Could a Generational Guilt Trip Stop Brexit?

A youth-led pressure group are playing the age card in an effort to block Britain's exit from the EU.
16 February 2018, 12:57pm
Photo: Michael Kemp / Alamay Stock Photo 

The crusade to stop Brexit has so far been running into all the problems the original Remain campaign did. To call it "elitist" or "out of touch" would be to further entrench clichés the populist right have already bludgeoned into meaninglessness, but needless to say the public-facing 48-ers have always had an air of the enraged dad about them, violently shaking the sat-nav, completely unable to understand why it’s going in the wrong direction.

This problem has continued into the post-referendum era, with experts, Lords and an increasingly wild-eyed Tony Blair falling over each other in their efforts to "reverse this decision", using nothing but economic rationale. It’s this conviction – that if the public are swamped with enough data they will eventually relent – that has left them spinning doughnuts, rehashing the same conversations they were having in 2016.

What they've been missing is a heart – an emotional pull. A gut-punch argument that overrides the rational brain and stirs something deeper. Say what you like about being stronger together, but no photo of a Belgian and a Dane holding hands ever came close to the imposing, spiritual empowerment of "take back control". In the shadow of that, pro-EU arguments have always been fighting a losing battle. Nobody loves the EU, but people love Brexit, and you can’t fight love. Everybody knows that.

There is an insurgent anti-Brexit faction that could change this. Our Future, Our Choice (the phonetically unfortunate "OFOC" for short) are a youth-led anti-Brexit pressure group. They have, in their words, "over fifty leaders at each university, and others mobilising young people in work, at school, or in training". OFOC cite polling which suggests 73 percent of young people think Brexit is a mistake – a percentile they see as a "Youthquake" waiting to happen.

OFOC’s basic case is that Brexit is "democratically unsustainable" – that, by the time it’s actually happened, the majority of the population will be comprised of people who voted against it. This isn’t a new idea by any stretch, but it’s taken until now for a group to put it front and centre. They might not say so themselves, but what the group are tapping into is a generational guilt, casting Brexit not as stupid but selfish.

One of the group’s founders, 27-year-old Femi Oluwole, a graduate who specialises in EU law, garnered praise this week following an appearance on Sky News, during which he emphatically stated "the under 55 population of the UK voted to remain, so in five years time, by absolutely anyone’s maths, we will have a population who voted to remain in the EU".

William Dry, 20, one of the group’s other founders, actually voted leave during the 2016 referendum, but says he began to realise late last year that he’d made a huge mistake. "There’s a saying in Brussels that if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu, and we’re now on the menu," he tells me over the phone. Compelled to act, he founded OFOC with Oluwole, Lara Spirit (21, co-president) and Calum Millbank-Murphy (25, spokesperson). They have the backing of all the major pro-EU groups: Best for Britain, Open Britain, The European Movement and the GCG. Figures from Lord Adonis to Alastair Campbell have publicly celebrated the campaign.

Will firmly believes that Brexit isn’t just the wrong decision, but that it’s an undemocratic one: "We’re undergoing a national project – which is what Boris Johnson called it – that won’t be completed by the time it loses its democratic mandate." He firmly believes that a soft Brexit will mean future generations will easily rejoin the EU, and similarly a hard Brexit will leave them "so pissed off" they'll be equally compelled to reverse it. "Why are we wasting our time on something that there is zero chance will be looked on favourably by future generations?" The group backs a second referendum as the "best way to stop Brexit".

The obvious retort from Leave campaigners will be that if young people care so much, they should have turned out to vote. Youth turnout at the referendum wasn’t as bad as many people still suggest, but still, about 64 percent of registered voters aged 18-24 went to polls, compared to 90 percent of over-65s. Will argues this is a matter of perspective. As negotiations progress, and more lies are exposed, he feels young people like him are realising now how damaging the effects of Brexit will prove, so deserve the chance to rewrite their own futures.

He identifies the EU as an invisible force, the benefits of which have become apparent now they are under threat: "Maybe young people have to lose something before they realise how much they need it."

OFOC are very deliberately targeting their messaging in Labour's direction. The manifesto on their website opens "Dear Jeremy", and Corbyn is regularly referenced, along with some "sensible Tories", as the focus of their campaign. Will tells me this is very deliberate: "A lot of our team are pro-Corbyn, but anti his European policy." As he sees it, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is reliant on the support of under-40s for electoral success, a symbiosis that can be exploited. "We have to convince the Labour party, and the Labour leader, and I think the young are very well placed to do that."

These strategies don't mean OFOC are avoiding all of the usual Remain traps. Despite aspiring to represent young people from all walks of life, student-led operations are in danger of speaking to a specific demographic. In a video on OFOC’s crowdfunding page, co-founder Femi Oluwole celebrates having worked in France, Belgium and Austria without a work permit, or the ease with which he’s able to go skiing thanks to the EU. Truth is, losing the right to an Erasmus year is unlikely to bother the 51 percent of young people who don’t go to university.

That said, another of the group’s spokespeople, Calum Millbank-Murphy, brings a broader perspective, focused on defending UK public services. It's this angle that stands a better chance, by representing more than a two-dimensional middle-class/liberal understanding of the youth vote. The drive to mobilise young people should be careful not to homogenise them.

The other challenge facing OFOC, and the youth revolt movement in general, is how far they push an approach that seeks to diminish, if not discount, the value of older voters. If political decisions should only be taken with the approval of hypothetical beneficiaries, why bother letting over-60s vote at all?

Will is keen to dismiss this idea out of hand. "This group believes in democracy – one person one vote. We don’t think the vote should be taken away." He tells me this is not a philosophical question, but a rational one that relates specifically to this era-defining issue.

Ultimately, OFOC’s technique might work because they are doing exactly what the Leave campaign did: playing to emotional vulnerabilities. Obviously they won’t get anywhere with the most ardent Brexit voters, but it’s worth remembering that Lord Ashcroft polling suggests only 39 percent of Remain voters and 36 percent of Leave voters always knew which way they were going to swing, with the majority of people having made their decision in the months leading up to the vote. There are plenty of soft leavers out there, and the "what about the children?" line probably offers the best shot at swinging them.

I know from personal experience this can work. Plenty of friends used the "do it for me" line on their anti-EU parents and grandparents. If OFOC can turn that conversation into a national one, the great generational guilt trip might start to bend minds that have been otherwise unwavering.