It has been suggested, as the EU referendum approaches, that younger voters are more likely to vote to remain than their older compatriots. A poll conducted in April showed 54% of over 55s back Brexit, while only 30% said they would vote to remain in the EU. It showed almost exactly the reverse among voters aged between 18 and 34. The 35-54-year olds were more evenly split, with 38% saying they’d vote to remain and 42% saying they’d leave.
There are a host of possible reasons why older people might be more likely to vote to leave the European Union. They may be xenophobic or they may distrust an alien, distant political system. They may believe that Europe is not democratic. They may fear losing national sovereignty to Brussels.
But at the core of the older Brexiter’s thinking is a combination of nostalgia, uncertainty and bloody-mindedness. Their views are born of dissatisfaction with established practices and bewilderment over technological innovation and information overload.
The world is too fast, too mobile and too globalised. Getting out of Europe would mark a return to more old-fashioned values, a half-remembered simpler life when politicians could be trusted, the media was restrained and Britain was sovereign.
There seems to be a nostalgic vision of a Great Britain, untrammelled by external pressures and domestic vicissitudes. We may know it’s wrong but, given the discomfort and mistrust of contemporary politics and the global economy, it seems as though it was somehow better then.
Older voters look back on a period of mass production, when unions were strong and governments championed their nations. Now they see a world based on competing technologies and transnational flows of investment that undermine governments’ ability to manage the economy. They see cross-border migration that seems to displace the familiar with the (often much needed) foreign carer, health-worker, construction worker or even footballer. All these forces have created hostility towards globalisation and that hostility easily finds a scapegoat in the EU.
Brexiters perhaps forget Suez in 1956 or the IMF intervention of 1976, when the hollowness of Britain’s control over sterling and its economy became only too obvious. They overlook the collapse of Britain’s heavy industry from the 1960s onwards or any winter of discontent and union strike action, or even the bloodiness of Britain’s withdrawal from South-East Asia or East Africa.
But to add to uncertainties about the new and hostility towards the “global” (read “foreign”) there is an element of bewilderment. Gone are “reliable” sources of authoritative information. Governments have lost whatever role they had as gatekeeper between the international and the domestic; domestically, the conventional media often seem to take a delight in being anti-government – regardless of that government’s political hue – for their own political or other reasons, creating suspicion of both.
And, if one can master it, there is the web – where an infinite number of websites offer up limitless information. But the provenance is often dubious and the multiplicity of sources is bewildering. One doesn’t know who to trust. It compounds that loss of deference towards authority and exacerbates uncertainties.
It is not surprising that so many feel they don’t know enough about the EU but also don’t know who to trust for objective information. Or, of course, they can’t be bothered to find out – after all Europe was relatively low on their agenda even if it’s temptingly easy to identify it with unrestrained immigration. And concern for their children’s and even grandchildren’s job prospects leads to the demand for British jobs undertaken by British people – even if they don’t seem to want to do them or don’t have the qualifications to do them.
Perhaps the biggest contradiction of all, though, is the desire to return to old certainties and thereby reduce risk, leading to support for the leap into the unknown. Older voters who support Brexit may have that dream, but it adds up to little more than a nightmare of uncertainties.