These are tumultuous times for the United Kingdom. Trapped in a political limbo of its own making and led by a hopelessly unpopular premier, things look bleak.
The EU referendum last year created one of the biggest constitutional questions of British history. It also opened a chasm between young and old, which the general election of last May failed to close and even widened further.
The interests of the youthful and the elderly have rarely aligned. But while this division is not new, the extent is unprecedented. Just 29% of 18-24-year-olds voted to leave the EU, compared to 64% of over-65s. While some may have changed their minds since the referendum, divisions are still apparent. A poll by Ipsos-Mori in July asked the public about their Brexit priorities: three quarters of young people and graduates opted for single market access, while for over-65s immigration control was the primary concern.
These political conflicts have spilled over into everyday life, and led to resentment between generations. The notion of a selfish older generation punishing the young is a view held by many, and it’s not uncommon to hear teenagers complain of an older generation who “won’t live long enough to feel the effects” of such a huge constitutional change.
With the Conservative government in its severely weakened state, we might well find ourselves back at the ballot box within the year. But even this is unlikely to bring certainty, as neither major party has yet carved out a polling lead big enough to govern alone. With all focus on vague Brexit plans — the one matter with comfortable parliamentary approval — these divisions look set to remain.
This doesn’t mean however, that the gap in worldview is impossible to bridge. That it has not been, appears frankly to be for lack of trying. Neither major party wants to risk its foothold in parliament (with the Conservatives in power, and Jeremy Corbyn’s newly invigorated Labour finally a strong opposition). But this has resulted in equivocation on the country’s biggest matter. With such a polarised electorate, both parties are afraid to make their case.
Non-political efforts to bring about unity in Britain, such as the Jo Cox Foundation’s Great Get Together campaign, are commendable. But greater efforts must be made by political parties if we are to heal the deep wounds of the last 12 months.
There is some cause for optimism in the common ground that does exist between young and old. According to research by the communications and fundraising agency Eden Stanley, both generations are disproportionately likely to want to “give something back”, and to feel that they have been “relatively fortunate in life”. Those aged 65 and over are actually more likely than the young to agree with the statement that “everyone should have an equal chance, no matter where they’re from”.
Contrary to the caricature of an isolationist, older demographic these sentiments are inclusive, internationalist, and profoundly British. Uniting young and old has been done before, when a wide cross-section of society voted Labour into victory in 1997, and can be achieved once more. It is a lack of imagination only that prevents a coalescence of these views into a national consensus. In times as uncertain as these, we surely need one.
This article formed part of our project, ‘What makes us British?’ A project by Haringey teenagers, allowing more young people to explore the topic of British identity, and to express their views on Britain in the world.
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