Losing the referendum: picking up the pieces.

Six weeks ago I was knocking on doors in Milton Keynes in the final week of campaigning ahead of the EU referendum. Is it possible that only six weeks have passed? A Remain loss, the resignation of the Prime Minister, a new PM in place, and Brexiteers in-charge of foreign policy; including our eventual withdrawal from the European Union. I’ve watched most of this take place from afar: leaving immediately for work in Kazakhstan, I felt relieved to be anywhere but the UK during the weeks after the vote.

The morning of 24th June will forever mark a significant shift in the way I understood the United Kingdom, its citizens and the world around me.

Before the vote, I felt angry. Angry at how the government could throw my whole life up in the air — my job, my relationship, my identity. I felt scared that we might lose — so anxious I couldn’t sleep — and troubled by the calm view of too many around me that the referendum would surely be won for Remain. Though in being part of the campaign I saw the huge sacrifices made, the energy given, and the fight taken to Vote Leave, it too rarely felt like we were the winning campaign. I thought we’d win, but it didn’t feel like we were winning.

Having come back from 4 weeks away out of the last six weeks, I realise how much I am not over the UK’s decision. To be clear: I accept that we’ve lost; that we will leave the EU; that 17 million people voted differently to me. I don’t blame the media, or the lies, or Jeremy Corbyn. I know that our campaign failed to win and that we must accept responsibility for losing the argument in people’s hearts. Our determination to remain the same was disconnected from huge swathes of the UK population who wanted something — anything — to change.

I accept it, but I realise that I’m not over it.

Across Europe we see young people continually being screwed over by the decisions of older generations — in the UK, in Spain, in Greece. In the UK, it is predicted that 64% of young people voted — with 70% voting to remain in the EU. Yet the wishes of those with the longest to endure the years of uncertainty and long-term impact of the UK’s decision were the age-group most likely to vote to stay. The ones with the shortest? Most likely to vote leave.

What I have found striking is the feeling of great uncertainty I feel about the world. I grew up under Blair and Brown: years of economic growth; rapid improvement in living standards; huge advancements in rights, equality and freedom; and little direct threat to our lives in the UK. I felt that this was only going to continue. It is scary feeling to realise that the foundations you thought were secure were only temporary fixtures that are now at risk of collapse.

Because if you’re young right now, where are you supposed to place your trust? Not in the communities around us that voted for Brexit. Not in the economy that delivered a financial crash as we graduated. Not in the UK government that risked our future with a referendum gamble. Not in the European Union that has systemically failed to respond to global crises, such as the refugees arriving on our shores. Not in a religion, given we’re more secular than ever. At a time when it feels like the world is falling apart, what is it that we’re meant to hold on to?

The only thing that is clear is that this is the beginning of a major fight. We — young people — must fight the consequences of leaving the European Union. If you don’t want us to leave the EEA, to abolish freedom of movement, lose our rights at work, see communities decline or businesses leave altogether, we must come together to ensure the legislation that comes before Parliament in the negotiations ahead goes in the favour of young people.

For this, we need a highly effective youth campaign focused on winning votes in Parliament — something we do not have in the UK right now. That is where the fight is now: the power lies in the corridors of Westminster, not now in convincing voters on the doorstep. If that’s where the power is, that’s where the fight needs to take place. Theresa May might be a Remain supporter, but with a majority of 12 — and 140 Tory MPs backing Brexit — her position is precarious. 13 MPs could force us in to an all out exit from the EU, the EEA and a bonfire of the protections and opportunities we’ve grown up with.

The most dangerous thing I hear right now is, “it will all be alright in the end.” We can’t be fooled by this notion — however comforting it feels. There is no guarantee that this will magically work out in the way we hope. It is exactly this thinking that resulted in the UK voting to leave. Right now I’m not optimistic about the future: I don’t think that this is the worst it will get in the UK — or in Europe. But I’m in this struggle for the long-haul to ensure the best possible exit from the European Union. Young people in the UK have never known a time when the UK was not in the EU; now we must fight for the freedoms that previous generations have taken for granted.

We’ve been screwed over once. Let’s not let it happen again.


Alex works at the intersection of research, policy and journalism, attempting to improve the lives of young people through knowledge, training and expression. Alex is a campaigner — mostly on climate change, child rights and young people — and was a volunteer on the StrongerIN campaign. He will be a “Catalyst” for discussion at the #NoDust event on Monday 5th September, 19:30 at Conway Hall. Follow on Medium here.

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