Brexit: Why it’s wrong to blame the older generation – Alastair Stewart

The motivations of those who voted to leave the European Union are more complicated than just age, writes Alastair Stewart.
Young EU supporters shouldnt blame the older generation for the 2016 referendum result (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)Young EU supporters shouldnt blame the older generation for the 2016 referendum result (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)
Young EU supporters shouldnt blame the older generation for the 2016 referendum result (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)

There’s always been a spiteful blame game at the heart of Brexit. “The generation who won’t live to see the consequences” are often indicted as the cause and source. It’s a nasty little lie that’s gradually becoming a prevailing myth about Briton’s senior citizens.

At a superficial glance, the evidence would seem to support this. According to YouGov polling, 60 per cent of 50 to 64-year-olds and 64 per cent of over-65s voted to leave the European Union, compared to 71 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds and 54 per cent of 25 to 49-year-olds who chose Remain.

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There is an irony, of course. The IPPR think-tank has warned that leaving the EU would compound the growing economic strains of Britain’s rising over-65 population (predicted to increase by 33 per cent from 11.6 million to 15.4 million by 2030). The demographic change will result in a funding gap of £13 billion for adult social care by 2030/31 and a “structural tax gap will emerge by the mid-2020s based on current trends”.

Architect Steve Lawrence even went as far on Twitter to use Office for National Statistics (ONS) and Eurostat figures on British birth and death rates to calculate that 120,000 Leave voters have already died since the referendum.

So should there be an age cap on voting if, bluntly, a demographic won’t be around to feel the consequences?

Maja Založnik, a research fellow in demography at Oxford University, has created an experimental calculation for a voting model that might add some moral justification to a cap.

Amalgamating ONS demographic figures, polling numbers and life expectancy, her calculation produces a “years left to live” estimate for each age group and what their adjusted voting weight is accordingly.

The youngest age group, of about 5.8 million people, has over 350 million years left to live which represents 19.6 per cent of all the years left to live. This is compared to the over-65s who represent 22.6 per cent of the adult population but 8.2 per cent of the years left to live. With this new weighting of votes, Remain would win with a two-point margin.

This may have been more of an academic exercise, a way of making a point, than a practical suggestion, but it might just be the start of a slippery slope to some form of electoral ageism.

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Society already determines what we can and can’t do based on age. At 12, children are presumed to be sufficiently mature enough to instruct a solicitor in a civil case or can register as an organ donor without parental consent. At 15 years and nine months, you can apply to join the Armed Forces, but if you’re employed under the age of 25, you are exempt from the full national minimum wage requirement.

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For all this, you cannot elect a Member of the Scottish Parliament until the age of 16, and even that was only lowered in 2015 to align with the decades-long legal rights of teens to have sex, leave school or get married.

Absurdly, electors still need to be 18 across the UK, including for the EU referendum (ignoring the paradox that 16 and 17-year-old Scots already had the right to vote in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum).

Contrary to five-year election cycles and shifting political sands, referenda are deployed for seismic constitutional issues with lasting consequences. Although they are not necessarily legally binding, part of the argument against continually rethrowing the referenda die is whatever the result, it will take years to quantifiably measure.

The lack of moral, practical and political appetite to restrict universal suffrage makes a change unlikely, even though society equally curtails rights based on age as much as empowers them. Declining ability and the diminishment of mental faculties in older adults has provoked calls for mandatory driving tests for the over 70s. Qualification for jury service stops at 65 and previous eligibility for conscription during the Second World War was capped at 51.

Psephology is nowhere near advanced enough to look into people’s souls or the myriad of complexities and motivations of electors. It’s also subject to manipulation: calls to restrict votes by age based on false information works both ways.

In the aftermath of the referendum, Sky Data’s polling claimed that only 36 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds voted. The figure was held up by Brexit supporters to shut down the argument that young people were betrayed by older pro-Brexit voters, as almost two-thirds didn’t vote. Research conducted since the referendum by Opinium and analysed by Professor Michael Bruter and Dr Sarah Harrison of the London School of Economics suggests the turnout was closer to 64 per cent among this age group (the fact there is disagreement is a case in point against any age cap).

All votes are a secret ballot, and it is impossible to know who voted and why. All polling data, except the official result, is the product of sample polling by pollsters. At General Elections, representatives from political parties stand outside polling stations asking for your voting ID number. This information is then collated with other nationwide figures. However, this tends not to happen at one-off votes such as referendums.

Ultimately, the history of the British political franchise is one of expansion and not psephological speculation. The parliamentary franchise was enlarged and made more uniform through a series of Acts of Parliament, also known as Representation of the People Acts, beginning in 1832 right through to the 1928 Reform Act, which widened suffrage and gave women electoral equality with men.

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It’s a tawdry, resentful game to blame the older generation for the Brexit misstep, and I dare say there’s a plentitude of other groups that could be broken down demographically too. Let’s leave this idea well alone, and proceed with the voting results, not the voting intentions.