In the age of referendum, all generations must be heard

Published

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George Marsden
Writer

Referendums are damaging, but voters shouldn’t be disregarded on the basis of age.

Politically speaking, this has been one of the most disappointing summers in recent history for young people. Along with hikes in tuition fees, the disappearance of maintenance grants for English students and an NUS caught up in its own delusions, the news of Britain leaving the EU was as welcome as a Russian air strike for most people under 30. Not since the enactment of Section 28 under the Thatcher government have the politics characterised by the values of today’s youth been given such a bloody nose: June 23rd came as a victory for people whose worldview the majority of millennials, I suspect, find incomprehensible and alarming.

Keeping this in mind, I think we can better understand the panic that exploded over social media as the results came in. Defined against older voters, I would argue people aged 18-24 (75% of whom voted to remain) typically hold to the ideal of internationalism and take a more modern view of the nation, as opposed to those aged 65 and over (61% voted to leave) who retain a more traditional view of nationhood and respond to the directives of a foreign bureaucracy accordingly. As it happens I’m firmly in the first camp; and not as a milk-and-water, soft-Eurosceptic half-heartedly listing a handful of foibles with the European Union. I loathe the European Union.

Despite my own opinions, I should treat the arguments of my own generation’s Europhiles with the same earnestness as I expect mine to be treated. What I find harder to treat politely, on the other hand, is the call that the elderly lose the right to decide the fate of this country on the grounds that they are not long for this world.

Upon discovering that Britain had left the European Union, some people thought that to correct the error a second referendum should be held; only this time, anyone who had ever received a telegram should be kept as far away from the polling stations as possible. Vice even published an article headlined,“Brexit Proves Baby Boomers Should Get Less of a Vote”. The shock and grief of most Remainers I can understand, but to question the right of the elderly to determine the fate of their country is absurd and arrogant; not least in the implicit assumption of this line of reasoning that upon recognising the imminence of their demise, OAPs become careless rakes willing to gamble on the futures of their children and grandchildren.

I find the fact that some young people hold this opinion troubling. Do we not, if we deny old people a say, also deny the value of lessons learned over a long life when it comes to making political decisions? Is it not arrogant to assume that we, enlightened millennials that we are, are the only demographic worthy of suffrage? After all, young people may bring imagination and dynamism to the public debate, but we bring petulance along with it.  

The differing opinions of the young and the old also make the results of the Scottish independence referendum interesting reading. The youngest demographic, (16-17 year olds), were overwhelmingly in favour of secession with 71% voting “yes”. 73% of those aged 65 and over, on the other hand, voted “no”.

Highlighted in the above is one of the obvious conflicts brought to the fore by referendums. While they make it easier for us to gauge the electorate’s true opinions, I would argue that referendums can (and have been) damaging for British politics because of the divisions they exacerbate; not only between young and old, but between rich and poor, northerner and southerner. General elections bring about some conflict, but never do they bring about the “us” and “them” state of mind occasioned by referendums.

Another reason to be sceptical of referendums is their inherent unsophistication. The notion of deciding the fate of a country by no other means than a head count is stupid at best, especially when one considers that neither the Leave nor the No vote won by a sizeable majority. Primitive head counts are also open to manipulation; knowing 16-17 year olds are typically left wing and idealistic, the SNP lowered the voting age in a cynical, politically motivated attempt to inflate its support. The British right opposes lowering the voting age for the same realpolitik reasons. Manipulation was also the name of the game when both Vote Remain and the Better Together campaign resorted to scaremongering; Vote Leave and the Yes campaign seemed to prefer bewildering optimism.

Even though I awoke on June 24th pleased and amused at the result, I did still find it a hollow victory. Of all the things this generation may accomplish, I hope ditching referendums will be one of them.