One of my most formative experiences was an upper school trip to the battlefields of France and Belgium. Amidst all the stories of carnage and destruction, and the unfathomable numbers of casualties involved, what struck me above all else was the sheer proximity of the respective front lines. In some places a mere hundred yards might separate the two groups of young European men, conscripted to throw grenades and fire rifles at each other across the small parcel of scorched earth between them.
It’s this proximity which characterises Europe best. We don’t have vast rainforests or great sprawling plains. (I always find it hard to explain to my American friends the urge to drive across their continent just for the sake of driving across it: when asked to name a specific destination the answer “that’s not the point!” is hard to explain; so is my usual follow-up, “um, Nebraska?”.) In fact, we’re a geographically small continent and always have been, filled with cities distinctly lacking in both elbow room and air conditioning. Many of our buildings were seemingly designed for dwarves; when our bars and pubs get full we break out onto the streets, a policy sensibly endorsed in law. Everything from our cars to our coffee cups are miniature: the Americano style of coffee is so-named allegedly because American troops passing through insisted on a larger, diluted cup.
It’s this jostling proximity that has always made it especially important for us Europeans to get on with each other. And it’s what has made the consequences, when we don’t get on, destructive to an extent almost unique in human history.
During the referendum I worked for one of the Remain campaigns, and part of my time was spent on the high streets of middle English towns trying to persuade voters that we should stay in. Two counter-intuitive observations stuck out: I was surprised both by how difficult it was to predict which way a person would be voting just by looking at them, and, when I spoke to them, by the strength of feeling most people felt in one or the other direction.
Nonetheless, a particular demographic trend began to emerge. Much has been made of the role of age as a predictor of votes, with those 55 and over much more inclined to vote to leave. Certainly this was true overall, and it was members of this supposedly more mature age bracket that provided the most childish remarks: from the relatively benign “Remain? You must be joking right?!” to the rather more disturbing “you should all be hung as traitors!”
Yet as my sample size of prospective voters grew, a more nuanced distinction emerged. Yes, the portly couple hovering around retirement age was unlikely to be on side. But in fact, voters above a certain age — I’d guess 75 — seemed of a different mindset altogether. Usually alone, and usually women, many members of this bracket expressed in quiet but steely terms their opposition to leaving.
From the reasons they gave, I soon realised why 75 seemed to be the age at which attitudes began to shift. A person turning 75 today was born in 1941. Any earlier than that and it is reasonable to assume that the person would vividly remember the experience of being at war with Europe. There were plenty of people not quite this old who also cited the war as a basis for their vote. Many talked of fathers and uncles who had died for this country, “not to see it handed over to the Germans”, etc etc. Yet what is interesting is that these second-hand war memoirists often reached the exact opposite conclusion about which way to vote, as compared to the more sage and aged cohort.
I think we can learn a lot from this distinction and what it tells us about the role played by the imagination in this election. Nostalgia for an earlier time has undergirded much of the emotional appeal of Brexit. By definition, nostalgia for then requires something to have changed between then and now; yet it is also often characterised by a rose-tinted glasses effect, such that what was then is looked upon unduly favourably in comparison to what is now. The distinction between over- and under-75s serves to highlight a more fundamental fallacy: that those wanting to “take Britain back” actually have very little lived experience with the Britain they are claiming to recreate. Only those who were really there understand the significance of having made it here.
Of course, ‘here’ as a place changed again, irrevocably, in the early hours of Friday morning, in no small part because of the small-minded aspirations of a generation too young to remember war and thus to appreciate peace. With the misguided jingoism of General Melchett, they have frogmarched a younger generation into enforced isolation, entirely misunderstanding the intentions of their immediate forebears to create unity out of division, cooperation out of competition, and a lasting peace out of centuries of perpetual war. Economic misery, geopolitical uncertainty and social fragmentation seem certain to result.
We’re taught to show our elders respect. Fine. But the generation that just drove the rest of us off a cliff into a canyon of irrelevance shouldn’t expect reverence.