In last week’s blog we discussed the generational divide between the Millennials and their elders in terms of hostility towards Brexit, highlighting how this reflects more than a simple difference of opinion about the EU and is actually the result of deep rooted differences in national identity and political values.
In this blog we take advantage of some opinion polling from YouGov to look at how those differences are reflected in young people’s attitudes towards Brexit and the government’s handling of it. Young people don’t approve of the government’s objectives for Brexit – but many think they could be good for the country. Why the contradiction?
By starting with the basic question of ‘what do young people want out of Brexit?’, we can answer that for the most part, the answer is: stop it. Or at least minimise it and retain a very close relationship with the EU. When asked what their priorities were for Brexit, three quarters of under-25s wanted to either remain a member of the EU (38%), form some sort of associate membership with the EU (11%), or have an extremely close relationship with the EU to such an extent that the UK government doesn’t have full control over immigration policy and must still adhere to some EU rules (24%). These priorities contrast sharply with the government’s objectives for their negotiations. In their white paper (published a few weeks after the survey), the government made clear their priorities for Brexit were to secure full control over immigration policy and withdrawal from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Both objectives will certainly mean withdrawal from the EU single market and customs union.
The government is seeking a far weaker relationship with the EU than the vast majority of young people want to see. It is somewhat bizarre, therefore, that in a subsequent YouGov poll in which respondents were asked whether they thought the deal Theresa May was aiming for would be good or bad for Britain, 43% of under-25s thought it would be a good deal for Britain, with only 25% feeling it would be bad. In other words, while the majority of young people think the government has the wrong priorities for Brexit, almost half feel the government is seeking a good deal for Britain by pursuing those wrong priorities.
Without further analysis it is impossible to delve deeper into these numbers and uncover what might lay behind this apparently contradictory stance. One possible explanation is that these figures reflect the conclusions of last week’s blog: that young people’s attachment to the EU is more about their conceptions of national identity and political ideologies than a hard-headed assessment of the costs and benefits of EU membership for the UK. Young people might want to stay in the EU because they believe in it as an institution and feel it is the best way to promote their political beliefs, but at the same time they feel that EU membership doesn’t always have a beneficial impact on the UK and so at least some benefits from leaving the EU might be found.
Alternatively, it could reflect simple partisan loyalties, in that young people sympathetic towards Theresa May or the Conservative party are more likely to see their actions in a positive light, even if they clash with their own preferences and beliefs to an extent.
Either way, these figures could be seen as encouraging for the government in its efforts to build public support for Brexit, given that some of the most ardent critics of it are nonetheless optimistic about its potential impact on Britain.