Leaving the EU will be the least of the UK’s problems if the government keeps ignoring the widening generational gap

Rebuilding these bonds requires a new way of working and thinking, not just lumps of money. As Brexit day fast approaches, the prime minister would do well to think ahead

Chuka Umunna
Monday 27 January 2020 15:47
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5 Days Until Britain Is Scheduled To Leave The Eu

I am a person of mixed heritage (English, Irish and Nigerian), with immediate family living in Denmark, and extended family from France, Ireland, and Spain. So, whatever legal change is brought about this week will not change a simple fact – my family is British and European. No one can take that away from us. The UK may be on course to leave on Friday, but physically and emotionally, we will always be part of the European Union.

I am proud to be able to say to younger and future generations of my family that I was part of a movement that did everything we could to ensure the UK remained a member of the EU. But we lost that battle and we have to accept it. It seems grossly unfair that – following a referendum in 2016 in which 37 per cent of registered electors voted to leave the EU, and a 2019 general election in which 29 per cent of registered electors voted for the party of Leave (the Conservatives) – this should be going ahead. Yet it is in the nature of the rules under which our democracy plays out.

There has been a peculiar sense of calm following the chaos of the last parliament. However, the divisions of the last four years, which have been so graphically exposed, cannot be magicked away in a number of months. Edelman, the world’s biggest communications firm, produces an excellent “Trust Barometer” every year – this year’s report, released last week, found that Brits think we are as divided as ever and are keen to see the country brought together. The healing process will take a long time.

It should start with a recognition that no community has a monopoly on grievance when it comes to the economy and a system that fails too many people. The community I am from in Lambeth scored the highest Remain vote in the country in 2016 and has been unwavering in its opposition to Brexit. We have had to put up with being sneeringly referred to as a “liberal, metropolitan, elite”. We are proud of our liberal values and our diversity, but it is absurd to describe Lambeth, and many of those places that voted Remain in the highest numbers, as “elite”. Thirty-six per cent of children in Lambeth are living in poverty, around one in five workers earns less than the living wage and it has one of the highest rates of older people living in deprivation in England – on all counts the social problems are worse than in many areas that support Brexit.

So, as the UK heads through the EU exit door, it is worth remembering different areas reached different views on the European question but all regions have been suffering. To suggest otherwise is to ignore the fact that there are inequalities across the UK not only between regions but within them too. Yes, London and the southeast do score well when compared to other regions as a whole, but within those regions, you will find swathes of deprivation sitting next to extreme wealth. It is about time the stereotyping and anti-London rhetoric we hear so much of, which seeks to set different parts of the UK against one another, stopped.

Looming in the background of all these conversations is the increasing divide not between geographical areas but between younger and older generations in all parts of the UK. Polling I commissioned as chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration in 2017 showed that more than one in four Leave voters of retirement age believed lower wages for the next generation was a price worth paying for exiting the EU, while one in four Remain voters aged 18-34 would have accepted pension reductions for older people if it meant Brexit was halted.

But Brexit did not cause this division. The generational gap in politics simply reflects the gulf between generations in our daily lives. For example, between 1981 and 2011, three-quarters of the increase in over-45s occurred in villages and small or medium-sized towns, while 80 per cent of the growth in 24- to 44-year-olds took place in large towns and cities. It is not just that different generations appear to have increasingly polarised outlooks; there is an increasing tendency for them to live completely separate lives, with little regular interaction with one another. This is thoroughly depressing.

People point to the closure of shared spaces, such as community centres and libraries, and the reduction in local transport services which have served to reduce opportunities for different generations to connect. In order to start the process of improving intergenerational connections, we need quality local transport links and more spending on shared spaces. All of this requires substantial capital investment, so it is good to see the government promising to deliver huge sums into infrastructure and so on. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg – so much more needs to be done.

Rebuilding our intergenerational bonds requires new ways of working and thinking, not just lumps of money. With this in mind, the all-party parliamentary group suggested all nurseries, schools and care homes should be encouraged to foster connections between the different generations who use their services and, where possible, to co-locate services on one site. The government could, for example, explore a small tax break for people who commit to a set number of hours of volunteering within a public service per month, such as a nursery, school or care home. These are just a couple of ideas – there are many more out there.

Hopefully, now the chaos has passed, Whitehall will have more bandwidth and time – which was not there before – to engage with these ideas and properly address how we build a more integrated and socially cohesive Britain.

Chuka Umunna is a columnist for The Independent as well as a lawyer and a British politician

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