Brendan O’Neill

The cult of youth undermines democracy

The cult of youth undermines democracy
Text settings

Should a young person’s vote count for more than an old person’s? Perhaps people under the age of 25 should get two votes and people over 50 just one. After all, the under-25 person will have to live with the consequences of political decisions for far longer than the over-50. On something like Britain’s relationship with the EU, shouldn’t the voice of those who have just entered adulthood carry more weight than the voice of those who occasionally find themselves thinking: ‘I wonder how much a stair-lift costs’?

To most of us, this is a horrific idea. An ugly, misanthropic proposal. It would destroy the very heart of democracy — ‘one person, one vote’ — and dehumanise the old into the bargain by treating their vote, the core expression of their citizenship, as lesser somehow. And yet as part of the political class’s ongoing meltdown over Brexit, there is now a strong implication at least that the concerns of the young should override the concerns of the old. And this cult of youth should terrify anyone who believes in democracy, and remembers history.

This week, lots of people are talking about Our Future, Our Choice, a youth campaign group that wants to stop Brexit. Charming. Backed by arch Remainers Lord Adonis and Alastair Campbell, OFOC says it plans to ‘go to the North’ — so brave! — to find out why people voted Leave and to try to convince them and others that there should be a second referendum. The arrogance of OFOC (some people will call it youthful swagger, I know) is astonishing. It’s Twitter page says ‘[we] know Brexit can be stopped... We know because we’re going to stop it.’

Why is OFOC going to stop Brexit? Because young people don’t like it. As it and numerous commentators continually point out, a majority of Brits under the age of 45 voted Remain. In the the 18- to 24-year-old age bracket, 73 percent voted Remain. (The 27 percent of youths who voted Brexit are surely the most neglected political community in Britain today — no one ever talks about them!) It is only as you move up the age scale that you find majorities in favour of Brexit. And according to OFOC’s co-founder Femi Oluwole, speaking of the young, ‘This is our future, [so] it should be our choice’. Shorter version: we will have to live for longer in Brexit Britain, so we should decide if it happens.

If you believe in democracy — that thing we celebrated last week, on the hundredth anniversary of women over 30 and working-class men getting the vote — your response to the age differentials on the vote for Brexit should be: ‘So what?’ We either have universal suffrage or we do not. We either have a system in which every vote is equal — regardless of the voter’s class, sex, sexuality, race, educational level or age — or we have one in which certain people wield more clout than others.

The idea that it is somehow bad that a political course of action has more support among the over-45s than it does among the under-45s implicitly calls into question the principle that every vote is equal. I find it genuinely alarming that young voters, backed by big-hitters in politics and the media, can openly say that this vote is bad for us, for our demographic, and therefore we will ‘stop it’. To my mind, that’s as awful, as anti-democratic and divisive, as if a small group of white voters were to try to stop a majoritarian vote that had huge support from black voters.

Today’s cult of youth terrifies me. You see it in the Corbynista movement, too: the callous celebration of the fact that the Corbyn outlook is more popular among the young than the Tories are, as if that alone proves its moral worth. Time and again we are given the distinct impression that if a political worldview is backed by the young, then it must be good, it must be dynamic, it must be worth pursuing. I think people fail to appreciate the dire message this sends to older communities, especially the over-60s: ‘You don’t count. At least not as much as your grandchildren do. Your political viewpoints are a problem and we may need to write them off.’ In other words: ‘You are lesser citizens than us.’

It is chilling. But then, cults of youth are always chilling. One thinks of Nietzsche’s cry for a youthful race of ‘warriors and serpent-slayers’ to push aside ‘old men’. Or of the Italian fascist slogan, ‘Make way, you old men!’. Or of the ascendancy of youthful intolerance during the Cultural Revolution in China, so that ‘whenever teachers came across a student, they would lower their heads’. The old bowing to the young: there are some who would like to see that happen again. Democrats must ensure it never does.

Written byBrendan O’Neill

Brendan O’Neill is the editor of Spiked and a columnist for The Australian and The Big Issue.

Topics in this articleSocietyuk politics