Young voters know Britain's future lies in the EU

New polling by the Fabian Society shows that 18-34 year olds are significantly more pro-European than the previous generation.

Oftentimes, the greatest strength of opposition is to say little and commit to nothing. But so too can there be huge political advantage in a government decisively using the bully-pulpit of power. Thus it was last week when David Cameron committed his party to hold an in-out referendum on the EU after the next election. In so doing, he left the Labour party in a bit of a pickle.

Stewart Wood, Ed Miliband’s chief consigliere, said recently, "we've found being courageous works for us …We err on the side of boldness much more nowadays." But boldness can work for Cameron too and Labour finds itself caught between supporting a referendum it doesn’t want or going into an election on a platform of ‘denying the people their say’. Neither position holds obvious appeal. Ed Miliband tried to get on the front foot at PMQs, but it was hardly his ‘no, no, no’ moment, and post-match briefings suggest we could be in for a drawn out period of nuancing before Labour arrives at its final destination.

But as right-wing Tories celebrate and the left prevaricates, is Cameron’s referendum necessarily the first step on the road to a British exit?

New polling by the Fabian Society and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung shows a fascinating – and stark – generational divide on the question. Two-thirds (67 per cent) of voters aged 18-34 say they would vote 'yes' to EU membership in a referendum. While nationally there is a 12-point lead for those who wish to leave the EU, among those aged 18-34, there is 32-point lead in favour of remaining part of the EU. In contrast, among the over 60s, leaving the EU has a 23-point lead.

Young people are also far more likely to identify personal benefits from Britain’s membership of the EU. Only 19 per cent of 18-34 year olds said they did not personally benefit from Britain’s membership compared to 51 per cent of people over 60. Forty six per cent of 18-34s cited freedom to travel in Europe as a benefit and 18 per cent mentioned social and employment rights.

Young people also see the benefits of the EU on the global stage. Fifty nine per cent of 18-34 year-olds who expressed a view found the argument that "co-operation between EU countries is the best way to tackle the big issues of our time, like climate change, the global financial crisis and international terrorism" convincing, compared to 43 per cent of people over 60.

Many young people also expressed concern about Britain’s standing on the international stage if the UK were to leave the EU. Forty per cent of those aged 18-34 agree that if the country were to withdraw, "Britain may become isolated in a world of big power blocs such as the United States, the European Union and China", compared to 34 per cent who believe that "Britain could use its own historic international links to punch above its weight in the world". Among over-60s the split was 29 per cent to 47 per cent in the opposite direction.

Europe, we are repeatedly told, is in crisis: economic, political and existential. This era of crisis has hit the left particularly hard, with the economic turmoil – originally heralded as the opportunity for a ‘progressive moment’ which would tame the ravages of capitalism – morphing into a crisis of debt and fiscal imbalance. 

 

This presents a profound challenge for the pro-European left which Cameron’s announcement has made much more urgent. What is clear is that the positive case for the EU would be easier to make if the EU was better. The left risks further setbacks in Europe without a compelling explanation of what is wrong with the Europe we have and what is better about the Europe we want.

The EU was founded on a 'never again' spirit following the second world war, yet the arguments the first generation of European leaders made for closer integration resonate less and less as time goes by. A growing proportion of the electorate are too young to remember the fall of the Berlin wall, let alone the despair of post-war Europe. For a new generation, the EU is a way of life rather than a political project. It’s not necessarily a cause to fight for. But it is clear that young people are culturally and instinctively comfortable with the European project, and see clear benefits of membership. The task for EU advocates is to harden this soft support.

For New Labour, explicit pro-Europeanism was a core part of creating a modern progressive party, which looked to Europe to deliver on its promise of economic efficiency intertwined with social justice. But Europe is far from integral to Labour’s rethink in opposition, despite the current vogue for the German economic model in Labour policy circles, not to mention Fabian polling which shows the public understand all too well that the major political challenges of the day – climate change, financial reform, fighting terrorism – can only be solved through closer European co-operation.

Miliband needs to remember he’s best when he’s boldest and should not shy away from making a stand against Cameron’s politically motivated and economically disruptive act. Our polling shows that should a referendum become a reality, the state of public opinion is more subtle than many surveys suggest. There is a wide coalition of support that could be constructed, from younger people to business leaders; pro-Europeans should approach any campaign guided by a sense of hope, rather than fear.

Ed Wallis is the editor of Fabian Review

The European Union flag is seen next to flags of members of the EU on January 15, 2013 at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ed Wallis is the editor of Fabian Review

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The "people" have spoken on Brexit - listening to them is another matter

The Athenians had another word for them. 

Commentators are right to point to the fury and frustration of the "left behind", who are, everywhere it seems, rebelling against establishments they believe have betrayed them. 

But they may understate the threat we now face. Many of those who voted for Brexit or Donald Trump were not just rejecting economic injustice or "broken politics" but also perhaps the very principles of our system of government. For them, democracy itself may have lost its appeal.

If that is the case, we can’t blame the elites alone. We, "the people", are complicit. In associating democracy almost exclusively with economic advancement, we have begun to forget that it is also, and principally, about shared values, rights and responsibilities. In the UK and the US, voters in their millions have traded one against the other. The citizens of the Netherlands and France may soon do the same.

It's too early to panic. Perhaps we’ll come to see that Brexit was not the calamity some of us predict; perhaps President Trump will turn out to be better than we fear he may be.  

But we would be foolish to ignore the precedents. 

The great democracy of ancient Greece lasted two hundred years. But then, subverted by demagogues and oligarchs, and overwhelmed at last by autocrats, it disappeared from the world for 2,000 years. For all that time, the citizens of today’s democracies were the subjects of tyrants, elites and ideologues but never of themselves.

