Brexit is now turning into a battle between those who want to do the wrong thing for the wrong reasons and those trying to do the right thing for the right reasons
Brexit is now turning into a battle between those who want to do the wrong thing for the wrong reasons – the Brexit elite rushing to the finishing line of their low tax, low regulation, flog-the-NHS-to-Trump dreamland for the rich and powerful, ‘Bermuda in the sky with diamonds’, as Jacob Rees-Mogg’s father once put it – and those trying to do the right thing for the right reasons, giving the country the chance to think again. There can be no reason more right, no motivation more sound, than voting not for yourself but for those who will have to live with the consequences of what you decide long after you’ve gone.
I was in a school, talking to politics students. Around a hundred or so. La Retraite, a Catholic school in Camberwell. Predominantly black. Mainly working class. Very sharp.
I did my usual show of hands survey, to gauge opinion on Trump, Brexit, Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. Optimistic about Trump? Zero. Brexit going well? Zero. May a good PM? Zero. Corbyn would do better? A few more than for May, but barely enough to count on one hand, and two of them were teachers.
Sixteen- and 17-year-olds. Politically engaged. Pretty well-informed, some of them spectacularly so. But not buying what was going on in our politics right now. Worrying.
In the Q and A session, I was peppered with really good questions, political and personal. One student asked me what I would do to get more young people involved in politics. I told them that there was not much I had disagreed about with Tony Blair when I worked for him, but I had always been in favour of lowering the voting age to 16, compulsory voting in local and national elections, and education about citizenship, politics and history from primary school. He was not.
I told them what it was like during the Scottish independence referendum, walking to the ‘No’ campaign HQ in Glasgow and hearing kids in uniform on their way to school, arguing not about Kim Kardashian, The X Factor or how many likes their social media posts had had, but nuclear weapons, spending on public services, welfare reform. It was invigorating. My daughter Grace said at the time she would be worried if some of her 16- and 17-year-old friends had the vote ‘because they just don’t know anything about the issues’. But that has been true of some people of all ages ever since we had democracy. In my experience young people think a lot more about big issues than we give them credit for.
What was clear to me was that these young people at La Retraite were involved in the political debate, but they felt remote from the political debate as they saw and heard it unfold outside. There was at least one pro-Brexit voice (though he didn’t put up his hand to say the negotiations were going well) but in the main they felt Brexit was a bad idea being carried out badly and it would have a bad effect on them for the rest of their lives. So why, they wanted to know, were the politicians so hell bent on doing something that most young people thought was wrong?
I was reminded of a remark by Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, fellow anti-Brexit campaigner, when I interviewed her for GQ – ‘No country in history, democracy or dictatorship, ever built success by governing against the interests of its young people’. I was reminded too of the comment of a student on another school visit, in Lancashire, who asked: ‘Who matters more to Mrs May and Mr Corbyn in this debate? The young or the dead?’
It is a great question. And it is particularly relevant to the debate on Brexit, ‘the will of the people’, the argument about whether it is democratic to have another referendum so soon after the last one.
After being asked that question about ‘the young or the dead?’ I went to the Office of National Statistics site, and learned that, on average, 1,640 people die in Britain every day.
At the time of writing, two years and 100 days have passed since the referendum. So by my reckoning, in that time, 1,361,200 people who were eligible to take part in the vote on June 23, 2016, have died. I say that with no pleasure, not least because they include close family members and friends, but it is an indisputable and very important demographic fact.
It is one of the ripostes to the question ‘why do you think the result would be any different if we had another vote?’ The main one is that it is a different question on a different issue – the outcome of the negotiations – and of course the reason we are even talking about a People’s Vote is because the people are not uniting around Brexit, and they can see that the Brexit that was sold is now not on offer. Promises made about would happen have been broken. Promises made about what would not happen have been broken too.
No-deal has gone from ‘no chance’ in 2016 to ‘not the end of the world’ now. Trade deal with EU and rest of the world? 2016 – Easy. 2018 – Whoever said it would be easy? Exact same benefits as now? 2016 – Yes, absolutely. 2018 – We always said there would be short term pain. Cost to leave? 2016 – Not a penny. 2018 – Forty billion and counting. Effect on NHS? 2016 – £350m a week extra. 2018 – We can replace lost EU doctors and nurses with home-grown and Indians.
At the other end of the age scale, there are 1.53 million 16- and 17-year-olds who have become 18 and 19 since the referendum. They did not have a vote then (yet another mistake that David Cameron made in his arrogant execution of the biggest mistake of his life) but they would have a vote now. They would represent close to 3% of the electorate.
Would they all vote? No. Indeed some estimates suggest only 36% of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in 2016. Apathy is part of that, for sure, and around 20% of young people eligible to vote were not even registered. But of those who were, how many stayed away because they had the impression, from politicians and media alike, that there was no way Remain would lose? A lot. I hope and expect they would not make that mistake again on quite the same scale.
Among older people, more of them voted, and more of them voted Leave. Young people voted 3-1 Remain. Old people voted 2-1 Leave. As my son Rory, a sports data analyst, puts it, ‘do the maths’. Two thirds of 1.3 million leaving the electoral register who voted Leave, three-quarters of 1.6 million joining it likely to vote Remain. That is a big demographic shift. And the longer this miserable, messy, hopeless process goes on, the bigger the shift becomes.
It is the reason why the Brextremists are so desperate to get this over the line as fast as they can, whatever the costs, the chaos or the consequences. It is why they are petrified of the EU’s generous offer of more time for the Article 50 process if we need it to resolve the unresolved questions. Because the will of the people is changing and will change even faster now they know, via the People’s Vote, that there is a way out of the mess. And ‘the people’ itself is changing.
The attitudes of some older people are changing too. Teenager Matilda Allan launched the New Generation for a People’s Vote in these pages a few weeks ago. She later wrote a piece in the Evening Standard, which prompted a wonderful letter the next day from a 78-year-old woman who said if there was another vote, she would cast it as directed by a young person like Matilda.
We saw something similar in the abortion referendum in Ireland, where many older people unlikely to be confronted with a personal choice about abortion chose to be directed, and taken to the polling station, by their grandchildren.
The will of the people is changing. The views and attitudes of the people are changing.
The people are changing. And if we get the People’s Vote, the direction of our country will change, for the better. Believe it and we can do it.