Young people need to take the Brexit bull by the horns and start shaping Britain’s – and their – future

Young people need to take the Brexit bull by the horns and start shaping Britain’s – and their – future

One of the ugliest, most sinister reactions to Britain’s Leave vote has been the vitriol directed at old people. In the days after the vote, the ‘blame’ for Brexit was heaped on a supposed grey army of racist, nostalgic, Leave-voting pensioners. ‘Old people have stolen our future’, whined a chorus of plummy-voiced, Remain-supporting youths in one post-referendum Guardian video. Some openly contemplated disenfranchising pensioners; others shamelessly fantasised about the near-future when 1.5 million old Leave voters are ‘freshly in their graves – apparently tipping the balance in favour of Remain. Sir Vince Cable was another prominent figure to stick the boot in with a Mail on Sunday article saying that the old have ‘comprehensively shafted’ the young by imposing on them a worldview ‘coloured by nostalgia for an imperial past’.

This relentless stoking up of intergenerational tension has been very informative. It has thoroughly blown apart the myth that Brexiteers have a monopoly on bigotry. It has also demonstrated how painfully entitled some members of my generation can be. These granny-bashing youths see their ‘futures’ as something handed to them from on high and determined by forces outside their control, as if they have no political agency of their own. Brexit, however, is the great unknown – a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fundamentally reorganise our political institutions and relationships with other nations in ways that the EU made impossible. Young people need to bin the self-pity, take the Brexit bull by the horns, and start shaping Britain’s future – their future – in their interests.

‘We tried to do that in the referendum and our voice wasn’t heard!’ is the usual response here. In some young people can be seen a pitiful resignation that, no matter what they do, elections and referenda will always be decided by the bigoted, backward-looking old. As it happens, however, this complaint is based on two widely-accepted myths.

The first myth is that old people voted Leave overwhelmingly for ‘bigoted’ reasons. It is true that the old voted Leave more heavily than any other age group – 63% of those over 65 according to the most recent British Social Attitudes report. Strikingly, however, old-age Leavers were the least likely of all age groups to vote because of concern about immigration. According to the raw data for the Lord Ashcroft poll conducted immediately post-referendum, only 26% of Leavers aged 65+ cited immigration as the main reason for their vote, compared to 33% of all Leavers, and 38% of Leavers aged 25-34. What overwhelmingly drove the old-age Leave vote was concern about sovereignty: a huge 56% said that the ‘principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK’ was the main motivation for their vote, compared to 49% in total and 40% of the 25-34 age group.

There is, of course, nothing inherently ‘bigoted’ about concern about immigration. But in order for the ‘racist pensioner’ narrative to have any basis in fact, it at least seems necessary for immigration to be their driving motivation. The reality, it turns out, is very different. But this reality should not be surprising. The old, unlike the young, have lived as adults both inside and outside the EU. Little wonder, then, that pensioners appear to be more concerned about European centralisation than anyone else. After all, they have real-world experience of a more accountable, more easily-controlled state.

The second myth is that young people don’t have significant political clout. They do, but they just don’t bother using it. According to ONS estimates, there are roughly 14.7 million Brits aged 18-34, compared to 11.8 million aged 65+. The recent BSA report, however, places the EU referendum turnout amongst the 18-34 age group at only 64% – compared to a massive 89% of those aged 65+. This puts the number of young people voting in the referendum at 9.4 million, compared to 10.5 million aged 65+. If the young had turned out in the same numbers as old (that is, 89%) then there would have been 13.1 million young voters – 1.3 million more young voters than there are people aged 65+ in the first place.

But here’s where it gets interesting. We know that 17.4 million people voted Leave and 16.1 million voted Remain. What if the 18-34 turnout had in fact matched the 65+ turnout at 89%? Well, 3.7 million more people aged 18-34 would have voted. Now, assuming that these votes would split the same way as the rest of the age group – 67% in favour of Remain – there would have been about 2.5 million more votes for Remain and 1.2 million more for Leave. The result? 18.6 million each. Obviously, given the margin of error in the data here, it really could have gone either way.

I’ve used the recent BSA report alongside the ONS estimates because its comprehensiveness and use of face-to-face interviews makes it more reliable than standard opinion polling. However, whatever data is used, one thing is clear: young people could very easily have swung it for Remain. The reason this didn’t happen is not that the young were outgunned by the old: it is simply that insufficient numbers of young people supported Remain, or were too apathetic to turn up – a well-known, long-term trend. Of all people aged 18-34, only 43% actually turned up on the day and voted to Remain.

We can now see how incredibly wrong-headed the anti-pensioner vitriol has been. The referendum was not the story of the intolerant old ‘shafting’ the pro-EU young, as Vince Cable and others fantasise. The real intergenerational Brexit tension is between civic-mindedness and political apathy. It’s the division, on one hand, between an old population who turned out, in large numbers, to reject European centralisation and reaffirm political accountability; and, on the other, a largely disaffected youth – some disaffected with the EU, others with the political process more broadly.

So next time a teary-eyed millennial accuses you of stealing away their future, remind them that their future always was – and still is – within reach. They just need to get out of bed and take it.