The value of sterling, the UK currency, had already been nosediving since the first results came through showing a weaker remain vote than expected and that downwards trajectory continued. Asian stock markets, which were open due to time zone differences, were also plummeting and the European stock markets were soon to follow, as would Wall Street when it opened several hours later. Few people seemed happy with the result, in part because the London focused media focused on the despondency in the capital and not the celebratory parties in the rest of England. That lack of celebration also affected the two politicians whom the media had turned into the darlings of the official leave campaign, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson. When they gave a press conference it was less a celebration of victory than a realisation that their campaign’s success had changed the UK in a way that they had not really wanted.
Then everything went quiet for the rest of the weekend from most of the politicians who had been campaigning for a leave vote, except for Nigel Farage of the UKIP, who led the party whose raison d’etre was campaigning to win a leave referendum.
Overall 17,410,742 (51.9%) electors voted to leave and 16,141,241 (48.1%) voted to remain. England voted to leave by 15,188,406 (53.4%) to 13,266,998 (46.6%) on a 73% turnout; Northern Ireland voted to remain by 440,707 (55.8%) to 349,442 (44.2%) on a 62.7% turnout; Scotland voted to remain by 1,661,191 (62%) to 1,018,322 (38%) in a 67.2% turnout; Wales voted to leave by 854,572 (52.5%) to 772,347 (47.5%) on a 71.7% turnout; and Gibraltar voted to remain by 19,322 (95.9%) to 823 (4.1%) on a 83.5% turnout.
When the UK voted for Brexit (leaving the EU) it will have seemed in Charles Dickens oft-quoted phrase as both the best of times and the worst of times. Whether it was the best or the worst will depend on whether the individual in question voted to remain or to leave the EU. Dickens’ full quotation from the opening of A Tale of Two Cities is
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
To read some of the media in the UK, though, you would think that the choice is between the worst of times and even worse than that. One of the contrasts that the likes of remain endorsing The Guardian and The Independent have thrown up is the contrast between young people voting for remain and an ageing generation voting for leave. The evidence that they cite is that the cities with the highest proportion of young people (London, Manchester, Oxford, Cambridge, etc.) voted remain, while the older people that remain in post-industrial wastelands when the young move away where in the areas that voted leave. The other evidence cited is the copious interviews that presumably older journalists did with young people at the Glastonbury Festival.
The first piece of evidence has a very weak statistical basis, but the second is pure journalistic waffle, as evidenced by The Guardian article on how festival goers are dressed and how they voted. The journalist managed to find an ethnically diverse range of mostly young festival goers, with the only votes for leave coming from the only two interviewees with more than a third of a century to their age and who both appeared to be white males. It was a fluff piece for the fashion section, but it managed to conform to The Guardian metropolitan elite viewpoint that the youth vote to remain and it is ruined for them by the older generation, especially if they are white and male. What all of the interviewees had in common was a professional background, which is hardy surprising at £228 per ticket. The Glastonbury crowd might veer towards the youth end of the spectrum, but they are not representative of the youth of the UK, but are the professional elite. They are a world away from the youth unable to find accommodation and forced to live with parents or on the street because their benefits have been sanctioned for missing a bus on the way to the Job Centre. It they were on benefits that Glastonbury ticket would cost four week’s income for a youth under 25 and three weeks’ income for someone 25 or over.
The notion that there is a difference between voting in areas with larger number of younger people is a more reasonable supposition, but does not stand up to detailed scrutiny. There is no age breakdown of votes, so the only way to judge how the youth vote went is to look to areas where there the electorate tends to be younger. So major university cities like Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester, or Birmingham are looked to. Equally the London population can be looked to in terms of it being such an expensive city that many on reaching retirement move out. Yet that reference to London shows the weakness of the argument in that youth is generally defined as 25 and younger, not pre-retirement. There is equally a weakness in presuming that the cities that contain England’s premier universities contain youthful populations. The standard age range for defining someone as a youth means that many postgraduate students will not come under that definition and nor will most of the lecturers, researchers, and administrators who work at those universities, which are among the largest employers in their respective cities.
