23 June 2023

Young people hate my party – and that isn’t much of a surprise


Metro-Land, mid-2016. In a school assembly a few weeks before the EU referendum, myself and the rest of Year 10 were asked by a Politics teacher how we would vote, if we could. Remain? Every hand in the room but one went up. Guess whose that was?

Sixteen-year-old William was a Eurosceptic through and through. Any teenager who eschews video games and online pornography for reading Charles Moore and bashing Brussels will always be something of an outlier. But it was only in that moment, surrounded by my peers, I realised just how unusual my beliefs were. I was not overly popular on the morning of June 24

Of course, the demographics at my school might have been unusually pro-Remain, stuffed, as it was, with the upwardly mobile children of north London ski holiday and Kirsty Allsopp enthusiasts. But the data is clear. Brexit was hugely unpopular amongst Britain’s young – and has scuppered, more than anything else, the Tories’ chance of making in-roads with millennials and Generation Z. 

In 2016, 75% of 18-24 year olds voted to Remain. Three years later a poll suggested that a similar number of the around two million or so new young voters (hello!) who had been unable to vote on that sainted June 23 would do so in another referendum. A Savanta poll unveiled last month suggested 86% would vote to re-join the EU – and only 15% would vote Conservative.

Compared to some polls, that suggests my party is well off: YouGov have them polling at just 6%. Usually, this produces some handwringing from Yimby grifters about the need to attract back the yoof through more house-building: a stance I entirely I agree with, for I am one of them.

But the line of argument that suggests that we would win the young over simply by making the facts of life more Conservative – encouraging home ownership, the accumulation of capital, and the starting of a family – ignores just how toxic Brexit has made Toryism.  As Eric Kaufmann highlights, even young voters with high incomes, homes and spouses hate the Tories.

Two-thirds of millennials who backed the Tories before the EU referendum claim they would never vote for them again, and 25% now strongly dislike them. The only group of young people with whom the party are ahead is the vanishingly small majority who voted to Leave, want lower immigration, and are Christian. That is not a hopeful platform from which to be build a future electoral coalition. 

Studies suggest that my generation and our millennial forebears really are more progressive than any previous one. What Brexit has come to encapsulate for them – or us – is everything we have grown up to despise: a small-minded, reactionary, xenophobic, racist attack on openness, diversity, tolerance, and all the other HR shibboleths we have had pumped into our heads since an early age.

Obviously, I don’t agree with the assessment of my contemporaries. I backed Brexit because I believe in the value of the nation state, and I believe the European project is incompatible with our long history of national independence. I see the EU as a dysfunctional bureaucracy that erases the multiplicity that made Europe so great, and which has time and again proved incompetent and self-destructive. 

Furthermore, I would argue that Brexit (at least temporarily) took the heat out of the immigration debate and stifled the development of any genuinely far-right populist movement of the kind seen across so much of continental Europe. This has largely passed by most of my Europhile contemporaries, whose have little interest of political realities at odds with their twelve-starred dreams.

But the problem any Brexiteer must confront is that for all the horrors of EU membership, leaving it has hardly built Jerusalem in our green and pleasant land. As Tory MPs babble about ‘Global Britain’, our growth remains sluggish and our politics dysfunctional. Rather than herald an opportunity for national resurgence, Brexit has confirmed the reality of our ongoing national decline. 

Brexit was both a release from constraints and a national challenge. No longer could politicians blame Brussels for their problems. No longer would Eurosceptics sit fulminating about regulations over which they had no control. National sovereignty puts us in charge. And yet it is no surprise my contemporaries think so little of us Tories when we have done so little to vindicate our freedom. 

Yes, we had the vaccine rollout. Yes, it might be slightly cheaper to by Australian beef in 15 years’ time. And yes, all the horror stories peddled by the Remain campaign failed to come true. But the price for that has been seven long years of Tory infighting. The long slog to get us out of the EU, sign a trade deal, and reap the rewards has been an unprecedented opportunity for Conservative self-indulgence. 

We staged parties in a pandemic and leadership contests during a war in Europe and a cost of living crisis. Today MPs file op-eds about the need to scrap EU laws, bring back Boris, and cut taxes yesterday, whilst opposing any house ever being built in their constituency or suggesting any spending cuts. To paraphrase Logan Roy, the Tories have not been serious people. 

It is hardly a surprise then that young people are so disillusioned with the Conservatives. We took an idea they fundamentally disliked and proceeded to make a hash out of it. Rather than using Brexit to begin the ambitious national project that Vote Leave suggested, we shirked the hard choices in favour of navel-gazing. If my contemporaries never voted Tory, I wouldn’t wholly blame them. 

But I wouldn’t agree with them. It is upon us unhappy minority of young Brexiteers and Conservatives to fix the mess made of it all by our forebears. We may not be able to make many converts, but we should at least try to prove that the last seven years of rancour have not been in vain.

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William Atkinson is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.