Covid and Brexit are politicising a generation of young people – that can only be a good thing

The story of how this new level of political engagement came about is not a happy one. But political engagement is nearly always a positive

Tory MP Robert Halfon says government handling of schools 'a huge shambles'

If reports are to be believed, attendance at a recent National Education Union Zoom call discussing whether schools should reopen or not attracted somewhere between 70,000 and 400,000 teachers and parents.

Whether it was, in reality, at the upper or lower end of that range, it is a staggeringly large virtual crowd. There are those who will dismiss it as a union stunt, of course, but alternatively you could see it as another example of one of the only good things to come out of the Brexit-Covid hydra: a passionate interest in political decision-making.

For a variety of reasons, both teachers – and the wider British population – appear to be more politically invested than they have been for a very long time. Whether you’re in favour of lockdown or against, or whether you’re a remainer or a leaver (or even a re-joiner), most people have an opinion, and a strong one at that.

Whether you think Boris Johnson should celebrate for getting Brexit done, or whether you believe that Jeremy Corbyn would have been more successful at navigating the country through the pandemic, it’s unlikely you’re going to hedge this position.

This also goes for parents furious that their children aren’t allowed to go to school, teachers incandescent that classrooms were kept open as long as they were, or students livid at the government’s handling of universities during the Covid crisis.

The story of how this new level of political engagement came about is of course not a happy one. It is sad that the country is so destabilised; sad that the era of permanent global growth and liberal democratic advancement between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Blair honeymoon years is over; sad that so many passionately held opinions are distorted and then amplified by social media.

The Iraq invasion, climate change, the global banking collapse, the coronavirus crisis or the febrility of the atmosphere around Brexit are all essentially hideous events – as is the mendacious nature of much of the debate on Twitter and the others.

But I also happen to think that political engagement is nearly always a positive, whatever the cause and whatever motivates it. And in the bleakest of Januarys, with the promise of the vaccine still many weeks or months away, it might just prove to be a silver lining in this particularly grim cloud that hangs over Britain. Even before the Covid pandemic, when I used to visit schools and talk with young people very regularly, I was struck by how engaged they were in current affairs: infinitely more so than my passive generation who came of age under Blair. I can only imagine this has increased in the last 10 months, and I struggle to see this as anything other than good news.

Parent asks Johnson whether lockdown will affect university fees

All of which points to an interesting challenge to both today’s politicians and those that follow them onto the green benches. Is the era of a consensus politician who succeeds by building a broad coalition of goodwill (Blair as he was, Cameron as he wanted to be, Johnson as he portrayed himself in London in 2012) over? Joe Biden’s victory in the US suggests not quite, but the political scars in this country that are now so prominent are unlikely to fade any time soon – and the generation of voters that will come of age in time for the 2024 election, the ones who are watching as their educational opportunities slip away, are likely be more passionate still.

Newly politicised voters, especially the young, are likely to want political zeal from their leaders. This will mean that Johnson’s likely ambition (especially since Dominic Cummings was moved on) to revert to a kind of patritional One Nation Tory once Brexit has receded from the front pages is unlikely to be successful.

It will also mean that if Keir Starmer is indeed a centrist, it had better be a muscular one: a conviction moderate, if you will. In truth, I don’t know how possible that will be. A British Obama with a lawyerly delivery will be hard to pull off.  

This “centrist dad” in me would much rather see two moderates – two Joe Bidens, if you will – battling over the centre ground in the elections to come, but I’m just not sure the political circumstances of the 2020s are going to allow for it. I suspect the British public – especially the young people in schools and universities right now – are going to be much more likely to get behind conviction politicians. We live in febrile times.

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