The paradox of the EU referendum is that the over-65s are the keenest to leap into the unknown
“If only their generation were a little more sensible,” we tell ourselves, “they wouldn’t take our caution for timidity. Of course, we know things aren’t perfect — but politics isn’t in the business of perfection. Can’t they see how good things are, and what we stand to lose?”
It’s a strange time to be young. We expect our own generation to be, under one guise or another, the radical one — to be in a hurry to remake the world and impatient with our parents’ failures, as the young always seem to be. Our elders are meant to be the voice of caution to our zeal. So it’s a little discomfiting, as the EU referendum approaches, to find these very same elders fired up for a leap in the dark and a break with the past, and ourselves, in contrast, the staunchest supporters of the status quo.
According to a ComRes poll last month, 56 per cent of 18-24 year-olds will vote to remain, compared to 19 per cent of the over-65s. This creates a few demographic peculiarities. A Conservative government is fretting that the Glastonbury crowds won’t turn out to support it, and the Remain campaign is mobilising thousands of anxious students to implore their starry-eyed grandparents not to be so hasty. These are roles to which neither generation is temperamentally suited.
We twenty-somethings have grown up with the EU, and most of us think it works tolerably well. We worry about the instability a Leave vote might bring, and we fret that those older than us don’t. What will the new Britain look like, free of its pan-European shackles? Are we going to model ourselves on Norway, on Singapore, or on the 1950s? No one seems to know, and the parallels between the fractious Leave movement and the People’s Front of Judea/Judean People’s Front in Monty Python’s Life of Brian are becoming uncanny. But in their fervour, our grandparents assure us that the current situation is intolerable, and that reformism is “establishment” (another word for “bourgeois”, apparently). Something must be done, and all will assuredly come right after the revolution.
A disposition to conservatism “will appear more naturally in the old than the young”, wrote the philosopher Michael Oakeshott, “not because the old are more sensitive to loss but because they are apt to be more fully aware of the resources of their world, and therefore less likely to find them inadequate”. So it goes, in the normal order of things. And yet this time, it is the young who are happy to muddle along with an imperfect European Union; and who stand by bewildered as their elders, having found it wanting, rush headlong for the exit.