Comment

Brexit and young people: a retrograde storm?

Frank Pringle / Jul 2021

Photo: Shutterstock

 

One defining aspect of the post-Brexit world is the absence of focus on the lost generation of the Brexit debate in the UK: the millions of young people devoid of a democratic right in the process.

As was well-documented, the incessant infighting of the upper echelons of the various pro-Europe campaign groups which popped up throughout the Brexit process brought untold damage to the competency of the latter stages of Remain. Yet, the most effective campaigning came from grassroot, youth-led movements and organisations which passionately sought to engage wholly, critically, and relatably with the complexities of Brexit.

Yet, such disdain for establishment figures and institutions has – almost inevitably – engrained a sense of deep mistrust and detachment from the centres of power and control upholding the UK state. With a generation both overwhelmingly opposed to Brexit and denied the voice in the process, this disdain has drawn a distinct divergence from the anti-establishment sentiments that drove the campaign for Brexit.

Brexit’s transition from newsreel dominance to its place of insignificance in contemporary culture is indicative of – other than the natural response to the threat of COVID-19 – a fatigued nation, disengaged from the actions of its government. This effect is particularly felt within communities already feeling distant from Westminster. Thus, it is no surprise that the vast majority of young Brits feel an unprecedented level of isolation from the Johnson government.

After 2016, a new generation entered the voting rolls, a demographic strongly pro-European, strongly internationalist, and strongly engaged with politics and current affairs – a dangerous situation for a government sustained by older, Brexit-backing voters. As the Brexit process grew increasingly combative, the parliamentary and political drama demonstrated the blatant difficulty of articulating what ‘Brexit’ was or will be. Importantly, the scrutiny of this period highlighted the extent to which the uncoupling from the EU would sever the opportunities and freedoms that both EU and UK citizens enjoyed. Yet, those attaining suffrage throughout this time were denied any semblance of influence or power over it.

Yet, despite possessing a greater knowledge and understanding of politics than their grandparents, those aged between 18 and 24 continually face cynical societal notions that young people’s views are tainted by idealism and a ‘pie in the sky’ political thinking. This has arguably influenced the stagnant levels of youth registration and voting that has defined youth engagement in politics for at least the past decade of UK-level politics. Moreover, these social barriers add further strain and difficulty to young people from working class or underrepresented backgrounds from breaking into the political arena.

The inevitable consequence of these barriers to politics are – and will continue to be – a government that sees no imminent incentives to appeal to young voters or gain an understanding of their issues.

With the loss of ERASMUS+, Freedom of Movement, and frictionless Work/Voluntary opportunities to name a few, the devastation of Brexit demonstrates the Johnson government’s carpet bomber approach to young people’s prospects. This leaves open the possibility of an EU-led deployment of soft diplomacy which will form a solid basis in appealing to the hearts and minds of young people across the United Kingdom.

“… [Y]oung people around the world are making their voices heard like never before – pushing to shape the agenda in recognition that it is their futures on the line. We know that our actions today will define the role and nature of Europe for the rest of the 21st century…”

- Maroš Šefčovič (Vice-President of the European Commission for Interinstitutional Relations, 2019-) speaking at the Mario Soares Promotion Closing Ceremony held at the College of Europe, 18 June 2021

However, young people are no single group. The appeal of Brexit to working-class and left-behind communities stemmed from a belief that the EU is responsible for bureaucratically binding towns and areas from succeeding by their own doing. Nevertheless – despite its success amongst their elders – the overwhelming influence of Remain aligned with working-class youth’s values and aspirations, just like their better-off peers, drawing an interesting contrast to conventions of a chronically class-divided United Kingdom.

Nonetheless, there is hope in the UK in the darkness of Brexit and COVID. The chaos which has driven politics in recent years has arguably implanted an association of politics and controversy. This conscious coupling will influence young people’s political philosophy during their formative political years. This undoubtedly leaves open many possibilities for a new generation to innovate and overcome the remedial system of UK politics, and begin to reflect the aspirations of the ‘lost generation’.

                          

Frank Pringle

Frank Pringle

July 2021

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