Brexit is going to happen. What is a young ‘remainer’ to do?

Why We Wrote This

Brexit could have the greatest effect upon British youth, who mostly favor remaining in the European Union. With “remain” now politically dead, those young people face a far different future from what they envisioned.

Stefan Rousseau/Reuters
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is greeted by staff as he arrives back at Downing Street in London Dec. 13, 2019, after meeting Queen Elizabeth. The Conservative majority assures that Brexit will go ahead, putting an end to the hopes of many "remain" supporters.

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Young people have been a key part of the campaign to keep Britain within the European Union, and they saw Thursday’s general election as their last best chance to stop Brexit. But with the Conservative Party taking an overwhelming majority in Parliament, Prime Minister Boris Johnson won the Brexit argument hands down.

Now, “remain”-minded youth have little choice but to come to terms with the fact that Brexit will happen. Far from fighting on, some may be ready to pivot toward shaping a post-EU future and bridging divisions at home and with the rest of Europe.

“This result is incredibly upsetting,” says Ella Holmes, a politics undergraduate student. “We have been excited to have a voice in this election and, perhaps naively, thought we’d have more of a decisive [anti-Brexit] swing than we did.” Ms. Holmes accepts that the United Kingdom is leaving, but is hopeful that it won’t fan “little England” nativism. “Young people should be actively engaging in policies that will keep us as close to Europe as possible,” she says.

Tolerance cuts both ways, says Sophie Collins, a graduate of the London School of Economics. “It’s important for people who are ‘remainers’ to understand some of the strong arguments for ‘leave’ as well. There needs to be more of an active dialogue now.”

Last night at the left-leaning London School of Economics (LSE), scores of students gathered to watch election results come in – and, most hoped, to see Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party denied a majority. Some here had volunteered for opposition parties or worked on voter registration; virtually all hoped to derail Mr. Johnson’s drive to achieve Brexit.

So when an exit poll projected onstage indicated a Conservative landslide, groans, jeers, and cries echoed across the auditorium. As the evening went on, the projections were borne out: Mr. Johnson earned an overwhelming mandate for Brexit, while the main opposition party, Labour, suffered its worst result in decades.

“This result is incredibly upsetting,” says Ella Holmes, a politics undergraduate student. “We have been excited to have a voice in this election and, perhaps naively, thought we’d have more of a decisive [anti-Brexit] swing than we did.”

Mr. Johnson’s commanding election victory Thursday dealt a decisive blow to a fraught, often quixotic, rearguard campaign to stop Brexit in its tracks. Young people have been a key part of that campaign, including those who were too young to vote in the 2016 referendum and saw an opening to reverse a political project that they saw as crimping their future opportunities and changing the country they will inherit into something unfamiliar. Thursday’s election represented their last best chance – and Mr. Johnson won it hands down.

Now, “remain”-minded youth have little choice but to come to terms with the fact that Brexit will happen. Far from fighting on, some may be ready to pivot toward shaping a post-European Union future and bridging divisions at home and with the rest of Europe.

“Remain” on the rocks

Thursday’s vote was an imperfect proxy for Brexit. The Conservatives and the Brexit Party polled less than half of the popular vote. More than half went to parties that either vowed to remain in the EU or, in Labour’s case, promised a revised EU deal and another referendum. Attempts to forge an anti-Brexit tactical voting alliance came to little as Labour refused to join.

Under the first-past-the-post system, that translated into 365 seats for the Conservatives in the 650-member Parliament, the biggest Tory majority (80 seats) since Margaret Thatcher’s in 1987. Labour’s tally was its lowest since 1935.

One problem for the “remain” side of the Brexit debate was geographical: Outside Scotland, “remain” voters cluster in cities, which have more younger and educated voters who skew left. Analysts say the best predictor of votes on Brexit and other issues is age, not social class.

“It’s Trump in the States. It’s Brexit here. Never in my life have I seen such a divide in age,” says Simon Pia, a journalist and author who lectures at Napier University in Edinburgh.

Matt Dunham/AP
Supporters of remaining in the EU take part in a People's Vote protest march in London on Oct. 19, 2019. With the collapse of Labour and the Liberal Democrats in the election, protests like this will have little leverage over the next government.

