Time for students to make voices heard

PUBLISHED: 14:07 06 September 2017 | UPDATED: 14:07 06 September 2017

A March for Europe protest against the Brexit vote in London on September 3, 2016

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All those angry, or just anxious, about Brexit have a wonderful opportunity to get this tone deaf government to take notice of them, with a rally in Manchester on October 1. Student CAMERON BROOME explains why young people must take this chance

I’ll be honest – until recently, I had been reluctant to back anything that had “stop Brexit” attached to it. With a turnout of 72%, 33 million people voted in the EU referendum in what was one of the largest exercises of British democracy.

It politicised the nation. People who had grown apathetic about politics and hadn’t voted in years (or in some cases had never voted) found themselves newly energised. Regardless of your views on Brexit, that is something that we should all celebrate – people exercising their democratic right.

So I worried that opposing Brexit after the event would exacerbate apathy and turn these newly politicised voters away from politics again. Political debate is as polarised as ever, and stalling Brexit, I feared, could add more poison to what is already a toxic political climate.

But two things in particular have changed my mind. First, amid the chaos of the government negotiations, what is becoming increasingly clear about Brexit is that nothing is clear at all. Well, we are clear the £350m a week for the NHS is not coming, but beyond that, none of the vital questions are settled and, above all, we have absolutely no idea what our trading relationship with the European Union will look like post-Brexit.

Second, the post referendum debate has made me realise that democratic debate can and must never stop. In the same way that after general elections the opposition has a duty to hold the government to account, the British people have a duty to hold the government to account over Brexit, the consequences of which go way beyond the impact of a single election.

That is why Brexit sceptics – young or old – should turn out on October 1 and attend the ‘Stop Brexit’ march in Manchester during the Conservative Party Conference. The march is an opportunity for anyone who is concerned, angry or anxious about Brexit to send a strong message to the government: that this debate is not over and that the fears of the British public must be listened to.

I am not coming at this as an out-and-out hardcore Remainer. I completely understand the frustrations of Brexiteers, can see why they just want to get on with it. I also reject the claims that Brexit voters were all ill-informed, misled or stupid.

However, my point is that if you are concerned, now is the time to make your voice heard. In two years time, it will be too late. Speak now or forever hold your peace (or not, as the case may be).

Brexiteers should fully support the right to demonstrate too; failure to do so will give Remain supporters the opportunity to argue that they were ignored during Brexit negotiations. Indeed one of the worst of Theresa May’s failings has been to behave as though the only votes that mattered were those of the 52%.

As a university student, I am particularly concerned about the impact Brexit will have on Britain’s higher education institutions – many of which are the best in the world.

Figures from 2015 show that 33,000 of the staff in Britain’s universities were EU-born. In 2015-2016, there were 127,440 EU students here. They make a massive contribution, not least economically. Additionally, universities like my own, the University of Manchester, have enjoyed huge investment from the European Regional Development Fund. Being a member of the EU has benefited Britain’s higher education institutions; this global success could be jeopardised by Brexit.

Significantly, 16-18 year olds – unlike in the Scottish independence referendum – were excluded from the EU referendum. The sense of an older generation working against the interests of the young was one of the most insidious of the many divisions opened by the vote. YouGov data suggests that 71% of 18-24 year olds backed Remain. If 16-18 year olds had been allowed to vote, the likelihood is that they would have backed Remain in similar proportion. With 1.46 million people aged 16-18, the outcome could have been very different if those whose future is most affected had been allowed fully to participate. The Tory government gathering in Manchester needs to hear their voice.

The biggest developmental challenges of the 21st century – be that global economic challenges, climate change, migration, cyber-crime, terrorism, labour struggles – might be diverse but they all have one thing in common: they are cross-border, not self-contained within imaginary political borders. To tackle these cross-border challenges, we need cross-border collaboration.

Globally, we are seeing a rise in ugly nationalism with more and more countries turning on one another – just as the need for collaboration is as great as ever. With our European Union allies, we have shared culture, history and values, and we should never take for granted the peace that the EU has arguably helped to preserve, both in Europe and across the world.

Nor can anyone claim the EU referendum result was conclusive. 16.1 million voted for Remain, and were fairly united in what they wanted. With Leave, there was no “one” path and voters had very different Brexit visions. And while we should be sceptical about polls, Leavers can hardly claim the result was a resounding success when, for example, a recently published Eurotrack /YouGov poll has put Remain on 43%, Leave at 36%. And I think if the pollsters asked people if they were anxious, angry or concerned about Brexit, it would be landslide time.

“You may say I am a dreamer — I am not the only one” said Donald Tusk, quoting John Lennon when asked about the possibility of Britain staying in the EU.

Arguably, this is a signal – that a door is open should Britain change its mind.

Brexit or no Brexit, the European Union is not perfect. But the election of President Macron in France has offered renewed hope of genuine reform. Similarly, the Dutch election result, in which Mark Rutte saw off a challenge from Geert Wilders, suggests that the sweeping tide of populism can be stopped.

The Manchester march is an opportunity for anyone anxious, angry or concerned about Brexit to make their voice heard by the government. For students, in particular, it is an opportunity to help ensure that we are not further marginalised from decisions which will affect us for the rest of our lives.

Cameron James Broome, aged 20, is a geography student at the University of Manchester and head news editor of The Mancunion, Britain’s biggest student newspaper

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