We are witnessing a frenzied search by the “brexiteers” for a formula that will ensure that Britain leaves the European Union while retaining most of the benefits that it offers. They seem to think that the referendum result makes it incumbent on the government to go for a divorce, whatever the costs and pain. They seem willing to “throw the baby out with the bathwater”: this is not simply a figure of speech, because the young are being given no voice in shaping the future of Britain, whether it opts for “brexit” or not.
This is not the place to talk about the merits of the referendum process or whether the executive arm of government or parliament should decide on invoking article 50 of the Lisbon treaty. Nor will we touch on what is good or bad about the EU. And we are not going to pronounce judgment on the single market, immigration or the bureaucrats in Brussels.
The only point we want to make is that any solution to the quandary now facing the government that ignores the expressed wishes of Britain’s young people – the under 50s who voted to stay in the Union – seems bound to fall flat on its face. Don’t forget that over 70% of the 18 to 24 year olds voted to “remain”.
The referendum is very different from a general election, because it will have fundamental implications on many aspects of British life for generations to come. It is not a matter of how many maltesers now come in a packet or whether Boris Johnson has to pay duty on his prosecco, or even whether the pound will crash next week. It is all about the long term social and economic environment in which our children and grandchildren will grow up, socialise, study, work and retire.
The future greatness of Britain depends on how successful the country is in harnessing the enthusiasm, energy, creativity and loyalty of its younger generations. They are the ones who already have a foretaste of the future in the way they now go about their daily lives and most of them said that they want more of the same. They are resentful that, as they see it, the older generations, often including members of their own families, have robbed them of the future that they aspired to.
Some are also tempted to remind their elders to think about who is paying for the lion’s share of their pensions and the running costs of the NHS!
You don’t have to be a psychologist or a sociologist to see that a response to the referendum that does not have the genuine support of young people – not just those of voting age but also the millions of non-voting children for whom they stood proxy – is bound to sputter forward at half cock.
If this argument is taken to its logical conclusion, it implies that Britain – whether the prime minister or parliament – should not hurry to invoke article 50. Instead, it is a time for statesmanship rather than petty politics. Britain’s leaders should have the courage to bring an end to the uncertainty which now haunts all decision-making, and engage in a constructive dialogue with its partners in Europe on how the UK, if it was to stay in the club, could gain the fullest support for forward looking policies which respond best to the aspirations of the young, both those who voted to get out and those who wish to stay.
This approach is bound to find strong support from most of the European governments. After all, they’re all searching for ways of increasing youth employment, providing better care for the old, reducing inequality and social exclusion, renewing run-down urban districts, combatting extremism of all kinds, integrating new-comers within their society and shifting to more sustainable farming and food consumption systems. These are the big issues facing the younger generations not just in UK but across the continent, and Britain is well placed to make a really meaningful contribution to addressing them within its own borders and well beyond.
Only if there is real progress on these crucial areas of policy can we be confident that our young will be able to inherit the peace that we have enjoyed for the last 70 years, thanks largely to the EU. Interestingly, Britain’s foreign secretary observed just two years ago, in his brilliant biography of Churchill that “…… Churchill …. looked at the developing plans for a common market with a paternal pride. It was his idea to bring these countries together, to bind them so indissolubly that they would never go to war again — and who can deny, today, that this idea has been a spectacular success?”
A country cannot aspire to greatness if its people are as divided as they now are, following the referendum – faced with prospects of a Disunited Kingdom, divided communities, broken friendships and split families. Healing these rifts has to begin within families in which older and younger members voted differently – with older members reminding themselves that their instinctive role is to foster harmony and to show respect for the aspirations of the younger generations, even when these may differ from their own sense of values.