Friday, 20 May 2016

A Sixth Form Debate about the Referendum

This week I went to an academy in our part of the world. They were holding a sixth form debate about the EU Referendum and asked me to put the case for Remain. Arguing for Brexit was a businessman from a place I know well. We had lunch together before the event and found we had a lot in common, not least a love of France. I don't think he would mind my saying that he struck me very much as a Europhile like me. Lesson number one: in this as in most things, there is much more that unites us than divides. He was certainly one of the nicest Brexiters I've met. And although we didn't agree about the EU, it was what they call a "good disagreement".

The school has a fine campus with state-of-the-art modern buildings. Some of the students had just begun A-levels that day which was a pity as they were historians and I'd have liked to have heard what they had to say. The room we were in was bedecked with national flags from all the EU countries which gave it a festive air. A member of staff chaired it in the best tradition of BBC's Question Time. She was scrupulously fair with her stopwatch at the ready.

I began by saying it was a pity that 16 and 17 year olds wouldn't be allowed to vote as their peers had been able to do in the Scottish independence referendum. I expected loud cheers at that, but it just got a respectful silence. Maybe this young audience was a bit shy. Or listening carefully, which they did all afternoon.

If you read my blog regularly, you'll know my "pitch". I asked the audience not to be beguiled by self-interest, the "what's best for Britain" line. It mattered, I told them, but only if our self-interest was enlightened. I begged them to try to see the decision from a global perspective: what's best for Europe, what's best for the human race, especially its most needy members and communities, what's best for the planet in terms of tackling climate change. I urged them to think as Europeans, not grudgingly but out of a conviction that the UK can play a leading role in the EU by helping to reform it and make sure it remains outward-looking in its concerns.

My opposite number spoke for Brexit and, I have to say, did it with humour, courtesy and tact. Then there were questions from the audience. We knew what these were going to be in advance but it was clear that the students had been well prepared for the event in learning about and discussing the EU for much of the summer term. There was one I especially liked about the EU's role in the post-war reconstruction of Europe and was this still relevant today? (No prizes for guessing my answer.) We talked about what it means to hold both a European and a British identity (to which I added English, North-Eastern, Londoner, Haydonian etc.).

Do the economic benefits of EU membership outweigh the costs, we were asked. Thankfully no-one mentioned the discredited £350M per week figure that many Brexit people are still touting despite having been told not to (it even appears on the Electoral Commission's information leaflet about the vote to which both the official campaigns were given the opportunity of contributing). We discussed the nature of risk-taking in connection with In or Out, and (interesting, this) how it compared to religious faith and the place of doubt. We explored democracy in the EU and agreed that reforms were needed to make it more transparent and accountable (although, I added, reforms are needed in the UK too and we should be careful before we throw stones).

It was a pity we didn't have time for more. But the school day ends when it ends and not even the EU was going to deflect the students from the school gate. So a vote was taken. And here was a surprise. After discounting a handful of spoiled papers (by A-level students? surely not, you cry!), it came to just over 50% in favour of Remain, and 43% for Brexit. So that was that. It was a majority, but not a convincing one. It would have been interesting to have taken one before the debate to see if anyone's mind had been changed.

I've thought about that vote. It reflects uncannily accurately the opinion polls across the country which predict a "yes", but not by a wide margin. And here's where I take pause. We are told on all sides that young people are overwhelmingly in favour of our membership of the EU. That wasn't true on Wednesday. So is it connected to the demographic of that part of the world? Or just down to the feebleness of my attempts to persuade whether by impeccable logic or dazzling rhetoric? Someone criticised the school on Twitter for "brainwashing" the young. I replied: you just try brainwashing politically astute sixth formers who in any case heard both sides of the argument. I took from the afternoon that they were not yet really convinced. So there is a lot of work we pro-EU campaigners have to do in the next few weeks.

One last point. As well as being told that the young are in favour of Remain (perhaps because they've never known life without it), we are also told that the challenge will be to get them out to vote. There are still hundreds of thousands eligible youngsters, many of them students who have not yet got their names on to the electoral register. This ought to worry us greatly. Time is running out. So I begged these 6th formers not to let their older siblings and peers off the hook. Their parents too. Our democratic rights are hard-won. To use them well by voting is the first lesson of citizenship. If they heard nothing else, I hope that message went home.


  1. My youngest young person, 25, has put us to shame. He has been on the BBC web site, and checked all the facts in the electoral commissions leaflet on google. But he is as much influenced by things like "I don't much care for Boris, and I get the feeling people are just scare mongering, which I also don't like".

  2. Its still an open question in the opinion polls? How reliable are they. The last general election clearly demonstrated that they're not an indication of the numbers who say one thing to a poller and do another in the privacy of the polling booth, or alternatively, through their postal vote.

    The annoying thing about the postal vote is that you have to get them in upto 2 weeks before the date of the referendum, if your vote is to count - but the last 2 weeks will be the critical in terms of debate and making up you mind. Not a good thought for me, who is inclined towards remain, but could be swayed in the other direction if we ever get a credible public debate.

    Sure, I've done the statistics thing, and economically it makes sense to stay - but culturally, in terms of our identity as a nation, it does seem to be 50-50 either way.

    The crunch will be, whether we trust David Cameron and his gang, as he has patently strung us along for the past few years, with rhetoric about leaving unless we get a good deal, and than negotiates away all of the things that he promised were the red lines.

    As for Borish and Farago, well, a better matched pair of idiots couldn't be found anywhere on the planet. But some of the others speaking for Brexit are more coherent and worth listening too.

    I get my polling stuff through the post by the first of June and will be making my decision based on how I feel about it - so the die (as far as we are concerned) will be cast - and we will be obliged to try to avoid all the noise after that or we might become suicidal

  3. I'm afraid I think they're all economical with the facts. The exit bunch have been told to remove the slogan on the bus that says £350million, but they haven't. Like you, I'm less than impressed with any of them, but that means it's terribly important to vote. Because there will be so many who don't.