News and Opinion From a Team of Young People

How History Won the Referendum for Brexit

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After only a few centuries of getting it wrong, we’d reached a position in Europe where we’d stopped fighting wars and started fighting over bendy bananas. Although the latter may sound pretty threatening, I can assure you that being unable to sell a banana of the incorrect curve gradient is far more enjoyable for all than medieval slaughter. But this week, Britain decided to give it all up for a floppy-haired ex-Mayor of London and his over-excited, purple-flag-waving colleague. So why was it that the 65+ generation were so keen to leave, when the downsides of a discordant Europe are most fresh in their memories.


To answer this question we must first look at the campaigns that were run. The Remain Campaign presented Gordon Brown telling us to “lead not leave” in the ruins of the bombed Coventry Cathedral. We were meant to learn that Nigel Farage brandishing an angry fist at an immigrant is a far better prospect that millions of deaths and a World War Three, but all he really seemed to impart was a slightly patronizing message that “smaller nations look to us for leadership”. Unfortunately, this didn’t sound very different from the disappointed scolding of a teacher to some troublesome teenagers telling them to “set a good example to the littler ones” and it wasn’t too surprising that it didn’t get people voting in swathes.


So the Brexiters didn’t have a lot to live up to, yet they still managed to put on a poor show. For example, Boris Johnson offered us the insightful and not at all alarmist statement, “the EU wants a super state, just like Hitler did”, and just to carry on with the theme Farage had printed a Nazi-propaganda-style poster of a line of immigrants, the only white one of whom was covered. Whether either of these statements are in any way pertinent to the complex historical arrangements that created and make relevant the EU in a modern and fast developing world is debatable, but ultimately this played little part in the intellectual debate and served only to scare people one way or the other.


So if neither of the campaigns managed to successfully use history to sell their vision to the voters of Britain, what did? History rarely plays out predictably or accurately when its put in the hands of a politician because it is too easily manipulated, ignored, or made up altogether. When we see a politician use history to their advantage it is rarely their own powers of persuasion that have made it significant and successful. For the vast majority of the population, the most important facet of history is culture and identity. History in this EU referendum debate was no different, the feeling that people had towards different ideas were significantly shaped by history learned through the attitudes and cultures of society.


This ended up falling in Brexit’s favor for one simple reason: older people vote in higher numbers. The generational divide seen on this issue is one of the strongest seen in decades, and the only age group that actually voted with a majority to leave were those aged 65 or over. This group ended up winning the referendum for the Leave Campaign and history played a crucial part. Older people do remember Europe at war, but they also remember a political era before the paradigm of neo-liberalism when state sovereignty was all you had between you and the Nazi super state. They see the course of history as one that carves out crucial divides between them, as British citizens, and other people. To allow these ‘others’ to take from them that national power and unique British style of governance to which they are so attached feels far more unstable and far more revolutionary than a war, a recession or a squabble with France ever will.


This is starkly contrasted to the beliefs of younger generations, who are more inclined to buy into the Thatcher-lead ideas developed in the 1980’s that encourage the growth of interconnections, the pulling down of economic and cultural boarders, and the diminishing importance of the nation state simply because this has been the dominant version of history told in their lifetimes. For them, European history feels like a series of divisions and atrocities, many of which are solvable by union and alliance. To leave the body that leads the expansion of these doctrines is unthinkable.


So although little useful debate was had about history on the surface of the EU referendum and people will put the result down to economics, poor leadership, racism, the failings of the EU, immigration issues, Boris Johnson or the shortcomings of the establishment, at the end of the day people voted based on what they felt was right because politicians gave them little else to go on. What people felt was right relied heavily upon history and the historical and political narratives they have grown up with. This referendum must serve to remind us that history plays a far greater part in events than as the persuasive device of the desperate politician; it is the grounding principle upon which every voter ultimately will choose their side.

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