Politicians who still champion the cause of Britain remaining at the heart of Europe are a diminished, demoralised force these days. Of the big parties, only the Liberal Democrats believe in Europe with any zeal, and it has become common to describe this as the political equivalent of a fetish, which will win them few votes. But this may be wrong. Although we are deluged with anti-European scare stories about interfering bureaucrats and sharp-elbowed immigrants, a new poll shows that many young Britons want this country to keep faith with Europe.
The survey, which ICM Research conducted at the end of last month, shows that young Britons are considerably more pro-European than the population as a whole and much more pro-European than the elderly. Among the 18 to 24 age group, pro-EU youngsters outnumber their anti-EU peers by a significant margin; 41 per cent say they would definitely, or probably, vote for Britain to remain in the EU in a referendum, while 32 per cent would vote to come out. By contrast, among the over-65s, a whopping 60 per cent would vote to leave the EU and only 35 per cent would vote to stay in. A striking gap between the generations over Britain’s place in Europe is revealed.
Closer analysis of why young people appear more receptive to the European idea than either their parents or their grandparents would be welcome. This is because, in one sense, their pro-European leanings could be seen as paradoxical. After all, people in their early 20s are far more likely to be competing for relatively low-paid work with migrants from EU countries than people in their 60s. The findings suggest that some youngsters indeed resent this increased competition for jobs. At the same time, generally, young Britons seem to be less spooked by immigration than older Britons and more open to the potential benefits of European integration, too, starting with the free movement of labour.
Perhaps they are the first generation of Britons to grow up practically devoid of the old sense of Britain as an island, and thus as a society that is intrinsically separate from, and different to, those of continental Europe. If so, the consequences could be profound a few years down the line if, by then, they sense that the older generation is turning Britain into a kind of fortress.
There are, of course, some important caveats with the survey. One is that pension-age Britons are more fixed in their largely hostile views on Europe than the under-25s; only 9 per cent of the former are “don’t-know”s on the question of Britain’s EU membership, compared to 26 per cent among the latter. Another important point, from which Ukip and the Tory Eurosceptics could take heart, is that old people vote more than young people.
Nevertheless, pro-Europeans, not just in politics but in public life generally, should take note of the extent of this goodwill towards the European idea and up their game. They should stop being so apologetic and faint hearted. They may have little hope of winning over Britain’s pensioners, who are expanding as a proportion of the population and thus of the electorate, but the future lies with the young.