Blocking Brexit will turn young people off politics

The UK government’s campaign leaflet, issued to all households in the run-up to the EU referendum on 23 June, called the vote ‘a once in a generation decision’. Its own views were emphasised in bold: ‘The government believes the UK should remain in the EU.’ But it also stressed that the referendum was ‘your chance to decide’, and that, ‘the government will implement what you decide’.

On one short page, the electorate was told five times that this moment was our ‘chance to decide’. And it was the historic significance of this decision that brought people out to the ballot box in their millions, sparked discussions within families, and dominated the news agenda for several weeks. Everybody was engaged with this discussion, and everybody – even if they didn’t, or couldn’t, vote – had a view.

For younger people, this was a particularly exciting and important moment. The referendum generated an interest in politics that decades of patronising campaigns designed to boost the youth turnout in election campaigns, or promote engagement via citizenship-education classes in schools, had spectacularly failed to do. The outcry among some young people when the result didn’t go the way they wanted demonstrated that they understood what was at stake. On the basis of this vote, the UK would either remain in or leave the EU. It was a rare, historic, ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to decide something substantial about their futures.

For a brief period, democratic engagement stopped being about going through the motions and meant something tangible and significant. Which is why attempts to frustrate the result of the referendum, demonstrated by the shenanigans surrounding the recent High Court ruling, are so destructive in their potential consequences. If it turns out that, in fact, the referendum was not ‘our chance to decide’ but merely another performance of participation, a generation will have this experience corroded by cynicism, whichever way they voted on 23 June.

For those young people who voted Leave, the pointlessness of electoral participation will be heavily underscored. All those ideas associated with apathetic youth – that it doesn’t matter which way you vote, that nobody really wants to listen to you anyway, that politics is a game for posh, bossy nerds – will be confirmed. And when politics is taken off the table as a route to change, the alternatives are, to put it baldly, retreat or riot. Constructive solutions to the problems society faces now and in the future become increasingly elusive.

For those young people who voted Remain, the outcome of a nobbled referendum result is no better. They will get the message that democratic decision-making is a feature of history, and that the only way to get things done today is through money, law or the media.

Of course, this is how much of politics has operated in recent decades, so it won’t come as much of a surprise. But thus far, there has been at least a sense that other people matter – that changing the world requires changing hearts and minds, as well as challenging your own prejudices, opinions and beliefs. If all politics is really about is saying the right thing to the right people in the right places, then it becomes little more than an exercise in self-advancement and making yourself feel good.

In trying to win the political war by other means, those backing this court case have revealed their own profound cynicism about democratic decisions and the people who make them. This at least brings some clarity, and points to what has been at the heart of the referendum debate all along: that this is not about what we decide about our future, it’s about whether we get to decide at all.

Jennie Bristow is senior lecturer in sociology at Canterbury Christ Church University and an associate of the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies. Her new book, The Sociology of Generations: New Directions and Challenges, is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

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