Young UK voters and the EU: then and now

Since the successful Brexit vote on 23 June, there has been a great deal of (mostly rather disdainful) attention paid in some quarters to the demographic breakground of the support for Leave and Remain.  Among aggrieved Remainers there has been a particular focus on the fact that –   at least among those who bothered to turn out to vote –  young voters had fairly strongly favoured Remain.  In Lord Ashcroft’s exit polls, the Remain/Leave split among voters aged 18 to 24 was 73 per cent in favour of Remain, and 27 per cent in favour of Leave.  Among the (much larger group of) voters aged 65 plus, 60 per cent favoured Leave and 40 per cent favoured Remain.   Here is the graphic from the Ashcroft polls.

The rising generation favoured Remain and only the old really wanted Leave (although the margin in favour of Leave was pretty clear cut among all those aged over 45).    This led some more fevered critics to suggest that old people should be deprived of the right to vote altogether –  although it was never clear what age threshold they had in mind.  But a similar sentiment was evident in an op-ed in the FT the other day from Nick Clegg, former Deputy Prime Minister, former Liberal Democrat leader (and champion of the EU).  According to Clegg

the status quo cannot last. A country that has taken such a momentous decision about its own future against the wishes of its own younger generation is not on a stable path.

Which might be a sort of plausible argument if the views today’s young held could be counted on to remain unchanged for the rest of their lives, or if (somewhat equivalently) today’s old had been those staunchly opposed to the UK entering the EEC in 1973.     Of course, even if today’s young still do feel the same in 20 years time, and they manage to command a pro-EU majority then, there is nothing to stop a future UK government seeking to rejoin the EU (if it is still there).  Neither Parliaments nor referenda today bind future Parliaments and governments.

My instinct had been that one couldn’t count on such preferences remaining stable throughout life.  For most of us, it only takes a brief moment of introspection to recall views we held staunchly decades ago that no longer reflect our views today.  And, after all, today’s UK young have known only Britain in the EU.  Once Britain leaves, they –  and next cohort of young people –  will have different experiences.  Exit might work out well, or badly, or be simply hard to tell, but different data will be available to future voters (and responders to opinion polls).

In the course of pottering around secondhand bookshops in Northland and Auckland last week, I stumbled on a fascinating book, published in 1973 by an Oxford political science academic, called Diplomacy and Persuasion: How Britain Joined the Common Market. I have not read it yet, but flicking through it my eye was immediately drawn to the statistical tables and charts, with data on support for, and opposition to, joining the EEC.    In the early 1960s, British public opinion had been strongly in favour of joining the EEC,  but by the late 1960s and early 1970s –  as entry actually became possible, once de Gaulle had departed the scene – public opinion had reversed.  In one major poll in 1971, where the same questions were asked in the UK and  in each of the six EEC countries, public opinion in each of the six was strongly in favour of Britain joining, while British opinion was strongly against.    Foreshadowing future tensions, public opinion in each of the six strongly favoured a move towards a United States of Europe, while British public opinion was opposed (even conditional on the UK actually joining).

The British government of the early 1970s had undertaken to join the EEC only if there was clear majority in favour, in Parliament and in the country.  That simply didn’t happen before Britain entered the EEC on 1 January 1973 –  key parliamentary votes were very close, and in the run-up to entry date public opinion (as captured in the polls) never got beyond being evenly split between those favouring joining and those opposed.

But what particularly interested me was the demographic data the author reported.  He reports detailed results for 21 different polls from early 1971 to late 1972.   The age breakdowns are a little different than in the Ashcroft polls above, but in every single poll the over 65 age group were opposed to the UK joining the EU (typically by very large margins), and the 16 to 24 age group was either in favour of joining or much less strongly opposed.

Here are the average results from the five 1972 polls that are shown in the book, with all results shown in net balance terms ( a positive number means a net balance of that demographic in favouring of the UK joining the EEC).

By age

Net support for UK joining EU
Overall 16 to 24 25 to 44 45 to 64 65+
0.2 5.6 10.4 0.8 -20.2

Overall, the population was split, but young people were much more inclined to support joining than old people were.  But the 1972 20 year olds are today’s 64 year olds – people on the brink of joining the group most strongly now in favour of leaving.

And here are the results by social –  or occupational –  class

Net support for UK joining EU
50 19.8 -10.2 -27.2

The divide between the more-educated higher status groups is somewhat similar to that now (see the Ashcroft table above), but it is perhaps notable that for all the disdainful talk now about how the educated favoured staying in the EU and the uneducated wanted out, the gap between the views of these occupational groups is much less marked than it was in 1972.  In 1972, overall public opinion was evenly divided, but with huge margins in favour among the AB group –  professional and semi-professional occupations –  and substantial opposition among the working classes.  Working class opinion now is similar to what those polls captured in 1972, but “elite” opinion is much more evenly split (57:43 in favour of Remain) now than it was then.  Joining the EU was always an “elite” project, and Britain is now leaving because enough of the “elite” groupings have lost confidence that the EU is the best option for Britain.

I don’t suppose anyone took very seriously the idea of depriving the old of the right to vote.    But why we would suppose that 1972’s 16 to 24 year olds were better placed then to make a decision on the best interests of their country, themselves, and their children and grandchildren, than today’s 60 to 68 year olds are now?  They are, after all, the very same people.

(For anyone interested, there has also been a lot of coverage of the fact that a majority of Scottish voters favoured Remain in this year’s referendum.   By 1972, there was not much difference in the poll results by region, but I was interested to find that in every single one of the 16 1971 polls, Scottish opinion had been more opposed to joining the EEC than opinion in the rest of the country.)