I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people claim that old people are the cause of Brexit. It’s become a favourite mantra of those who would like to re-introduce ageism into our society and consign anyone over the age of 60 to the scrapheap.
I believe in equality. I believe that an 18-year-old’s voice is neither more nor less important than an 81-year-old’s voice. It is the nature of democracy that we don’t suggest that different people have different worth: all have an equal say. Totalitarianism, on the other hand, posits that one person’s view is more important than another’s. Look back at any social ill from centuries ago – government by the aristocracy, the denial of suffrage to women, even slavery – and they all have one thing in common: they abandoned a class or group of people in society.
When I see the most appalling, horrible, remarks being made about older people in society, suggesting that they shouldn’t be allowed to vote, I shudder. When I see adverts by Remain campaigners on social media talking about older people dying as though it were an argument against Brexit, I despair about what our world has become.
Being in my mid-to-late 30s myself, and a former schoolteacher, I believe that the voices of our young people are important. Far too often, young people’s views are forgotten or marginalised. I believe that any adult’s voice should be just as powerful as anybody else’s. The recourse to that is to encourage young people to get more involved, not to treat older people as social pariahs.
If you must blame older people for Brexit, why not try to imagine things from the perspective of an older person who voted for Brexit?
Those over the age of 60 have a memory that the rest of us lack: they recall the referendum in 1975 on Britain remaining part of a Common Market. They remember the promises that it would be nothing more than a trading organisation, to permit the UK to trade freely with its European neighbours.
Young people in 1975 voted overwhelmingly to Remain in the Common Market. They believed in friendship, neighbourliness and co-operation with those in countries near our own. They trusted their government and their politicians.
My dad was one of those. Fast-forward a couple of decades. Suddenly, under the Maastricht Treaty, he had – without his knowledge or consent – become a ‘citizen of the European Union’ and ‘subject to the duties imposed thereby’. The country had been pushed into an Exchange Rate Mechanism with the intention of changing our currency to the proposed euro. Leading business organisations recommended the change. It proved a disaster; more businesses went bankrupt within a two-year period than at any time in history. He saw businesses claim they’d leave the UK if we didn’t join the euro. We didn’t join the euro, and those same businesses expanded.
My family come from an agricultural background pre-World War 2, and watched in horror as our agricultural and fisheries were ravaged because of our EU membership. He saw us lose control of our immigration policy, business policy, even some taxation policy, and wondered how the government could possibly have lied to him so brazenly about the Common Market he voted for. When I speak to pro-Brexit campaigners, it’s remarkable just how many of them were pro-Remain in 1975. Experience has changed their minds.
Do I blame them for their Remain vote in 1975? No, because they didn’t have the full information: they couldn’t know what the European Union would become. They didn’t know then what they know now. They believed, naively, that their government was being honest about the intentions of the organisation they were voting on.
That journey from Remain to Leave has been a consistent one, gradual yet inexorable. Far too often, the characterisation of older people is one which imputes negative motives: after all, they’re no longer in the workforce. The truth, though, is very different. Opposition to the European Union has been built over decades of watching the European Union develop, and seeing how people’s daily lives have been inhibited.
They hold their hands up about the mistake they made in 1975; at the 2016 referendum, they were determined to put that mistake right.