Modern history provides no greater reassurance. Even when democracy has apparently been secured, it has consumed itself at the ballot box with awful consequences. We are not in that place. But in the UK and the US we have taken a step in its direction.

Rights and responsibilities

The dilemmas we face are as old as democracy itself.

Almost 2,500 years ago, the Athenian statesman Pericles set out for his fellow citizens the precepts of their remarkable democracy. He spoke of the equality of their rights before the law. But he laid particular emphasis on their duties to each other. The word he used for the "socially useless" individuals who placed self above public interest provides the origin of our own word – idiot. 

What would Pericles make of us? Certainly, we remain jealous of our rights, especially when we feel that they are threatened by others. But our preoccupation with personal aspiration has long since eroded our sense of common cause, whether measured by our engagement in civic affairs, our contribution to community life or the civility of our relations with others.

On these grounds, we are doubtless idiots.

A reasonable principle

But for the Athenians, democracy was founded on a third key principle. Alongside rights and responsibilities, they regarded the exercise of reason as indispensable to good politics. As Pericles put it:

“We reach decisions on public policy only after full discussion, believing that sound judgement, far from being impeded by debate, is arrived at only when full information is considered before a decision is made."

Can we honestly claim that in the EU referendum or the US Presidential elections, voters collectively exercised sound judgment based on reliable evidence, rational deliberation and open-minded debate? 

More likely, we recognise that what passed for public discourse throughout both campaigns was poisoned by deceit. The goal of the politicians who set out to mislead was clear. But instead of punishing them for their cynicism, millions suspended their disbelief and voted for them, often quite consciously choosing not to test their instincts against the evidence or their own opinions against other views. As much as they were misled, they also misled themselves. 

This was precisely the concern of democracy’s earliest critics, Plato and Aristotle among them. They worried that the system was inherently unstable not least because the people could be too easily swayed by their emotions and too readily seduced by shallow populists into decisions which were neither reasonable nor just - nor sensible. 

Representation

But if democracy is in danger, where are its defenders? When the people have been so badly misled and when the potential consequences are so serious, who should protect them if not their elected representatives? Isn’t that why in both UK and US we favour a representative system?

At least until now, we have accepted that our elected politicians have a duty not just to check the power of government but also to mitigate public opinion when it undermines sound or just policy. Our legislators should be the servants but not the slaves of their electorates.

The 18th century statesman Edmund Burke went further than most in believing that he would be betraying his constituents were he to sacrifice his judgement to their opinion. When in 1778 he defied them on the issue of free trade, he expressed the hope that if he forfeited their votes:

“It will stand on record an example to future representatives of the Commons of England, that one man at least had dared to resist the desires of his constituents when his judgment assured him they were wrong."

He lost his seat but perhaps retained his integrity.

As the democratic franchise was extended, other thinkers worried about the potential for conflict between public opinion and sound policy. In the 1830s, the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, a close observer of the developing American democracy, warned against any decision "which bases its claim to rule upon numbers, not upon rightness or excellence". John Stuart Mill, in his great essay On Liberty, feared for the rights of minorities when government is mandated by majority opinion.

All these critics favoured government by elites, be they philosopher kings or aristocrats. Our societies are considerably more liberal than those they envisaged, and that is to our credit. But even if we reject their politics, we should acknowledge that recent events have given their concerns new currency.

Whose people?

Indeed, the EU referendum was everything they dreaded - a triumph for unreason, a basis for unsound policy, a threat to democratic principle and, potentially at least, a suppression of the rights of minorities. 

But at the very moment when our tradition of representative democracy should be protecting us, it seems that Parliament’s responsibilities have been radically reinterpreted. The Prime Minister has repeatedly asserted that “the British people have spoken” and that, even though she herself doubts its wisdom, their decision cannot be challenged. It has taken the intervention of the High Court to remind her of the role of a sovereign Parliament in the making of public policy.

We know, if only because right-wing newspapers have identified them for us, who are the enemies of the people. But who are those "people” whose judgement the PM regards as sacrosanct? 

Are they “the whole nation” for which she has publicly pledged to govern – or the 37 per cent of the electorate which voted for Brexit? Must the overwhelming majority which did not now remain silent and unrepresented? And in such circumstances is democracy served or subverted?

Too many politicians, cowed by campaigners whose objectives they fear, bullied by press barons they despise and apparently indifferent to their own constitutional responsibilities, have set aside their own judgement of the public good and fooled themselves into believing that when the people speak, their will must be done whatever it is and whatever its consequences.

But ultimately there is no such thing as "the people", only an aggregation of groups and individuals with a plurality of beliefs, opinions and interests. Talking about them in the definite article obliterates those differences. Precisely because it is so definite, it is intolerant, oppressive and undemocratic.

Back from the brink

Now, more than ever, we need parties and politicians with the courage not just to listen to but also to lead public opinion, and to stand against it when they believe it wrong. 

More than ever, we need a media which acknowledges its responsibility to inform as well as to influence, and show a far greater commitment to the truth.

More than ever, we the people should recognise that a strong and healthy democracy demands more of us than we seem prepared to give.

Democracies have come and gone – in ancient Greece and modern Europe. If ours is to prevail, we must both individually and collectively acknowledge our responsibilities as well as our rights and, critically, we must restore the importance of reason – and reasonableness – to the ways in which we deliberate, debate and decide.

As it is, we have already entered an age of unreason. Unless we come to our senses, it’s impossible to predict when or where it will end. 

Peter Bradley is director of Speakers’ Corner Trust and a former Labour MP.