Clacton is where baby boomers go to retire. Anthony Clavane went to meet them on the seafront to ask them why, in Vince Cable’s words, ‘they shafted the young’ by voting for Brexit.
It is midday and, taking refuge from yet another shower on the Essex sunshine coast, hundreds of holidaymakers have poured on to the pleasure pier. A large board outside Gypsy Rosalee’s cabin explains that she is ‘here to help you with any problems you have’. I get talking to Dave, a donut-eating 60-year-old who jokes that he intends to tell the fortune teller all about his Brexit problem. It’s with the government, he explains, and their inability to just get on with it. ‘They could easily deliver it,’ he cries. ‘What’s stopping them getting on with it? I just don’t understand. That’s my problem in a nutshell.’ Dave points approvingly at the last five words on the clairvoyant’s sign and states: ‘That’s exactly it. That’s what I’m talking about. ‘Your Future Is Your Destiny.’ How right she is.’
I had already heard the D-word quite a lot as I chatted with Clacton-on-Sea locals and day-trippers during a somewhat testing morning. My problem, as I explained to Dave, was with all the ‘I’m-alright-Jack’ baby boomers who are prepared to crash the economy for the sake of greater goals like ‘Destiny, Sovereignty, Independence and Freedom’. He shakes his head. ‘But we are getting our country back,’ he sighs. ‘We are going to control our own borders. We are going to be able to control our destiny.’ You don’t need to be in possession of a crystal ball to be able to predict, as the Bank of England does, a 20% decline in business investment in the coming Brexit-era years. In fact, only someone in denial would refuse to see that, in the 14 months since the EU referendum, living standards have already been squeezed, consumer spending has been hit and households have faced rising costs. And here’s another prediction, this time from local estate agents. In the next 20 years, Clacton is expected to become one of the UK’s top retirement destinations, with 60% of people living in the Essex town aged over 60. As it stands, it already boasts one of the highest proportion of retirees in England. Which is why I have taken my bucket and spade – and reporter’s notebook – along to the Tendring peninsula to find out why, exactly, a large proportion of baby boomers are prepared to crash the economy for the sake of greater goals like Destiny, Sovereignty etc.
Clearly, as befits a constituency which two years ago returned UKIP’s only MP to Westminster – Douglas Carswell, remember him? – this 50,000-strong seaside community is stirred by a nostalgic vision of Britain. Most over-60s I meet by the slot machines on the pier, coming off the fairground rides with their grandchildren and outside the wooden beach huts laden with Union flags, gush about a country which will soon be able to make its own laws again, be liberated from EU bureaucracy and become, as they euphemistically put it, ‘less crowded’. So far, so predictable. But how many of this demographic cohort will mind if their back-to-the-imperial-future experiment leads to a deterioration in education and employment prospects for the young generation? Not that many, if a recent YouGov investigation is to be believed. The market research organisation discovered that 61% of Brexiteers accepted economic suffering to be a ‘price worth paying’ for parting company with the EU. Astonishingly, 50% of Leave voters over the age of 65 said they would continue to back Brexit even if it meant members of their family lost their jobs. ‘Whether the economy gets better or worse is a secondary issue,’ argues Roy Reece, 75, who is looking after his dog Dougal while his wife goes shopping in the town centre. ‘The primary issue is sovereignty. We make our own laws but the European Court can then overturn them. And that shouldn’t be. It’s a bigger issue than the economy. Higher unemployment, in the short-term, would be a price worth paying. There’s too much short-termism. Businesses don’t flourish on short-termism. What’s going to happen in 10 or 20 years is more important. I’ll be dead of course. But I’m sure things will improve in terms of unemployment.’
But what if they don’t improve? ‘Sovereignty is everything,’ he insists. Roy is the same age as Sir Vince Cable, a politician he respects for having the intelligence and knowhow to foresee the financial crisis of 2007-8. But he completely disagrees with the new Liberal Democrat leader’s take on the Brexit inter-generational divide. Cable claimed the over-65s had ‘shafted the young’ in last June’s referendum. And, he added, ‘the old have had the last word about Brexit, imposing a world view coloured by nostalgia for an imperial past on a younger generation much more comfortable with modern Europe.’ Roy, on the other hand, counters that ‘we are better qualified than young people to vote. If you go to China they won’t respect you until you are about 65 anyway – because of the experience they have. I’m surprised an educated man like Vince Cable would say a thing like that. The young’s turn will come. And then they’ll think differently.’ Young people, of course, are far more comfortable with notions like the single market, the customs union and the free movement of people. They voted overwhelmingly in favour of staying as a part of Europe – with more than three quarters of 18- to 25-year-olds choosing to remain. By contrast, 59% of pensioners were in favour of leaving. As the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush memorably summarised: ‘The baby boomer is one of the few mammals that eats its own young.’ This is not the way David Elborn, 69, sees it. The store manager of Mobility Services, one of two Clacton shops selling mobility scooters to an increasingly ageing local population, actually hails from nearby Holland-on-Sea – which boasts an even higher proportion of pensioners. ‘I just feel we’re different to the French,’ he tells me. ‘We’re different to the Germans, the Italians and the Spanish. Everyone has their own national identity. And it (the European Union) won’t work. It will all eventually fall apart, the same as the Soviet Union did. Look at the trouble in the Balkans. And Libya, all different tribes, it just fell apart. It will happen to the EU too. They are all failed politicians running it.’ What would he say to millennials who accuse his generation of sacrificing opportunities for the young? ‘The young people, well the EU is all they’ve known. Whereas older people have known what it’s like not to be in the EU. We’ve just been led up the garden path. I would say to them that national identity is bigger than the economy. ‘The economy is always going to go up and down. Yes, if it went down, it would be a price worth paying for control of own finance and borders. It went down while we were members of the EU. We’ve had our ups and downs. Being in the EU hasn’t saved jobs.’ This is the view of almost every person I speak to along the blustery seafront. ‘We might suffer in the short term,’ admits Frank Watson. ‘But give it time. The biggest issue for me was that we were going to become independent again. We don’t want to be governed by Europe. It’s hard for youngsters on the property market but they should build more social housing.’ His friend, Dave Thomas, nods his head and says: ‘People need somewhere to live. The island’s only so big. It’s become overpopulated. Some of the laws coming in were silly. Anyway, Brexit hasn’t really got under way yet.’
