young people are anything but a homogenous bloc when it comes to the issue of EU membership.