Most young people did not support Brexit and the referendum result left many feeling frustrated and disempowered, write Shakuntala Banaji and Sam Mejias (LSE). They fear the vote will make the UK more insular and are highly critical of the way the campaign was conducted. In focus groups, they showed a strong understanding of the EU – and want a Brexit settlement that tackles inequality as well as ensuring Britain is an open and welcoming country.
In the flurry of punditry after 52% of UK referendum voters chose to leave the EU, a series of claims and counter-claims emerged: young voters didn’t turn up at the polls, so they had no right to complain about the outcome; there was a generational divide, and a London-rest of the country divide between Leavers and Remainers. And many are now bored by the fall out, tired of hearing either negative or positive ‘propaganda’ about why the vote was a disaster or why the European Union is the enemy.
In the words of one 13-year-old, ‘Who cares? As long as our schools and hospitals are running well, as long as there’s stuff on telly? Can’t we just stop talking about Brexit?’ Some people have simply had enough. But is this cannot-be-bothered and don’t-want-to-think-about-it attitude the overwhelming feeling of all young people across the UK?
In October 2016, in the middle of CATCHEyoU – a major project about citizenship and young people – we were so intrigued by this question that we decided to find out. With no funding, but assisted by a fantastic group of youth partners (including youth participation NGO My Life My Say and the All Party Parliamentary Group on a Better Brexit for Young People) we set up a series of focus groups across the UK to find out what young people from 13 to 30 think and feel about Brexit, and what they want out of the Brexit process.
In total we conducted 40 focus groups with 352 young people: in schools, colleges and universities; among apprentices, professionals, and unemployed young people; and with young carers from diverse class, racial and geographical backgrounds. Our LSE research team posed open-ended questions on media, politics and Brexit. This was accompanied by a YouGov survey with our questions on these issues, to which 3,288 UK citizens from 18-65+ range responded. And on 18 October 2017 our reportwas published, inviting media interest, and some fairly hostile comment from older adults.
So, what did we find?
We certainly encountered generational tensions. Although these were complex, and not a simple matter of the young ‘blaming’ everyone older than them, we were told of two levels of resentment: in the first case, young people under 18 felt deprived of a voice and overwhelmingly said that if they could, they would have voted to remain. Secondly, young people expressed dissatisfaction that the oldest generations (65+) should have such a disproportionate influence on the futures of the youngest citizens.
Additionally, we heard repeatedly about how media coverage and political speeches during the Brexit campaign eroded confidence and trust both in media and political parties. A minority of respondents asserted that the referendum and subsequent events had been a ‘participation catalyst’ for young people to become more politically active. An even smaller minority insisted that Brexit was a decision to be proud of, and would make young Britons more independent.
Contrary to the common stereotypes of young people as disaffected, apathetic and apolitical, we found strong levels of interest in and understanding of the EU, of Brexit, and its potential effects on young people. We encountered a somewhat humbling view that political education in the UK is absent, sketchy, and overall inadequate to prepare citizens for major democratic choices like Brexit.
One surprising finding was the way in which group after group, regardless of age or background, insisted that they feared similar things as a result of Brexit, that they wanted similar things, and that they felt the ‘bad stuff’ associated with austerity and cuts had begun long before talk of Brexit – and needed to be addressed, urgently, by political leaders. Almost every group lamented that they thought Brexit was making the UK more insular, less friendly, less welcoming to outsiders, and less multicultural.
Our ties with other countries will be more broken…we have to co-operate. Community is such an important thing in a globalising world. (Youth participant from Swansea,Wales)
There was widespread fear and frustration. Prime amongst youth anxieties were questions about losing EU benefits including educational programmes, opportunities and rights. A close second was the feeling that economic livelihoods would be even more endangered in a post-Brexit UK. Higher education in the UK is already the most expensive in Europe; buying a home is beyond the dreams of most; getting council housing unachievable even for those in deprived areas; getting well paid work extremely rare.