Both men are 80 and insist they are in a better position to decide Britain’s future than 18-25-year-old Remainers. ‘A lot of the younger people got the wrong impression,’ explains Dave. ‘We’ve got more experience, better knowledge. We’ve been through it all. We’ve led our lives and got the experience. The youngsters haven’t experienced anything yet.’ A woman on holiday from Ilford, who is a few years older than Frank and Dave but reluctant to give her name – ‘in case I get hate mail’ – pursues this line of argument. ‘They voted to stay, the young people, because they didn’t know what it was like before we went in. We do. People say we’re voting for ourselves. No we’re not. We’re voting for the young ones who don’t know what it’s like to be out, who don’t know what it’s like to be free, who don’t know what it’s like to have England for England. I feel very passionately about this. We won’t be here in a few years time, me and my husband. We’re in our 80s now. We want to be out of Europe for the young people of today. Not for the old people. They won’t be here. They think we’re voting for ourselves but we’re not.’ So how does she respond to the youngsters who accuse her generation, who have relatively less to lose, of selling them down the river? ‘The kids, they don’t know any different. We know. We need to get out and secure the borders. That’s got to be part of the deal.’ But what about the kids who are unable to buy property, who face growing job insecurity and limited career progression? ‘Get off your backsides and do something then,’ she cries. ‘As I say, I feel passionately about it. If you come from Ilford, like I do, you could say no wonder we want out. Come to Ilford and you’ll find out.’ And if a member of your family became unemployed as a result? ‘Of course it would still be worth it. But how do I know they’d be unemployed? People are blaming everything on trying to get out. It’s not just about sovereignty – it’s about being overrun. England is not England any more. So yes, it is a price worth paying, definitely.’ The sun breaks through the clouds and a woman devouring an ice-cream on a deck chair outside her hired beach hut reveals that most over-60s she knows voted to leave. ‘The youngsters I know, mostly, wanted to stay,’ she admits. ‘I had difficulty making up my mind to be honest. Up to the last minute, my pen was there, hovering over the voting paper, and I was not sure. I’m sure things will ultimately stabilise though. I have a grandson at university. I’d like to think he has a good future.’ What does he think? ‘He voted to stay in. We have our differences on this. There’s definitely an age divide, isn’t there?’ The youngest person I speak to is Andy Herbert. He takes time out from Facebooking in Clacton Library to explain that unemployment will always be with us, Brexit or no Brexit. ‘It happened back in the 1920s, didn’t it, with the Wall Street Crash and that? There isn’t any difference between then and now. ‘Yes, it would be still worth going ahead with Brexit if there is more unemployment. It doesn’t matter where you live – there’s always going to be a certain amount of unemployed. Most of my family is coming up to retirement age. It doesn’t really bother me (the economy crashing). It’s about not having someone else telling us what to do with our own laws. That’s the most important thing of all. It’s an emotional thing I suppose. It’s all about feelings, isn’t it?’ Before reaching the railway station I solicit the views of the oldest person willing to give vent to their feelings on the matter. Helen Potts, who is 92, says she would vote 10,000 times to leave. Why? ‘Because, unlike the youngsters, we knew what it was like before we were in. Because they (the EU) are all making money out of us. People saying we are doing it because of immigration. It don’t bother me. I don’t care who comes here as long as they behave themselves, they work and they earn their keep. Don’t care what colour they are or anything. ‘But we don’t want them (the EU) to rule us. We’ve got all these idiots coming over here and staying here and they don’t send them back. All these murderers and God knows what. ‘We might be kicking up daisies next year, who knows. I’d have no regrets if the kids did lose their jobs. But no-one knows what the future will be like. But I know how we used to live and how things used to be. We used to be much better off, definitely. The main thing is that Britain should have control of its own destiny.’ Coincidentally, the D-word features prominently on a large poster that greets me as I arrive back at Colchester station. It’s directed at A-level students still hoping to get into university despite failing to acquire the required grades. ‘Clearing doesn’t have to mean compromise,’ the poster points out. ‘Speak to us about your future. Call our clearing hotline. Destiny is shaped by decision.’ Unless things change, it would appear that the cohort which benefited from the post-war creation of the welfare state, free education and expansion of public housing is, unforgivably, shaping the destiny of a far more pro-European, and far less fortunate, generation. Anthony Clavane is a journalist and author