When it finally happened, it was almost as bad as we had imagined. Sixteen million Brits woke up with a bump. Nigel Farage, in many ways the sickly progenitor of this situation we now find ourselves in, his pathological grin plastered across the front pages, gave the speech he’d been begging to give.
Charlatans have flourished. I won’t dance around what I think about this: there are some good reasons to leave the European Union, but most of them had no part in the result on Friday morning. Popular votes, especially those with only two options on the ballot paper, are wont to cause divisions. But who can deny that the past 3 months of British politics have been some of the ugliest we can remember?
A lot has been said about this, but I want to say some more. In particular, what feels so outrageous, so bitter, and so sad, is the generational question. This, too, has received no shortage of attention; an elegiac comment gone viral sums up the frustration. But the real nub is what this thorny problem says about how our society is run.
Out of voters surveyed by YouGov on the eve of the referendum, 75% of those who were under 24 favoured staying in the EU. The value for voters older than 65 was 60% for leave. This is the graphic, from Politico:
Why this should make people in my generation cross is, I hope, straightforward. However, interest groups lose elections all the time. Indeed, is it not the hallmark of a mature, pluralistic society that those who don’t get their way accept the fact peacefully and prepare to campaign for the next cause? A tidy objection, but one worth inspecting: it does not fit the Brexiteers’ case quite as smoothly as they might think. In fact, if we are going to appeal to the long pedigree of democratic theory, one concept springs to mind.
‘Tyranny of the majority’ is a dramatic phrase. It summons the spectre of an angry mob howling for a scapegoat; at its worst, it invokes ethnic conflict or cleansing. But most of all this old but persistent worry about democracy is a simple observation: people tend to choose what’s best for themselves, and large groups of people who all want the same thing tend to stick together within any community. It is when a majority repeatedly asserts its will over those in the minority that the problem arises, because this calls into doubt democracy’s greatest selling point: that everyone involved is having a say over their own fate.
Many young people today feel like they do not have any say at all over their own fate. The older generation most often referred to as the baby boomers – who have profited from the FTSE All-Share rising 21 fold in 41 years, house prices that have multiplied 18.5 times, triple-locked pensions in a time of near deflation, and late-20th century interest rates (stratospheric by today’s standards) – roundly spurned their grandchildren and voted for Brexit. Boris Johnson claimed on Friday that those grandchildren have a prosperous future ahead of them. Perhaps, though only once they are old enough to be eligible for the National Living Wage, denied to under-24s. The thought that house prices might fall would be some consolation if they weren’t already quite so far beyond even our government-assisted buying power.
However, the tyranny argument may be overstepping the mark. Is there some fundamental right that has been stripped from young voters? I don’t think so. We may be socially and economically poorer, but again, that is how democracy works, for better or worse. We still enjoy our formal and legal liberties. Certainly, the repeated disenfranchisement of the youth is symptomatic of a faulty system, and there is something peculiarly horrifying about a society that fails to nurture its own posterity. But the worst signs of a tyrannising majority are less clear, so a wholesale rejection of our democratic pact seems undue.
Voters in major metropolitan centres, graduates, and under the age of 50 are therefore probably bound by respect for our idea of the good society to honour their loss at the ballot box. It is also bad faith for those of us with the good fortune to live in towns and cities with relatively healthy labour markets to call for independence from poorer, Brexit-supporting regions, satirical as some such suggestions may be. Many who call for disintegration now that they are on the losing side also wish fervently for Scotland to remain British.
All that may be so, but it does not lessen the sting of our distance from the democratic ideal. And the fact that many of those who voted for Brexit were themselves protesting – against some vision of an ‘establishment’ that neither understands nor cares how they feel – shows the extent of the rot. It helps here to point to some of the many failures of the EU referendum in general. There are compelling reasons to think that, when it comes to questions of self-governance and autonomy, it is right that such long-term decisions be entrusted to a direct vote. But if so, at the very least, the conditions necessary for fruitful democratic practice ought to be fulfilled.
Simon Wren-Lewis, macroeconomics professor at Oxford University, has coined a telling moniker for what he sees as the perverting effect of the tabloid press on our politics. He terms it ‘mediamacro’ and it represents a tremendous threat. The power of the Daily Mail, The Sun and similar publications is that they feed disinformation to millions to suit their own agenda: profit. With a readership that grows more belligerent with every story on immigration, editors know more of the same will drive the vicious cycle.
Data and fact give way to falsehood and spin. I will not list the instances from this campaign here – if you’ve read this far I take it you either agree with me or are at least looking to exercise rational thought, so you will know them already. This is not what we should aspire to in our democracy, and those who crow over the result as a great victory for ‘the people’ should not be taken seriously.
In truth, Brits are at a loss for genuine representatives. Young people, though not quite the moral martyrs we take ourselves to be, are nevertheless forsaken time and again. Working class voters who opted for Brexit will soon be greeted by a new Tory cabinet that continues to do little for their needs, besides the job losses and unstable prices the next few months will likely bring.
There are steps we can take. The first is to discuss what is wrong, loudly and repeatedly, with clarity and good judgment. One rally set to take place in London proves the appetite is there, and its spirit of positivity is admirable. But secondly, do not be afraid to feel enraged. Change requires pressure and energy, often generated best when harnessed to a large group of indignant individuals.
And finally, guard against what comes next. More migrant-baiting and untruth is not far away. The campaign tested Britain’s capacity for reasoned debate, and has left many on both sides feeling understandably drained. Do not give up. And when Mr Farage or Mr Johnson next spouts their toxic nonsense, have your reply at the ready:
You do not represent us.