To Brexit, or not to Brexit?

Young people are no more certain about what we do now than everyone else

17th January 2019

Among young people, the issue of Brexit isn’t quite as divisive as it is among the general population but that doesn’t exactly mean much.

Since before the referendum young people have been fairly uniformly opposed to Brexit, but despite what Uncle UKIP might think, we’re not all misty-eyed with admiration for the EU as an institution either.

The nature of the debate almost three years ago was such that there was little room for nuance and the same goes for the way most of the media has covered it in the time since. Aside from the campaign, the people and the arguments, what do young people really think of actually leaving the European Union?

Young people aren’t as solidly Remain as people think, but it’s complicated…

Young people were always expected to heavily back Remain in the 2016 referendum, and they did. There’s no way of knowing for certain but it’s generally accepted around 70% of 18-24-year-olds voted to Remain. So yes, a majority overall but not quite the unwavering consensus it’s often presented as. Particularly outside of London and other big cities, it’s likely a more balanced split.

When Channel 4 News hosted a young people’s debate about Brexit in Leeds last week, Jon Snow’s surprise at the number of 18-20-year-olds who seemed to be in favour of us leaving the EU was evident throughout. The Leavers of Twitter erupted with laughter at what they saw as a groundswell of right-wing youngsters showing that, outside that there big London (I’m allowed to do that, I’m from Birstall), everyone — even the youth — is actually a Tory or Ukipper.

Though only a small number (seven-ish) raised their hands in support of Theresa May’s deal on the night, no more than that said they’d like to “forget Brexit”, as Jon Snow put it. Though the response to that debate focussed on how many young people weren’t die-hard Remainers, you wouldn’t call most (or many, even) “Brexiteers” in the way we typically think about that term. And this reflected the reality of the depth and range of opinion that exists on Brexit, not just among young people, but the nation as a whole; many of whom now think we should leave, even though some of them don’t want us to.

These people fall broadly into one of the following categories: Actually Love Brexit-eers, Lexiteers (solidly left-wing Brexit supporters) and We’ve Made Our Bedders.

The ALBs have, for the most part, been pro-Brexit throughout and are anomalous among young people in that they actually like Farage’s poundshop-Powell schtick and all that goes with it, and they mostly want the Brexit deal as it stands or No Deal. Anecdotally, this group is probably the smallest among our young-people sub-sections.

The referendum debate proper didn’t leave much room for Lexiteers’ views to be represented but for them the EU is an old-boys club which cares only for the interests of business and has brought many southern European countries to their knees as a result. A number of these people would have or did vote Remain in the referendum, and maybe would ideally like us to be in the EU with a view to helping reform it, but they have their issues with the EU and in the right circumstances could very easily support us leaving.

We’ve Made Our Bedders are the ones who voted Remain, and would really like to Remain, but ultimately feel that the cost of going back on the referendum result — in aggravated family dinner-conversations alone — would be too high to warrant it.

Most young people really don’t like Brexit, at least in its current form

For many young people, Brexit means more than just the concept of leaving the European Union — it’s an ideology, a brand almost. Brexit is Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, it’s closed-minded and nasty, it is “breaking point” posters and “Turkey: population 80 million” flyers. This is the thing we’re really against.

Many of us forged our opinions on the EU and whether we should leave it in the burning heat of the referendum campaign, largely out of an intuitive understanding that most of the people arguing for Brexit did so with arguments we didn’t like or agree with.

As a child of immigrants myself and as an ethnic minority I’ve suffered a fair bit of abuse because of Brexit, but I think what’s important now is we move on

Yes, for many young people the EU is about freedom of movement, opportunity, unity and trade, and a beacon of democratic good in a world increasingly going to shit. That’s probably how most see it in fact, but don’t underestimate how many young people think of Greece’s imposed austerity and Fortress Europe when you mention the EU, or of bloated bureaucracy and neoliberalism.

