Outside the British Supreme Court last week, the atmosphere was tense, as pro-Brexit campaigners stood metres away from an anti-Brexit protest. Suddenly, a tussle between two protesters erupted, that had to be broken up by 7 policemen.
Remain and Leave voters fundamentally disagree on almost all issues. A Twitter poll conducted for Westminster World, with 51 participants, showed that 86% of them have argued with someone they know about Brexit.
— Blyth Brentnall (@BlythBrentnall) December 7, 2016
“Brexit revealed a number of divides in UK society: between more and less educated people, older and younger people; and to some extent the class divide as well. These divides are represented geographically, but they are also present within communities and naturally, within families as well,” said Jonathan Portes, Research Fellow at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, and former Chief Economist at the Cabinet Office, in an interview with Westminster World.
But the old and the young create the largest divide in opinion on the referendum vote. Brexit was marked by a voting pattern that showed many of the millennial generation voting to remain in the EU, whilst more from the older generation wanted to leave. Polls showed 75 per cent of people aged 18 – 24 said they voted to remain, whereas only 39 per cent of those aged over 65 wanted to stay in the EU. “In general, older people were more likely to vote for Brexit than younger people,” said Jennie Bristow, sociology lecturer at the Canterbury Christ Church University.
“I agree that voting to leave the EU is a disaster for the millennials. I wouldn’t have wanted that if I was a younger person. When you’re in your teens, 20s, or even 30s, the world is your oyster, and all of a sudden that world has shrunk dramatically,” said Abimbola Olowofoyeku, Professor of Law at Brunel University.
“There has been tensions between families that I know, where the parents have voted to leave the EU and the teenage children have voted to stay. To the younger generation, it feels like their parents’ generation have sold them out. What do they get in return for losing 27 citizenships? I don’t know if they’ve got anything in return besides the statement that they’ve got their country back,” he added.
Brexit has led to rifts in families, especially between millennials and baby boomers. Students in London described to Westminster World how they had fallen out with relatives who had voted differently from them. Some were unable to understand why their relatives decided Leave while others claimed to have lost respect for the opinions of their elders.
Emma Crewe, an anthropologist who has written about Brexit, explained, “Young people feel that older people have disregarded their views. Their anger is fierce and entirely understandable.”
It is not difficult to find millennials who have fallen out with someone over Brexit and often the altercations take place on social media. Alastair Bartlett, a young man from Wales, who voted Remain, mentioned arguments he’d had with “generally daft friends, acquaintances, or distant relatives that only remain in touch via Facebook.” He said that “such fallouts generally seem to stem from obnoxious, hate-filled, bleedingly-obviously incorrect memes that they share.” Bartlett has “un-friended” acquaintances on Facebook and experienced face-to-face rows.
Dave Johnson, a 26-year-old Remain voter from Leeds, found himself in disputes with people much closer to him. In the last general election he dissuaded his traditionally pro-Labour grandparents from voting for UKIP. They finally agreed with his anti-racist arguments, but when it came to the EU referendum, Johnson’s grandparents wanted out. They were determined to “take back control” and stop immigrants from using British healthcare. After a heated conversation, Johnson was accused of losing his working class roots after moving to study in London. He hasn’t brought up politics in family discussions since.
Johnson’s grandparents’ insistence that they were right to vote Leave was shared by Graham Blezard, a 66-year-old Leave voter from London. Pausing outside the Supreme Court where the MPs were deliberating on the referendum on December 5th, he initiated arguments with anti-Brexit protesters outside. Talking to Westminster World, he said he felt misunderstood by the younger generation. “The older generation need to teach the younger generation and the younger generation needs to understand what is being taught is not political left and right. It’s principles”, he explained.
There are some millennials who are actively avoiding disputes, anticipating a clash. Becka Hudson, a 26-year-old coordinator from London had voted Remain. She said, “I’ve avoided conversations about it unless around people whose politics, thought and generosity I trust. From my experience it is better to judge the situation before stating anything that could cause a row. “
However, not all millennials have been affected negatively by the vote and the situation is more nuanced. Matthew Woods, a Remain voter in his mid-twenties from Manchester, attended a wedding after the referendum and was anticipating conflict with his relatives from Lincolnshire. “But actually they surprised me about how they voted. They were probably the only people in town who voted to remain for the sake of us, their grandchildren.”
Jacob Sanders, a Remain voter also in his mid-twenties, found that since the referendum he has been brought closer to his family who live in Germany. He said: “We had a lot of connections with the German side of the family and actually, in the immediate aftermath of Brexit, when it was still a very sore wound, we made a lot more effort to come together as a family.”
The Brexit vote was determined by other social differences as well, so the argument that the older generation exclusively voted Leave does not hold. Sociologist Bristow said, “We shouldn’t overstate this as a ‘generation divide’. The vote also reflected other, more profound divisions and youth is not a clear-cut category. Young people are also working-class, unemployed, university students and so on. Some young people voted Leave, just as some older people voted to remain.”
“The vast majority of families don’t tend to spend most of their time arguing about politics and when families have big rows it’s not usually about politics. I think this is one more manifestation of tension that naturally arise between generations,” said Portes.
The tussle outside the Supreme Court is an extreme manifestation of disagreements between the Remain and Leave camps. But one thing is for certain: of those who voted, more millennials chose Remain than older people. Their anger was audible in the mass anti-Brexit march of September, following the referendum result. But of those aged 18-24 only 36 per cent turned up at the polling stations.
The referendum result was partly the fault of the young, argued Olowofoyeku. “If all the millennials had voted, and had voted to remain, then I think the outcome would have been very different,” he said. “Maybe some millennials didn’t take it seriously enough — that there was a real risk of the vote going the way it did, and maybe that’s why they didn’t vote, or maybe they just couldn’t really be bothered. And that raises the question, ‘Why are you complaining when you couldn’t be bothered?’”
“Millennials have strong feelings but not sufficient to take them to the ballot box. Once the politicians begin to see that millennials have become an electoral force that can influence the outcome of a general election, they have to take notice.”
With a looming cloud of complacency, is there no hope then? “I think, millennials owe it to themselves to say, ‘We must be heard, you cannot ignore us, because we will vote you out and we will vote in politicians who will listen to us and hear what we’ve got to say,’ so that may be the solution,” added Olowofoyeku.
Serving as a positive reminder, anthropologist Crewe added, “It is young people who will have the energy, determination and optimism to overcome the problems caused by this mess.”