A bigger problem for the argument is that it hides from view the youth vote in those poorer rural and post-industrial areas that voted for leave. It is pointless to interview young people who can afford to spend £228 on a weekend ticket and assume that this represents all young people. Even interviewing students and graduates is not representative of more than half of the youth population. Nor is talk of the opportunities of working in EU countries an option for any but a small percentage of the top graduates. The only people likely to benefit are those who have European connections or obtain work with top employers, while a large proportion of the UK’s youth struggling to obtain any employment at all. For many youth in the UK this is the very worst of times in a world of benefit sanctions, zero hours contracts, and long-term unemployment. We do not know if they voted and if so which way. Those young people upset at the older generation ruining their future should spend a little more time concerned about the present of less privileged young people in the UK.
One feature of the remain reaction to the referendum result has been the outcry from students complaining that the older generation have destroyed their future, because they will no longer be able to study or work in EU countries. The theme of think of our children was also a prominent cry from the overwhelmingly middle class crowds that marched on Westminster on 30 June. This is not a wonderful coming together of the generations, but a symptom of a sharp class division in English society. The Labour governments of the Noughties pushed through two developments in university education that lecturers warned would radically restructure the nature of the student body. They set a target to reach a 50% participation rate in higher education and continued to wind down the value of student grants before abolishing them completely.
Lecturers warned that the push towards 50% participation would result in a lot of students in university who lacked the requisite skills and would be better off beginning their careers and working their way up in their chosen industry. They also cited the evidence that every time higher education expanded student numbers it reduced the level of working class participation because student grants had to be reduced to cover the greater numbers applying for the grants. Another warning was that it would cut adrift non-graduates into an under class, because such a high level of university participation would make employers less likely to operate non-graduate access routes into the mid ranking levels of their business. It also let to a devaluation of the graduate income benefit. Statistics might still show a marked difference between the median incomes of graduates and non-graduates, but most of the studies were based on a system where only 10% of the population attended university. Lecturers from the non-elite universities and colleges warned that the differential would no longer be a binary system between graduates and non-graduates, but three tiers of graduates of the top universities, other graduates, and non-graduates.
All of those warnings came true, but with one significant difference: working and lower middle class participation kept up, but not at the top universities. In order to accommodate the poorer students the less prestigious universities had to develop more lenient attitudes to students working to fund their own degrees. However that extra curricular effort placed these poorer students at a disadvantage to those who did not need to earn extra money. This created a divide that the abolition of student grants would accelerate where the top universities became the finishing school for the privately educated, while the lower down universities struggled with students working long part-time hours to fund their studies.
This created a system that began to reflect the upper middle classes had long yearned for: a way to guarantee that their children would be as middle class as they were. This change was noticed by lecturers shortly after the advent of student grants with the appearance of the open day parent. Traditionally students would turn up unaccompanied to a student open day, even if their parents had driven them to the campus. With the advent of loans not only did parents come into the open day sessions, but they rather than the prospective students were the ones most likely to ask questions. Initially lecturers put this down to middle class parents who could afford to pay Bank of Mum and Dad loans ensuring that they were obtaining value for their expenditure on their offspring. Gradually it dawned on lecturers that the open day parents were not assessing the university for its value for money, but as an extension of finding a good school for their child. They wanted assurance that their child would go to a university where they would network with the right sort of people who would help them build a career. Those open day parents were an early symptom of the upper middle class take over the upper end of the higher education system. So the march on Westminster was not an example of bridging the generation divide, but parents and offspring campaigning for a restoration of their privileged route to a better life than those without the privilege of wealth. As exemplified this upper middle class sector of society is one in which there is a close connection between the generations as parents guide offspring to maintain the family’s social status.
There is also a close generational connection in working class communities as young adults find employment difficult to come by and those who left for university return to the same neighbourhood to seek out the same low paid jobs that their non-graduate friends do. With fewer career prospects beginning families earlier has more attraction, which keeps the generations closer in age range than in middle class families where raising children is postponed until the early stage of careers are stabilised.