Emily Douglas, a geography student at LSE, said she hadn’t volunteered in this campaign but stayed engaged in political debate with friends and family, making the case for Labour and for staying in the EU. She was 16 when the referendum was held. “Brexit was a turning point. I realized that I needed to get involved and to have my own opinion,” she says.

For young people drawn into politics by Brexit, the battleground may now shift to the United Kingdom’s future relationship with Europe. Some students say they want to work to defuse a rise in xenophobia they blame on Brexit and its focus on curbing migration to the U.K.

But as the dream of stopping Brexit dies, many of the social and political movements that have led the fight – and inspired young activists – are in disarray. A well-funded campaign group for a second referendum, or People’s Vote, collapsed last month. The Labour Party faces an uphill struggle to rebuild and rebrand after party leader Jeremy Corbyn announced he would step down by early next year. The Liberal Democrats, which adopted the strongest anti-Brexit stance, failed to win seats; its leader, Jo Swinson, even lost her own parliamentary seat. (Rebel Conservatives purged by Mr. Johnson who stood as independents also lost.)

“The organizational expressions for young people [opposed to Brexit] are all in crisis,” says Stephen Fielding, a professor of political history at the University of Nottingham.

Some will call for “resistance” and try to replicate the People’s Vote movement, but they won’t get traction since Mr. Johnson has little fear of losing votes, he says. ”You can have as many [demonstrations] as you want, but there’s nothing that they can do to influence Parliament.”

“There are still things to campaign for”

Election defeats are bitter, but for young activists there’s always the next vote. Brexit’s finality – the unwinding of four decades of fitful integration with Europe – feels different, but its end destination is still in play, says Tony Travers, a professor of government at LSE who hosted Thursday’s election party.

“They can put their energies into trying to shape the future policy of the U.K. towards the EU, towards a softer, more rational version of Brexit than a harder no-deal version,” he says, referring to the trade accord that Mr. Johnson now has to negotiate with EU leaders. “There are still things for people who didn’t like Brexit to campaign for.”

Ms. Holmes, whose mother is Dutch, accepts that the U.K. is leaving, but is hopeful that it won’t fan “little England” nativism that she has seen rising since 2016. She says her generation must push for greater tolerance and inclusion, including toward Britain’s closest neighbors.

“Young people should be actively engaging in policies that will keep us as close to Europe as possible. Obviously for many of us, that would be remaining a member of the European Union. But that’s not possible.”

Tolerance cuts both ways, says Sophie Collins, an LSE graduate who now works at the university. “I think it’s important for people who are ‘remainers’ to understand some of the strong arguments for ‘leave’ as well. There needs to be more of an active dialogue now.”

She says her parents voted “remain” after consulting her and her siblings about their views since it would affect their future. (In other families, the generational divide has become a touchy topic around the dinner table.) And while Ms. Collins was unhappy about Mr. Johnson’s victory, she also saw a Brexit rollback as improbable, if not impossible. “I think it’s important to realize that a lot of people do want [Brexit],” she says.

Vindication for Conservatives

Amid the groans of students inside the auditorium, Samuel Joynson let out a cheer. He wore a jacket with a blue rosette, the emblem of the Conservatives, a rare species on campus. Mr. Joynson, an LSE graduate who recently earned a business master’s in France and will soon start a job in London as a business consultant, says the election was a vindication for his party.

“I’ve campaigned to get Brexit done and then we can move the country along,” he says.

Mr. Joynson, who voted “remain” in 2016, says youth participation in politics on all sides is positive, but he cautions that students in London may not see their political silos. When he goes back to his hometown near England’s southern coast, Brexit has a patriotic hue.

“It’s more about British values and traditions, and about opening Britain up to the wider world, not just European Union,” he says.

Earlier in the night, Jack Watkins-Hughes, a real estate agent in his 20s, cast his ballot for Labour at a polling station inside a library. He grew up in rural Wales and is dismissive of his village for voting for Brexit. “I don’t want to leave. I’ll still be fighting. But what more can you do?”

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