The Generational Decay of Euroscepticism in the UK and the EU ReferendumBy Laura Sudulich on 5 September 2017
Stuart Fox and Sioned Pierce, Cardiff University
This a summary of The Generational Decay of Euroscepticism in the UK and the EU Referendum. The full article can be accessed here.
One of the most prominent media themes during the UK’s referendum on EU membership in 2016, as well as the political fallout and support for Brexit since, was the conflict between the pro-EU youth and their Eurosceptic elders. This age divide was central to understanding the campaign strategies of ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ (who targeted young voters extensively) and ‘Vote Leave’ (who largely ignored them) during the referendum, as well as the Labour Party during the 2017 general election (who claimed to offer young people the chance to support a ‘softer’ Brexit than that of the Conservatives). This divide has always been assumed to reflect a generational difference i.e., that there is something about today’s young people and their distinctive socialisation that makes them typically more supportive of the EU than older generations. Such an assumption is supported by previous academic research, which has shown that the younger generations in the EU tend to be more supportive of it, primarily because they grew up at a time when extensive integration was the norm and so they find the notion of constrained national sovereignty less off-putting than older voters who grew up at a time of greater nation-state independence.
Our study builds on this research and considers further explanations for why today’s young people – the Millennial generation – might be more supportive of EU membership than their elders. Drawing on the latest studies into the causes of voters’ Euroscepticism, we examine the role of a range of characteristics in helping to explain the pro-EU disposition of Millennials, including their unprecedented access to education, their access to economic capital, their conceptions of national identity, and their attachment to the traditional political and social institutions that have largely shaped British post-war politics (including political parties, social class and religion). Our analyses confirm that the Millennials are indeed the most pro-EU generation ever to have entered the British electorate, and that there has been an almost linear decline in Euroscepticism since the UK first joined the European Economic Community in 1973.
The fact that the Millennials were socialised into an environment in which the UK was extensively integrated into the EU, with substantial constraints on national sovereignty the norm, is a major part of the explanation. Also important, however, is the fact that they are less likely than older generations to associate with or feel a sense of identification with political parties, social classes or religious groups that are sceptical of the EU (such as the United Kingdom Independence Party, the ‘working classes’ or the Church of England), as well as their weaker attachment to traditional conceptions of national identity, and the fact that they are the most highly educated generation in the electorate. All of these traits make today’s young people less likely to be hostile towards the EU or some of the consequences of EU membership (such as immigration), and help to explain why the young were so overwhelmingly supportive of ‘remain’ in the EU referendum. Moreover, this research tells us that at least some of the causes of the Millennials’ passionate support for the EU stem from deep-rooted characteristics that are largely stable and tend not to change much (if at all) during one’s lifetime (such as national identity or one’s attachment to a religion). This means that the generational divide we saw during the referendum on EU membership, that has since been reflected in demonstrations against and in favour of Brexit, and that also played a role in the outcome of the 2017 general election, is unlikely to go away anytime soon. It is, in fact, likely to structure attitudes towards Brexit and the performance of the government in negotiating it for some years to come.