The EU and its institutions represent very different things to different people

And now we can start to see the problem with the mega-simplified narrative of “young people are all Remainers”. All these people, and the wide range of opinion (and preferred outcome) they represent, are thought of largely just as Remainers but many don’t think we should now remain in the EU.

Mansoor, 20, would have voted to Remain at the time of the referendum but now supports leaving the EU, just not Theresa May’s deal. His issue is with the way the Brexit campaign was conducted, by both sides, and with the idea of a Brexit carried out by a Conservative government.

“The means through which the Leave campaign won, with their anti-immigration hysteria, it’s not something I was happy to see. As a child of immigrants myself and as an ethnic minority I’ve suffered a fair bit of abuse because of Brexit, but I think what’s important now is we move on, and we try to accomplish a Brexit that unifies the country as opposed to further dividing it with suggestions of a People’s Vote,” he says.

“My ideal Brexit would be something like what Jeremy Corbyn is proposing — prioritising the workers, prioritising the ordinary people as opposed to corporate interests. I think it can be accomplished but I think there’s a long road ahead.”

The only way we’re going to get out of this with more jobs and without a massive hit to our economy, I think, is to Remain

Most of the media dialogue around Leavers and Remainers has relied upon generalisations at best and caricatures at worst, on both sides. People mostly didn’t like the way we got into this mess, but a significant number think that for the good of democracy or because someone else could do it better we should maybe just stick with Brexit.


There’s significant support for a second referendum, but not a strong majority. Again, it’s complicated

That being said, there is support for a second referendum, which most seem to feel would result in us remaining in the EU. But how much faith is there in the result it would deliver?

Sophia is 19, and wants Britain to remain in the EU. She sees a second referendum as the only course of action which might result in this. But it’s a big “might”.

“I want a People’s Vote. The only way we’re going to get out of this with more jobs and without a massive hit to our economy, I think, is to remain, but who knows if that would happen,” she says.

To go back to the Channel 4 News debate again — among the audience there was clearly significant interest in the idea of a second referendum. Jon Snow asked for a show of hands and about 18 people put their hands up, slightly more than half the attendees.

Of the nation generally, most polling shows more people are against having a second referendum than are in favour of one (49% say no, 36% yes), and if Britain voted again and chose to stay in the EU, people thought it would create more division (49% it would increase division, 18% it would bring people together).

It stands to reason that, due to more young people supporting Remain in general, a higher percentage would back a second referendum. But a big increase is far from guaranteed, as YouGov polling showed less than half of 18-24s would support holding a second referendum. And this is the trap many fall — or jump two-footed — into when they talk about what young people want.

Because there’s an assumption, pedalled by many of the groups campaigning for a second referendum, that being pro-Remain or anti-Brexit automatically equates to supporting a second referendum. Pro-EU group Our Future Our Choice seized on a YouGov poll which showed that 78% of young people and 91% of young Labour members would vote to Remain, with spokesperson Femi Oluwole saying: “This poll shows that young people believe only a People’s Vote can safeguard their futures.”

But, that’s not what it says, is it? Many young people would have liked to Remain in the EU or would vote that way give the opportunity but this doesn’t mean they necessarily support a second referendum. Why?

Because there’s a difference between wanting a second vote and actually thinking we should have one

There’s an interesting distinction that goes overlooked in discussions about Brexit between people who say they would like a public vote or to remain in the EU and those who think that’s what we should actually do.

I think the temperature is too hot… I don’t think a second referendum would help in any way

Aaron, 20, was out of the country for the referendum but would have voted to Remain, and would strongly like to see us not leave the EU. He identifies a second referendum as the only real way to achieve this, but still has serious doubts about it.

“I don’t think there should be a second referendum. I think the people have decided. I would like one, in an ideal world, but I think the temperature is too hot… I don’t think a second referendum would help in any way.”

This attitude might seem counter-intuitive and its selflessness surprising if you tend to think of young people as being entitled and self-centred. On the latter point: the research shows you’re wrong. But on the former, let’s use a hypothetical scenario: You’ve got an exam early tomorrow morning that you absolutely must spend this evening preparing for, but then you get an invitation to the pub.

