‘We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us’, said Jo Cox. Hence, at a time when Remain and Leave positions are more salient than political ideology, it is critical to understand how people feel about politics. Simona Guerra (University of Leicester) writes about the emotional experience of Brexit in the eyes of generations.

Since the EU referendum little has changed in the percentages of support for Leave and Remain, recently almost stalling at 52%-53% and 48%-47% respectively. Yet analyses show that Brexit has been successful in stirring up passions, with strong views on what the Brexit process would mean and more support to control immigration among Brexiteers and more economic concerns among Remainers, reflecting the referendum vote identification. At this time of emotional polarisation, where Remain and Brexit positions are more salient than political ideology, it is critical to understand how people feel. Among the disappointed expectations for a continuously extended departure from the EU, within a divided Parliament, the gap between those who feel confident and those who feel uncertain can widen. At this juncture lies the feeling of social, institutional and political trust. Hence, it is important to address a wealth of diverse expectations and draw attention to the possible social impact of Brexit. This is more urgent, as the outcome of the referendum showed significant intergenerational issues, with lower turnout among young people (aged 18-24) and a higher percentage of votes for Remain in this age group, with an immediate bulk of research and comments addressing these differences.

The Brexit referendum provides a unique and critical tool to examine people’s relationship with the EU, and how they feel about it. While ‘[T]here is research on public opinion and Euroscepticism and there are data such as Eurobarometer, there is still a need for more detailed research … that … moves beyond simply levels of support or opposition to the EU to consider drivers of public opinion on the issue.’ The study of emotions in the field of comparative politics and European Studies is relatively recent, but it can help examine how semantic and semiotic progressions in people’s feeling can create narratives and meanings. Emotions are fundamental to examine the process of EU integration and understand Brexit. While research on public attitudes tends to provide explanations, through identity and economic rationality frameworks of analysis, the referendum shows both the limits of the relationship between the EU and citizens and scholarly theoretical deductive approaches. However the narrative is defined, people know it when they also feel it. Narrative and emotions engaged through psychological realism, and as such, they are recognisable, strictly interlinked and offer believable interactions, and worthy of analysis.

In this blog, I explore how different generations have experienced the British referendum and show how young people have more in common with older generations than previously examined. Since the first few days after the referendum, the debate has developed on the generations’ turnout and general lower participation among young people and their engagement in the campaign. Recent research addresses generational differences in the determinants of party choice in the Netherlands. While there are no strong differences in party behaviour, education and the EU issue are the most significant different determinants across generations. This is corroborated by the identification of an emerging cosmopolitan/liberal category, also referred to as the rise of the well-educated, and analyses on the Eurobarometer data. Kieran Devine also confirms that the older generations are likely to associate EU integration to peace and post-war rapprochement leading to more positive views towards the EU, close to those aged 18-24 years old.

Examining Brexit as the independent variable and studying emotions as the dependent variable, we find very similar patterns as indicated in the literature. While the rhetoric and images deployed by the Leave campaign definitely gained more attention among UKIP voters and those who were 50 and older, a recent survey I have conducted with YouGov (3 May 2019) on a representative sample of British citizens (N=1,813) shows that there are common patterns, with similar levels of apprehension (37% among those aged 18-24, but also 35% among those who are 25-49 years old, and 40% and 34% among those aged 50-64 and 65 and older, respectively) across all the different age groups. The negotiation process until these days has reinforced the emotions perceived immediately after the referendum outcome was disclosed, but the affective polarisation that is presented can be examined in-depth to underline the closeness among generations and common concerns they share. Studies listening to young people’s voice found that leaving was associated with separation, and remaining with ‘unity and solidarity’. While levels of knowledge about the EU in the UK are as low as around 13%-26%, and the older, ‘the least knowledgeable, most incorrect, and most unable to answer simple questions on the EU’, the perception, among young people, was that ‘it was impossible to be in the middle: you had to pick a side’ (Team Future et al., 2017: 261), and division and intolerance developed from the days of the campaign to the time that followed the result. The continuous unsuccessful political debates and increasing emotional polarisation that have followed have further made the social distance more apparent.

Yet, the in-depth examination of the emotions, that still persist, narrows the distance between generations, and apprehension and uncertainty are the two emotions that are shared by all British citizens.

By asking about 18 different emotions, nine positive and nine negative, the majority of citizens still feel uncertain (44%) and apprehensive (36%). By comparing those emotions mainly felt in the 18-24 age group, disappointment and sadness have a decreasing but significant percentage also across the other age groups. Hence, while 29% feel sad among those aged 18-24, also 21% and 15% among those aged 60-64 and 65+ feel the same. Similarly, although 42% of those who are now 65 and older feel hopeful, hope is still shared among those aged 50-64 and uncertainty is almost as widespread as hope in these age groups (34% and 40%). While asked to frame how they were feeling after the exit had been further extended, the general tone reflected uncertainty and apprehension, but also disappointment. In their words, they feel ‘[F]ed up with political infighting from all parties and being nasty and personal. They can’t decide which way to go’, it is ‘[A] chaotic mess.’, ‘Pathetic. Betrayed. Ignored.’, ‘It is disappointing that politicians have let the country down, first by having a referendum on unclear terms and secondly by messing around’, ‘I think they’re a complete farce and we should revoke article 50 and stay in the EU’, ‘I am totally fed up of the same arguments being played over and over. It’s time we left the EU as we voted for, with or without a deal.’.

While my analysis definitely highlights the increasing polarisation of emotions, with the most positive emotions generally felt by the lowest number of respondents, including young people and women, it is critical to point out that the majority of citizens are tormented by uncertainty and anxiety, that still persist. Within the possible increase of a polarized political debate, citizens’ assemblies could enhance informed debate and move beyond adversarial contestation. Deliberative democratic fora have been critical of referendums, as a form of collective decision making. At a time of visceral politics, the quality of the debates becomes critical, so that voters can make more informed decisions. The quality of the debates becomes critical to support citizens’ informed decisions and this would also bring people together and provide accountability to future generations.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of LSE Brexit, nor LSE. Image: Public domain.

Simona Guerra is Associate Professor of Politics, University of Leicester and Visiting Professor at the College of Europe (Bruges). Her latest publication is “Immigration, that’s what everyone’s thinking about …” The 2016 British EU referendum seen in the eyes of the beholder, in the Journal of Language and Politics, and as the post, is part of her research project, EMOTIVE, also in her forthcoming book, What is Euroscepticism? Unleashing emotions in contemporary contentious politics (Edward Elgar, New Horizons in European Politics Series).

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