In between these two are the squeezed middle class: those who can aspire to keep up with the upper middle class, but take on large amounts of student debt in order to do so. The squeezed middle class tend to have a more distant relationship with family, because they have moved away for work. Unlike the upper middle classes they tend not to already be living in the south east of England, but have to move their to make their careers prosper. They then get caught up in the trap of generation rent as the cost of accommodation takes up far more than the recommended 30% of their take home pay. This squeezed middle are less likely to want to march to preserve the rights to have second homes in France or jobs in Vienna as they are struggling to get by in their second tier jobs in Bristol or Birmingham. The main action for their careers happens in London, but they cannot afford the rent.
Those two social classes with the highest level of generational supervision, the upper middle class and the working class, are the two sides of what became the established media narrative about the referendum result. The media, who are largely from the upper middle class, mostly supported the disappointed remain voters in painting the result as the globalisation success stories (aka upper middle class) against the left behind (aka working class). The upper middle class parents tell their offspring to remember how much has been sacrificed to buy their guaranteed success. Meanwhile working class parents reminisce about the fact that there was more chance of the working class succeeding in the past. The upper middle class mantra is that the working class have destroyed their future, while the working class rant is that the upper middle class destroyed their present a long ago.
When Theresa May stood outside 10 Downing Street for the first time as prime minister she noted that many in Westminster had no notion of quite how hard life was for the working class today. That was a damning indictment of the electoral and party systems. The mathematics of achieving a parliamentary majority are such that it is primarily about who wins more of the numerous seats available in the densely populated south east. The rest of the country are largely making up the numbers. So Labour moved to appeal to those in the south east and assumed that the north, Scotland, and Wales would continue voting for them. That meant that it was fine to parachute privately educated people acceptable to the south east into working class dominated seats in other parts of the country. The story of David Cameron’s rise to power was of taking control of the Conservatives for the Eton set who ruled it until the 1970s. Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats came into a coalition government with the Eton-dominated Conservatives after their own patrician wing had staged a take over against the social democratic wing of the party. The parental advice in working class communities was not to bother to vote as none of the parties has any interest in working class people.
That disconnect between Westminster and the working classes would prove costly for the remain campaign. The world of political pundits and political opinion pollsters was largely derived from the upper middle class, who were used to ignoring the working class because they never voted anyway. So the parties, pundits, and pollsters ignored the debates happening in the pubs and high streets of working class areas. Long decades of neglect had meant that they lost the ability to work out how to poll such people. It was a crucial moment towards the end of the voting when leave campaigner Iain Duncan Smith enthused that there were queues at polling stations in council estates. Those queues signified a likely leave victory, because the great uncounted had come out to make their vote count. Even UKIP missed the boat on this one as Nigel Farage conceded defeat on the basis of old friends in the City of London, who revealed the voting survey that the financiers had paid for. The visual evidence of queues outside council estate polling stations told a different story.
The timing of the referendum meant that it was taking place while the Glastonbury music festival was taking place, so the upper middle class dominated media went to obtain the views of the upper middle class dominated youth at the festival. The standard narrative soon took place of the young losing their opportunities because of people over 40, which made them sound that young people the world over who are convinced that their parents’ generation has ruined everything. The problem was that a week later their parents were also on the march on Westminster. a bigger problem was the inconvenient truth that working class areas also contain young people. Their parents could not afford to travel to a protest in London, but they probably would not want to as they had a different message for their supervised youth. You can imagine the conversations going along the line of why stayed in the EU because of Margaret Thatcher and look what she went on to do to us; get out and vote and do not repeat our mistake.
The squeezed middle in the meantime are most likely to be the swing voters. Some will have provided the remain minority vote in leave areas, because they hoped for the day when they had enough spare cash to enjoy the benefits that the EU brought to the upper middle class. Others will have sided with the working class and voted against a system that they felt excluded them from the higher reaches.
On 21 June two days before the referendum David Cameron gave a hastily arranged speech outside 10 Downing Street that indicated the level of worry he had about how voters who were in their forties and older were more likely to vote leave and they were also more likely to vote. So he made an appeal that they think of their children and grandchildren when voting in the polling booth. He had forgotten that for vast swathes of parents and grandparents in England their children were not best served by the current system. The economic recovery he spoke of in his speech was one that to many parents and grandparents meant zero hours contracts and food banks. Many parents and grandparents probably did as he asked. With upper middle class parents voting remain for the sake of the children and working class parents voting leave for the sake of the children.
© Mercia McMahon. All rights reserved