It seems to have become generally accepted among commentators on the referendum campaign – from Philip Stephens in the FT a couple of weeks ago (and thanks to my Dutch economist friend Harald for alerting me to that one) to Rod Liddle in his Sunday Times video today – that a substantial majority of young British voters (say 18-30) are in favour of Britain staying in the EU, but that most of them probably won’t bother to vote; whereas the over-50s are keen voters who are mostly for getting out, so the result hangs in the balance. But why are the young so pro-EU?
1) Because the over-50s are keen voters who are mostly for getting out.
2) Because they think that European economic co-operation has secured peace in Europe.
3) Because the Leave campaign is led by unashamedly articulate intellectuals.
The answer to all of these, of course, is ‘Get over your cocky, chippy ignorance and read some books’, but let’s take them one by one.
1) The post-war boom in the 1950s and ’60s needed a market, and found it by giving the mass of the young their own cheap, mass-produced music and clothes. Unfortunately this also led to their having their own opinions, which were mainly that the austerity of their childhoods was the fault of their parents for fighting a war, and so all the views of the older generation on patriotism, sexual continence, religion, and social cohesion in any form had to go out of the window, with incalculable social misery over the subsequent decades resulting. The fact that their elders had had no stomach for war after the ’14-’18 show, but pulled together anyway to save their children, and all of Europe, from Nazi tyranny seemed to escape them. But now those children have grown up, got over their hippy phase, and learnt to value the British democracy, the principles of free dissent and independence, that permitted it. Foreign oligarchy and national impotence loom, but their pampered offspring don’t seem to care. It’s a just punishment on them. But I take a relaxed, Aristotelian view on that new tendency to eschew the ballot-box. The Greek observed that it’s a good thing for a blind horse to be also slow; and if today’s young are stupid enough to follow Russell Brand and decide that voting isn’t cool, I’d rather they didn’t do it. Go upstairs and play your computer-games. The grown-ups are talking.
And as for that ‘harking back to the Empire’ stuff – go back to your room. I want to trade freely with Commonwealth countries without EU restrictions. I don’t want them ruled from Whitehall. Grow up.
2) Well, that one’s just straightforward nonsense. In a world in which the USA, Russia and China not only have the ability to start a nuclear war but also – God forbid – the land-mass to sustain and survive one, European economic co-operation is the consequence of peace, not its cause. And the cause is NATO, not the EU. The fact that David Owen has come out for Brexit says it all.
3) This, I’m afraid, is the big one. For the mass of British 18-30s are the victims of a state secondary education system that discourages excellence, scepticism, inquiry and thought, and giggly resentment of the swot who knows stuff and can talk about it has become the respectable default position in their adult lives. Clever and educated comedians have to dumb down to get a TV gig, grown-ups read Harry Potter books, and Times leaders no longer respect the sanctity of the sentence. And even young ex-public schoolboys, who know better, litter their conversation with redundancies and affect the moronic ‘up-talk’ lest they appear to be swanking. First we nobly said that ignorance consequent on poverty was not shameful; but that led to a consensus that ignorance itself was not shameful; and now conspicuous erudition is shameful, which means that the thicko thugs have taken over the classroom. And so Michael Gove, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, very different men with different talents and faults, but all very bright, are all defensively branded as weirdos by the millions who were never taught that being knowledgeable and articulate are admirable goals.
Well, that’s Youth, as generalised by the media. But does even this broad-brush analysis hold true? Stephens points out that British young people are more internationalist than their seniors; well, yes, but their cultural intake is Atlanticist, not European. They watch and listen to American and British media, and have Eurovision parties to laugh at all the funny foreigners who can’t write songs for toffee, and at our own gentlemanly habit of putting up some new, hopeless act in the contest, knowing full well that any neglected Elton John album track from the last four decades would have trashed anything performed in Stockholm this year. No, they’re not pro-Europe, let alone pro-EU, not really; they just don’t want to look weird, or think like their grand-parents, or think at all. But, since they’re not going to vote anyway, they don’t matter. And if they do decide to vote it will be because they’ve done some homework. I’d be happy with that.
But they are not the problem in this allegedly great democratic, history-changing, nation-defining exercise that we are facing on June 23rd. The problem resides not in the young, but in two men who think they’re young. David Cameron and George Osborne are 49 and 44 respectively. They both did very well very young, their parents are justly proud of them, and all that, and I sincerely salute them. But for them Europe has always been the Future, post-imperial Britain the Past, and they have grown up as young thrusters in a bubble reality. They still think of themselves as young men (and I can’t blame them – I think of them as young men, being DC’s senior by eight years), but they are now facing the possibility that they will shortly become old politicians, their world-view trashed by a new wave of history. Project Fear is actually about their own fear of political mortality, and of the big one for which the end of the earthly career is merely the finger-wagging of the Reaper. If Britain votes Brexit, or even if the vote is close in their favour, they’re both sunk, before they’ve even come to terms with middle age. Their increasingly desperate warnings about the consequences of leaving the EU, which they both know to be speculative if not out-right mendacious, are born simply of this. They’re scared of not being young, of not being the Future any more.
Get over it, guys. It’s over. And the lecture circuit can be a lot of fun, once you’ve realised you’re History.