A second set of comments showed anxiety about rising inequality, racism and intolerance and declining multiculturalism. Although many insisted that these were tendencies that had been in evidence before the referendum campaign due to the underfunding of public services and the increase in low-paid insecure work, most insisted that the vote to leave had made things worse.
As soon as people voted leave, there were attacks on minorities…I don’t know [if] people thought it was more OK to be racist, because they were leaving [the EU]. (Youth participant from Falkirk & Clackmannanshire, Scotland)
Priorities and hopes
It will come as no surprise then that a majority of young people in our study were adamant that they want the post-Brexit UK to be a better place than the UK is now, that they want negotiations to retain the rights and benefits associated with Europe today – freedom of movement, human and civil rights protections, subsidies, the single market – while also tackling inequality that has risen due to austerity.
They asked policy makers to negotiate and legislate for a fairer, more open UK, one in which refugees and migrants are treated with dignity, in which race and gender are not barriers to success, in which people do not feel trapped in their localities and communities, but can look outward with pride towards a world that regards the UK with respect.
We’re the future of this country… so you need to focus on young people when you’re negotiating things (Youth participant from Cornwall, England)
This post represents the views of the authors and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. It first appeared at The UK in a Changing Europe.
Dr Shakuntala Banaji is Associate Professor in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE.
Dr Sam Mejias is a researcher specialising in the fields of human rights and citizenship education, international educational development, youth media, and media for development at LSE Media and Communications.
Unsurpringly the opposite of the hopes described is going to happen. Post-Brexit Britain’s austerity will need to continue for longer because we will have less tax revenue to support the increasing demands of our older generation for NHS services. We will have the prefect storm of slow growing tax revenues unable to meet the growing demand of public services. This is because 1-2% reduction in GDP, which we are already seeing, has a big effect on tax reveues at the top end.
So where are the sunny uplands of Brexit?
hello? hello? mcfly? is anyone home?..
– we have’nt left yet!
-freedom of movement? thats the main reason that brexit passed. if the UK had only copy/pasted Australian immigration policy the country would be a better place, we would have the migrants that are needed, the economy would be better, the nhs would be running normally, and there wouldnt be maximum overload on all services. its because ‘anyone can come’ that the country is in such a state. the knock on effects are across the board. i don’t have to draw fancy graphs, and pull out long winded (or waffled) texts to prove this. its common sense. common sense immigration system is required as per needs. with the correct applied strategy. something that has been lacking for 40 years in the UK.
apparently your common sense didn’t tell you that immigrants are a net benefit to the economy and nhs especially. Jesus Christ, why bother with evidence when you can just feel things are true right? your (plural) common sense and voting for tory austerity is what got us in this mess.
i did not vote tory. the last 20 years i was happily living in europe (1987-2007) therefore any “tory mess’ vote is entirly those who were residing in the UK. i, as much as you would like to point the finger- I don’t count.
– i actually emigrated to Australia 4 years ago. yes i did. it took me 5 years to get a visa. full crb police checks, every country lived in for +12 months. full medical too- all at your own cost. a job, a sponsor on a ‘skills in demand list that cannot be filled locally’- thus requiring non UK persons to fill.
– i cannot see the benefits of Romanian thieves and beggars in the country-welfare claimants and criminals from anywhere in Europe (Albania, Moldova Poland, or any of the other places that pop up regularly in the sections with crime in it in the UK)
in fact, the main reason i chose to emigrate to Australia, was the loss of sovereignty associated with being in the EU, and yes, i have actually lived in europe, integrated fully, learnt a foreign language to a level to enable me to be hired before the locals.and worked in top blue chip companys , in France and switzerland.
if the UK is in such a mess, don’t blame me for your bad choices in uk elections- i wasnt there.
this is interesting for you to watch. i feel a deeper understanding of brexit, the EU, and voters decisions are explained clearly.