Now, in that scenario, a vast majority would surely say they’d like to go to the pub. Ah, the lovely, lovely pub. But would a majority support actually going to the pub? Many might, but lots wouldn’t, not because they wouldn’t like to go to the pub — oh how they would — but because the consequences of going to the pub would most likely be pretty bad, and they’d already told themselves they wouldn’t go.

So most young people would probably like a second referendum, and a smaller-but-still-significant group of young people do actively want a second referendum, but do most? Anecdotally, it’s unlikely. What’s for sure though is that anyone who tells you with certainty that a big majority of young people want a second referendum, and value that above all else politically, is lying. The People’s Vote campaign is built on this assumption that having supported Remain in the referendum equates to supporting a second referendum now.

Many critics of Corbyn’s Labour point to this as evidence that Labour will lose out big time if they don’t instantly pivot to People’s Vote. Labour’s Chris Leslie MP told The Times Red Box podcast that for Corbyn not to deliver a second referendum now would be akin to Nick Clegg reneging on increasing tuition fees, which feels like a bit of a stretch considering, finally, that…

Young people don’t necessarily support Corbyn’s Brexit stance, but the majority even among those will probably vote Labour

We always talk about how young people don’t like Leave, but a lot less on how young people really don’t like Tories. One of those things is more new, clearly, and therefore more newsworthy but it’s the other which is actually a much more important factor in what they’ll do come general election time, basically regardless of Labour’s stance on Brexit.

last general election I promised myself up until I walked in the voting booth that I was going to vote Green, because of Brexit

Part of this is a broad generational disdain for Tories. When it comes to young people it’s crucial to never forget that anyone under the age of say, 25, likely has no real recollection of anything other than Tory rule. Our entire political outlook is bound up in austerity and tuition fees, and the decision to have the referendum in the first place (which to a not-insignificant number of people, is worse than the result of the referendum). We’ve watched the world around us descend slowly into madness over the last decade, all the while with the Conservative Party behind the wheel.

So Brexit or not, we’re not about to vote for them in a hurry. Now of course, there are some young people who won’t vote for anyone who supports Brexit but most recognise the realities of the first-past-the-post system and realise that it’s basically a two-horse race.

Emily, 19, is an ardent Remain supporter and wants a second referendum. Though she’s been drastically disappointed with the way Labour’s Brexit stance has played out so far, she’s dubious as to whether she’d be able to vote elsewhere in a general election.

She says: “The last general election I promised myself up until I walked in the voting booth that I was going to vote Green, because of Brexit, but then I was looking at numbers the day before and thought ‘If I vote Labour, there’s a chance we’ll get rid of the Tories’ so I voted Labour.”

I could never vote Tory. Like, ever

Others, like Nia 19, who supported Remain and identified a second referendum as their ideal option, says they would vote Labour even if Labour were still committed to Brexit and the Conservative position changed to remaining in the EU.

“I could never vote Tory. Like, ever. I wouldn’t live with myself if I had done that. I feel like for me a lot of the issues I have with Brexit is that it’s distracting us from a lot of bigger issues that have been caused by the Tory government, like homelessness. I’d vote Labour because there are other issues.”

So young people broadly agree on not voting Tory, even if that’s about all they agree on.

Finally, the thing you really should remember when it comes to Brexit is that young people don’t see it as having stolen some utopian future from them. Lots of us are heavily saddled with debt, we’ve come to accept that property-ownership won’t be a reality for many of us and, in real terms, we get paid less than previous generations did by our age. There’s that whole dying planet thing to worry about too, and the very real prospect of robots taking all our jobs in the next few decades.

To assume that Brexit is the most important concern for most young people is to gravely underestimate the strength of feeling among us, that we have inherited a real shitstorm from those who came before. Ultimately, we know Brexit probably won’t help but we’ve got much bigger concerns.

17th January 2019