The decision to leave the European Union on 23rd June 2016 was potentially the most dramatic ever taken by the British electorate. Not only did it fly in the face of the expectations of the majority of the media, opinion pollsters and politicians (both in the UK and Europe), but it has come to dominate politics – in the Westminster Parliament and the devolved nations, as well as in political parties and the media – and will most likely be the defining event of this political generation. Since the vote, Brexit has been blamed (sometimes fairly, sometimes less so) for destroying the career of the former Prime Minister David Cameron, plunging the Labour Party into its second leadership election in a year and splitting its electoral support, making a second independence referendum in Scotland almost inevitable, simultaneously undermining and strengthening the UK’s economy, encouraging rising levels of hate crime and intolerance, and for British citizens having to face the potential loss of Marmite from its supermarkets.
One of the most remarkable consequences of the referendum and its result, however, has been to highlight – and perhaps even deepen – political differences between young people and their elders. Such differences are often discussed in the media and academia, and often with considerable exaggeration, but when it comes to views on EU membership it is difficult to overstate the gap between young and old. WISERD’s Young People and the EU Referendum project showed just how deep this ‘generational divide’ ran: the Millennial generation, for example, were the only generation in which a clear majority voted to Remain in the EU, and this reflected far more than just a difference of opinion about EU membership, but was rooted in different political values regarding national identity and the importance of national sovereignty, as well as very different assessments of the historic performance of the EU and the consequences of EU membership.
It is unsurprising, therefore, that this generational divide is still in evidence as the government begins taking the UK out of the European Union. Opinion polls frequently show that younger voters remain staunchly opposed to Brexit and tend to support holding a second referendum or ignoring the result of the EU referendum altogether. The media has covered extensively the role of young people in protests against Brexit outside Parliament, and how differences of opinion have apparently led to fallouts and rifts between friends and even families. And there is growing speculation that the political allegiances of younger voters are being redrawn as political parties are forced to choose between supporting or opposing Brexit (or, in the case of the Labour Party, fail to take a clear stance either way).
Following the EU referendum, Brexit is the most dramatic and divisive political issue to confront the UK political system for decades, and it is already fuelling and highlighting conflict between younger and older citizens in a way that seemed almost unthinkable just a year ago. It will almost certainly be one of the key defining features of the political lives of today’s young voters, having a lasting impact on their political values, support, priorities and behaviour. The challenge for politicians and academics is to understand how Brexit is shaping the political characteristics of today’s young voters, and what the implications are likely to be for both young people themselves and the UK political system more broadly.
WISERD’s Young People and Brexit project is an attempt to at least partially meet this challenge. Drawing on both existing and new research from throughout WISERD, and the insights of organisations with expertise and interest in youth political engagement (including Youth Cymru, the National Assembly for Wales and Members of the UK Parliament) the project will explore a range of issues relating to the consequences of Brexit for young people’s engagement with and participation in politics and civil society, including: its impact on their interest in politics; the challenge Brexit presents to young people’s conceptualisations of citizenship and national identity; the ways young people are participating in politics and their communities to influence Brexit; and the consequences of both the EU Referendum and Brexit for conflict between young people and their elders in domestic UK politics. The project will employ a range of methods and draw on data from numerous sources, including national surveys, interviews and research films. Its key findings will be shared on this blog and at academic conferences throughout the country. This blog will also be used to offer up to date commentary and expert analysis on how young people feel about Brexit and its impact on their political and civic behaviour, and on how Brexit is likely to influence young people’s participation in forthcoming major political events (such as May’s local elections). Finally, the project will culminate in a conference held in June – ‘Young People and Brexit: One Year On’ – in which the conclusions of the research will form the basis of a consideration, including young people, politicians, academics and civil society groups, of how Brexit is shaping the role of young people in modern British politics and what lessons we can learn about encouraging and facilitating their participation in future political events.
Young People & Brexit is an interdisciplinary study of how young people in the UK feel about and are responding to the most significant policy issue of this Parliament: the UK’s exit from the European Union. For more information about the project please click here.