How long ago was 2014? I mean, I know it was four years ago. But consider this: in 2014, Mad Men hadn't finished yet. Everyone was doing the Ice Bucket Challenge. Taylor Swift had only just released "Shake It Off". People still liked her. Isn't it possible that 2014 was actually about 15 years ago?
2014 was also, of course, part of the halcyon era when talking about politics didn’t make you want to put your head in the oven. Facebook was still dedicated to memes and Farmville invites, instead of "important" op-eds and terse arguments about immigration. And no one had even heard of the world's worst portmanteau, Brexit.
But the wheels were already in motion for the referendum. Not long ago, I re-watched the 2014 EU debate between Nigel Farage and Nick Clegg. It's ideal viewing if you ever need to give yourself a nosebleed. Clegg is yammering, tired and limp, never quite arriving at a point and constantly looking as though he might be blinking away tears. Farage, of course, is smug and grandstanding, turning purple with excitement at the opportunity to spurt out immigration statistics.
Michael* was 16 when the debate took place. He was attending college in Nottingham and hadn’t given much thought to the EU until he watched it. "If anything, I was a Nick Clegg fan," he recalls (has anyone used the phrase "Nick Clegg fan" before or since?) – but watching the debate shifted his perspective. "I came out of it thinking that Farage spoke a lot better about the EU. So I started doing my own research online." The arguments put forward by Leave made sense to him: he liked the idea of greater sovereignty and a tighter immigration policy. Two years later, when the referendum took place, Michael voted Leave.
As an 18-year-old at the time of the vote, Michael was in the minority of young people in favour of Brexit. The statistics are shaky: at the time, YouGov reported that 71 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds voted for Remain, but this was later found to be based on a particularly small poll of only 5,000 adults. Most surveys taken since the result, though, have found the numbers to be even more strongly split between young and old people, with some suggesting that 80 percent of young people were against Leaving.
It's certainly the dominant cultural image of the referendum: idealistic but naïve millennials clashing with red-nosed men in short-sleeved shirts. But if the YouGov poll is even nearly accurate, roughly 1.6 million young people voted Leave. Of those I spoke to, their reasons are largely as you’d expect: fears about the EU superseding British law, concerns about unfettered immigration and – most frequently – a generalised sense that we needed to "take back control". But I’m more interested in how they feel the process has been going since the vote. Given the endless setbacks, the near-weekly embarrassments in negotiations with the EU and the drip-feed revelations about the financial implications of our withdrawal, are young Leavers still optimistic about our future?
Anna* was 21 when the vote happened. She works and lives in Surrey, where most of her friends were Remainers. She voted Leave, largely because of her concerns about excessive immigration. It caused a great deal of conflict. "I've been called a racist and xenophobic," she says. "I've had friends on Facebook block me. But none of them were interested in the actual reasons for my vote. It's like people can’t hear any opinions except their own anymore."
However, the criticism Anna has received from friends hasn't shaken her views: "If anything, it makes me more convinced that most young people just voted with the herd." She’s optimistic, too, that the negotiations will have a positive outcome. "It's not going perfectly," she concedes. "But that could never have been expected."
The most common sentiment expressed by the Leavers I spoke with is that we could still have all of the terms we want, if we only knew how to ask properly. That it's just a matter of being firmer. "I feel that the British negotiators don’t realise how strong a position they’re in," says Ross*. "The EU are in control because David Davis is letting them be. And as much as I admire Theresa May, she isn't who we need to be in power." Michael agrees: "I don't really think she's backing it."
There’s a shared conviction, too, that there is no reason why we couldn’t leave the single market without sacrificing free trade. "We can still have a close deal with Europe," says Michael. "We're not leaving the continent." This is a sentiment echoed by Edward*, who was 18 when he voted for Brexit. "Leaving the single market and customs union means we really are leaving," he says. "It's opening us up to the rest of the world."
Aren't they exasperated by the process, though? To me, it feels like wading through treacle. Most of the Remainers I know just want the whole thing to go away. It's a feeling Anna shares. "Of course I want it to happen, because it's what we all voted on," she says. "But there’s a part of me that's sick of hearing about it, and sick of talking about it, if I'm honest." Michael disagrees, but sounds more resigned than anything else: "We've made this course of action, and we just have to go with it."
So what's the hold up? In the eyes of the young Leavers, it's the press: there's a recurrent distrust of mainstream media outlets. Most of the people I spoke with would only agree to do so under a pseudonym. Many more refused outright, fearful that their views would attract negative attention online. "There's clearly a Remain bias on TV," says Edward. "And the media is pretty happy to voice the view that Leavers aren't as intelligent." Anna agrees: "The media have just made things worse," she says. "They are just undermining the whole process."
Chief among the offenders, in the eyes of the young Leavers, is the BBC – though most are positive about the Guardian. Surprisingly, perhaps, Ross is more scathing of the right-wing press for what he considers to be "scaremongering". "The Mail and the Sun have been characteristically disastrous," he says. "They’ve caused a shit-storm."
The Leave voters I spoke to, on the whole, were pleasant. They were articulate, and helpful, and friendly. Some raised interesting points. One even asked me to start a podcast with him. They didn’t seem racist, though some seemed oblivious to their own xenophobia (Ross, a self-described "patriotic Briton", was keen to tell me that "some immigrants are lovely people" but that they represent "a huge threat to British culture"). You get the sense, though, that despite winning the vote they are in the minority among their generation. Youth culture has always been aligned with progressive, inclusive politics. Yet the young Leavers have chosen to disconnect from it. Most don’t seem to care.
For Edward, who remembers "literally everyone" in his college being angry with him for his vote, it's not a source of concern. "It's one of those things," he says. "You vote for what you believe in. And my side won."
*names have been changed
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.