Wednesday 24 January 2018

It was class, not age, that was the deciding factor when Britain chose to leave European Union

UKIP supporter Kerrie Webb, who became known as Nigel Farage's biggest fan when she had a picture of the UKIP leader tattooed on her arm Photo: Anna Gowthorpe/PA Wire
UKIP supporter Kerrie Webb, who became known as Nigel Farage's biggest fan when she had a picture of the UKIP leader tattooed on her arm Photo: Anna Gowthorpe/PA Wire

Will Gore

In post-Brexit Britain, that warm and fuzzy place that used to be called the "United" Kingdom, various narratives have emerged to explain the referendum's outcome. Each is pitched in largely binary terms, with one group lumped together as Remainers set against another bundled up as Leavers. So, we have Scotland against England; London versus the provinces; rich against poor; and, perhaps most notably, the young pitted against the old.

It is the notion of pensioners "screwing" their twenty-something heirs to the kingdom that has perhaps attracted most media attention. That is no surprise, since it fed into a pre-existing feeling that young people are already at a disadvantage compared with previous generations: enjoying less secure employment; unable to get onto the property ladder; and with only modest pensions to look forward to. It's a generalisation of course, but not without a reasonable degree of truth. But at least Britain's youth had access to the world and could pursue opportunities abroad with our fellow EU brethren - until bumbling codgers who'll be dead soon anyway decided to strip them of that chance too.

The predominance of younger people on social media channels has perhaps given this tale of two ages a greater volume than it deserved. For where social media leads, the mainstream follows, not least because Twitter and Facebook have become the most immediate barometers of public opinion - however unrepresentative they may be. The age divide is also a neat story because the two supposed camps are easily defined - under-30s on the one hand, say; and over-65s on the other.

There is a danger in all this, though. For a start, there remains some doubt over the extent to which young people turned out to vote. An Opinium survey for the London School of Economics found that 70pc of 18- to 24-year-olds, and 67pc of 25- to 29-year-olds voted on June 23; the overall average turnout was 72.2 per cent. Other pundits have suggested lower figures still. And for those who did put their cross in a box, around a quarter of those aged 18-24 appear to have voted to leave the EU.

In short then, even the young vs old battle lines aren't drawn precisely. More importantly, by focussing disproportionately on this division, we may fail to get to grips with the arguably much more complex, class-based fractures that the EU debate exposed in British society. And it is those splits which perhaps need most urgently to be addressed if there is to be a hope not only of stabilising the country in the short term, but also of stemming the anti-establishment, anti-expert sentiment that seems to have so beset British politics.

Alwyn Turner, in his 2013 book 'A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s', set out vividly how politicians of that decade - both Tory and Labour - proclaimed an end to class divisions in the UK. A broad consensus around economic and social liberalism had seemingly been achieved and, as the global economy boomed, so did British creativity, opportunity and happiness. Economist Francis Fukuyama's proposition about the "end of history" seemed eminently reasonable.

Yet it was all a charade. With the confidence of the West already punctured by global terrorism and military failures, the global crash put paid to the conceit of politicians - notably including Gordon Brown - that they had found a way to end the economic cycle of boom and bust. In Britain, London became increasingly adrift from the rest of the country, driven by growth in the financial sector, which seemed, ironically, to come through the recession better than most.

Underlying all those developments was an uneasy feeling that far from becoming a better, more equal place, Britain had become ever more unfair. When things went well, the rich got disproportionately richer; when things went badly, the poor seemed disproportionately to suffer. Politicians came and went, each looking broadly alike and none of them really able to steer an obviously different course or to improve the lot of the humble voter.

For those on the wrong side of the equation - on low wages, with little job-security and few opportunities to break out of their own cycle of drudgery - trust in the old political elites (not to mention the media) has thus been evaporating for years.

In the 2010 general election, Ukip and the British National Party between them secured close to 1.5 million votes; last year Ukip took 3.9 million, yet notably its supporters remained unrepresented in parliament.

In that context, it is unsurprising that the Brexiteers' catchphrase about "taking back control" resonated so strongly. To those on zero-hours contracts who wonder when they'll next have a day at work, or to those who don't have the university degree that opens up social or career-based opportunities, control is perhaps a precious commodity.

Even better, the precisely proportional nature of the referendum meant voters really were in control - for a change, every vote mattered. The fact that the big beasts on the Leave side of the argument often seemed more down to earth than the usual suspects made them believable, and never mind that economists in the capital poured scorn on their claims.

The tragedy is that leaving the EU will not make Britain a more prosperous place. It may well not make it a nicer or fairer place either.

And those who voted to leave because they were disillusioned with the political status quo may be no less disillusioned two or three years down the line. The challenge of the next set of party leaders is to prevent that scenario arising - EU or no EU.

Irish Independent

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