I’m young, metropolitan, educated and multilingual – but proud to have backed Brexit

I’m young, metropolitan, educated and multilingual – but proud to have backed Brexit

Leave voters were ignorant, disgruntled, poor and backward-looking 70-year-olds in dilapidated mining towns in the North – so Remainers tell me. So, as a Leave voter in 2016 I clearly didn’t fit the bill: under-30, multi-lingual and having lived, studied and worked abroad – and now in London working for a multinational company.

It’s true that voters in the 18-35 age bracket were broadly more likely to have voted Remain. The tipping point came around the age of 35, after which the older you were, the more likely you were to vote to Leave. So it was much to the surprise of Jon Snow when he hosted Channel 4’s recent Brexit Inbetweeners debate that the majority of the panel (18-20 year olds at the time of the referendum) were in favour of Brexit.

I knew that, although unusual, I was not alone. So to understand why young, metropolitan professionals might have voted to Leave the EU, I spoke to a number of fellow young Leave voters who ticked many of the same boxes: a civil servant, a state secondary school teacher and two professionals at City firms.

The most common reason, which was a factor for us all, concerned democracy. We were all, to varying degrees of formality, students of history and had read how our country was governed long before our lifetimes. It seems that the broader the understanding of our country’s history, the greater our dissatisfaction with the status quo. “It’s fundamentally about being able to change the lawmakers if you don’t like what they’re doing,” said the lawyer. “I’ve done my research – I studied EU law,” said the (multilingual) civil servant, “it was simply about who gets to make the decisions.”

None of us started off as convinced Brexiteers. I was certainly ambivalent about EU membership until I met a few MEPs, who told me about the degree of control that the European Parliament had over law-making. At first, I’m not sure I really believed them. But the more I read up, the more I disliked the implications of what I was learning. By the time of the referendum, I had volunteered to help the Leave campaign.

Along with the classic arguments about international trade and control of our borders, we were also all motivated by the view that the UK was on a fundamentally different path to the rest of the EU. “The UK is a decreasingly good fit for a protectionist bloc,” a negotiator at a large international firm told me. The teacher told me he “no longer felt comfortable being part of this club. The UK was always the ugly duckling.” The lawyer added that the EU’s approach to negotiations, and in particular its rhetoric about punishment, removed any lingering doubts about whether Leave was the right choice.

As I looked back at the Remain campaign’s advertising targeted at younger voters, I began to notice a discrepancy between their themes and what I was hearing from these young, educated Leave voters. The Remain campaign’s messages focused on physical losses that we should expect from leaving the EU. They warned that we would no longer be able to take cheap holidays across Europe, that we wouldn’t be able to study abroad or that we would have to pay mobile roaming charges. But we were all thinking about more intangible ideas: of democracy, sovereignty and justice.

So, did the Remain campaign patronise younger voters? I never found their arguments convincing; if it was to come down to me having to pay £1.50 more to use my phone abroad or my country getting back the ability to make its own laws, that’s a pretty easy trade-off. The civil servant compared it to being offered either book tokens or access to the British Library. One is easily understandable; the other is more complex, but if properly used, almost certainly worth more in the longer term. Many of us resented the assumption that all we cared about was material objects, as well as the not-so-subtle attempts to pit the generations against each other.

We all felt that we were somewhat unusual as Leave voters within our organisations. In my industry, I would estimate that 70% voted Remain – unsurprising, as we were fed a steady diet of how damaging Brexit would be for our clients. In other multi-national firms, there was less concern, as their clients are truly global and the EU matters far less in where and how they conduct their business. One told me that their Middle Eastern clients will continue to do business in the UK come what may, as they come here for the reliable justice system, which isn’t going to change. We additionally felt there was a clear pro-Remain ethos within our organisations, as a result of which there were likely to have been many more shy Leave voters who didn’t want to admit it at work. The teacher told me that it would certainly have raised eyebrows in his staff room.

So, did we really vote against our own self-interest? In a narrow sense, we may have done. Our organisations’ planning may have become cautious and pay increases and promotions supressed as a result. But we all felt that we had voted to make ourselves and our country better off – not just financially but also democratically – in the long term.

Far from being backward-looking or xenophobic, we are all internationalists who see Brexit as the greatest political opportunity of our lifetimes. It now remains to be seen whether the political class will grasp this opportunity and deliver the benefits that Brexit really could bring.