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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator and cathedral precentor; then Dean of Sheffield 1995-2003 and Dean of Durham 2003-2015.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My main blog is at http://northernwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Brexit: Will Students Turn the Tide?

I expect we can all remember 23 and 24 June 2016, the day of the EU Referendum and the morning after. I stayed up all night to watch the results come in, though I knew, when Sunderland and Newcastle declared early on that Remain had probably lost the vote and I might as well go to bed. I finally succumbed at breakfast time next morning, so slept through the breaking news that David Cameron had resigned.
Now, nearly two years later, the memories feel as vivid as ever, and I can get just as despondent about it if I dwell on it too much - which isn't a good idea because life goes on. But it's clear that the deep divisions the campaign opened up have not healed, and show no sign of healing in the foreseeable future. Our country is a lot more febrile than it was a few years ago. Racism and xenophobia are more evident than before, we are told. Public discourse has coarsened. Political tempers are frayed, stirred up by the nationalist right wing tabloid press. The Government is as hopelessly divided as ever with no prospect of a Brexit that will win consent either in Parliament or among the public. The state we're in is not good by any standards. 
But it's the day before the Referendum that I'm also remembering today. A student, then a first year undergraduate at a nearby university, came out to spend a day in the country. He and I went for a walk in the sunshine and talked about what might happen next day. It was, I recall, the first time he had participated in a national public vote. Typically he was taking it very seriously, and spoke with real insight - and some anxiety - about the consequences of the Referendum for the nation and for his generation in particular should the vote take the UK out of the European Union. I felt heartened that this good, young man cared so much about it and was speaking with a wisdom beyond his years about the choice that faced us all next day. If he cared in that way, there was every reason to think that thousands of others did too.
Which is why, when I saw a headline in today's Observer, Students plan summer of defiance in push for 'people's vote' on Brexit, I recalled that conversation. Under the headline is a summery image of Kent University with the tower of Canterbury Cathedral just visible on the horizon. "The UK's European University" it styles itself. Then this. "These are anxious times for this generation of students. Many fear that, however well they may do academically, life after university will be much more difficult for them than it was for their parents. They worry about the burden of debt after graduation, house prices that seem impossibly high and beyond their reach, and fierce competition for decent jobs.
"On this campus, though, there is one over-arching concern about their futures that sharpens the sense of generational unfairness: Brexit" (my italics). One national student activist is quoted. “It’s wrong to think students only care about student-specific issues like Erasmus [the exchange programme]. They care passionately about staying in the customs union and retaining freedom of movement, they understand the rights and protections that the EU affords us all and will do anything to defend that. That’s why young people voted to remain and it’s why we should get a say on the terms of the final deal.”
It isn't always easy to mobilise students. But the general election showed that in constituencies with large student populations, they were becoming a force to be reckoned with the real power to influence results. And while not all students are Remainers, it seems that the vast majority of them are. To those who were 16 or 17 two years ago, it still rankles that they were not given a voice at the Referendum, unlike their Scottish peers in the independence Referendum of 2014 (a decision by David Cameron's government that still baffles many of us). And now that they (over a million of them) have reached voting age, they are clearer than ever that it was the "silver generation" (mine) who had largely made this decision to deprive them of the European citizenship they had been born with. “We are the people who are going to live with the consequences of this for the rest of our lives – and our children – and this is why we’re so passionate about it. This is going to massively damage our futures.”
I don't think we always realise what it feels like to the young, when matters are sufficiently momentous, to have your future decided upon by their elders. They are right to point out that it is they, not we, who will inherit this legacy of isolationism. "We are Europeans" proclaim their T-shirts. To them, it's unthinkable to imagine otherwise. So now, two years later, with the UK's future relationship with the EU still unclear and the long term consequences of Brexit scarcely understood, it's clear that students are in no mood just to put up and shut up. I think they mostly "get" the argument that the Referendum result can't simply be ridden roughshod over, as if it hadn't happened. But they don't see a wafer-thin majority as an unchallengeable mandate, the mystical "will of the people" to quote elected members including the Prime Minister who imagine that the Referendum has given the last word on the subject to the British people.
So the students are organising. Once the exams are over, we can expect lobbying, protests and demonstrations. And a change of gear in the public debate about Brexit. For once students become involved in a big way, we shall find that the issues they care about are not just trade, immigration and security, not just, in that tired, self-interested phrase we heard so much in the Referendum, "what's best for Britain". They care about social justice, human rights, peace-making, the environment, culture, research and the arts. They care about the welfare of other nations, not simply our own. What a difference their contribution could make. I say, bring it on as soon as possible.
The Observer article predicts that this could happen on a scale that may take our elected representatives by surprise. What are the students looking for? It's very simple. They want to have their say on the final Brexit deal whenever it's been agreed - if it ever is. The letter-writing has already begun and student unions in a number of universities have signed a letter to parliamentarians. It's quite possible that this could add considerable momentum to the rising tide of opinion that wants to see both parliamentarians and the general public involved in the final decision about Brexit once the negotiations are concluded. And one of the options on the voting paper must be that the UK decides not to leave the European Union after all, but to remain a full member, however sorely that would try the patience of our longsuffering EU friends in Brussels.
I wonder if my generation may one day thank the young of our country for saving us from the disaster that Brexit would have been. The public is now much better informed than it was two years ago about what Brexit could mean, and the risks incurred by embracing harder or softer versions of it. I don't want to ascribe messianic motives to our students. But maybe, just maybe, their intervention could make all the difference.

We baby boomers will not be around for many more decades. But millennials have the rest of this century to look forward to - or fear. It's their future that's at stake. St Benedict says in his Rule that "the Lord often reveals what is better to the young". We need to listen to them.


  1. I wonder. My eldest grand daughter finished her degree last year and is now still looking for permanent employment. She has had a range of casual jobs, but her degree in Media Studies, hasn't produced the job she was expecting. She is now having to consider going back into full time education to convert her degree to something which will make her more employable, perhaps a Masters. She is saddled with student debt, which she isn't paying as her earnings are well below the thresh hod and the options seem quite slim that work will come.

    The government boasts of full employment or at least huge decrease in unemployment, but graduates who are unemployed abound. Many of her fellow students are in a similar situation.

    Her younger sister commenced Nurse training, now without the benefit of a bursary last September, and being in central London, has had accommodation during her first year, now she will struggle in the second and third year for affordable accommodation to continue her studies and work, for th , strong vocations she feels for her role.

    Both are not natural activists, so protest isn't their priority. Work, accommodation and living costs are. The bank of Mum and Dad isn't any help, as both parents don't earn enough to subsidize them (and given their divorce probably never will be). We fear for the three younger children, one of whom is [doing A Levels now, and the other two (twins) doing GCSE's). Being in or out of Europe will not help them, as they're in the lower income bracket, in an area of urban deprivation.

    Prayer is the only help that we can offer, both being pensioners.

  2. David Davies (but not THAT one!)14 May 2018 at 14:27

    Insightful and balanced, as ever, Michael. Are you intending to send this piece to chaplains in higher education? In spite of last week's vote in the Lord's (and episcopal participation therein), the C of E often appears to have lost its nerve on the damaging prospects for our country post-Brexit. The momentum needs to come from our students. We need to hear the voices that will be diminished by our isolation.

  3. I couldn't agree more. Thank you for backing our students, whose future is at stake as the infighting over Brexit in Cabinet and Government continues months after the first referendum, with the voice of common sense and reason.