What is a citizen?

The debates around the EU referendum vote have revealed a clash of realities. This has been quite disconcerting. Conversations with friends, family members and colleagues who voted differently have invoked, not only differences of opinion, but often completely polarised understandings of the situation we now find ourselves in.

This is summed up in the sentiment, which has been articulated by people on both sides of the Leave/Remain divide, that ‘I don’t recognise this country any more’. Some, reacting in horror to the Leave vote, see a nation overrun by racist intolerance and destructive disaffection, and are searching their family trees to find another country to which they might apply for citizenship. Others, startled by the vicious contempt that has been levelled at working-class people who voted Leave, are desperately searching their liberal-minded friends and colleagues for signs of open-mindedness and a belief that democracy is preferable to a benevolent dictatorship.

Many of the signs by which we used to recognise each other – shared experiences, background, intellectual and cultural interests – have been seriously shaken up by this debate, and the search is on to find some terrain on which discussions can be had, rather than prejudices traded. This does not mean the kind of therapeutic ‘unity’ that will be proposed by political leaders, which amounts to yet another attempt to brush divisions and discontent under the carpet, and carry on as before. It means actually talking, and listening, to people with different experiences and perspectives as part of an ongoing conversation about what has happened, and what might happen next. And this means acknowledging, first and foremost, the gap that exists between the things that bind us together, and the values promoted by the political elite.

In this respect, the so-called ‘generation gap’ revealed by the referendum results is interesting. While the figures about exactly how many young people turned out to vote are contested, it is clear that many more young people were engaged in this debate, and cast their vote, than during election campaigns; and that young people were more likely to vote to remain in the EU than older people were. In explaining this gap, it has been suggested that the reality inhabited by young people is just different to that inhabited by their elders: youth represent the new, future-oriented reality, while older generations represent ‘the past’.

This one-sided assumption does not, of course, account for the other, more profound divisions that informed who voted which way. Youth is not a clear-cut category – young people are also working-class people, unemployed people, university students, and so on. However, the dimensions of the youth vote do indicate something about the ways in which young people experience the contradictions of ‘global citizenship’, as an idea and aspiration that they have grown up with.

Redefining citizenship

The kind of political participation imagined by the Remain campaign is a step removed from citizenship. It is not nationally bounded, and it seeks to inform rather than control. Change is conceptualised as something that institutions do under pressure from advocacy groups: regulating to protect people’s rights, the environment, or the economy.

It is not surprising that this limited idea of participation should resonate with young people: for it is at the heart of what they have been told it means to be a good, ‘global’ citizen. At every General Election, the political parties beat their breasts about the problem of low voter turnout among young people, and vie with each other to out-patronise the kids in an attempt to capture their vote. But when these predictable gestures fail, someone always sagely points out that young people have ‘different ways’ of doing politics today: they apparently get involved in international campaigning, or local volunteering, or social-media crusades. They are marvelled at, and patted on the back for their new politics.

All the talk to young people about the meaning of citizenship carries the underlying message that traditional forms of democratic engagement – that is, voting, and arguing with the people who live around you – are things of the past. Citizenship is presented as being about behaving yourself, volunteering for charities, and supporting causes through collections, petitions, and the sharing of memes on social media. There is nothing wrong with any of these things. But in disconnecting the meaning of citizenship from political participation, the message given to young people is that it is good to have influence, but that it is neither possible not desirable to have control.

Then there is the global dimension. One thing that the Remain campaign did quite successfully was to convey the idea that the desire for national sovereignty involved buying into an identity that means very little to many young people in Britain today. It is not only that ‘Britishness’ tends to be presented in grotesque caricatures – far-right racists huddled under the St George’s flag, or old ladies reminiscing about their days in the Blitz – but that many young people don’t think in ‘national’ terms at all. Why would they?

Young people today have grown up being part of the EU, in an increasingly ‘globalised’ culture. They are used to mingling with people of different nationalities, whether in the playground at school or on social media. The internet, and other forms of digital media, provide unprecedented access to the world, and schools continually emphasise the importance of knowing about other cultures and religions. Travelling, working and volunteering abroad have become quite normal features of teenage life, for those with the resources to do it. A world bounded by ‘Britain’ is simply unimaginable and, for many, unappealing.

The international outlook held by many young people accounts, at least in part, for why they experienced the Brexit vote as devastating and disorientating. Yet while acknowledging this impact, we can also see that young people have had to negotiate some profound contradictions in their orientation towards a global identity.

Globalised culture, and life experience

Access to other countries and cultures, particularly in the spheres of higher education or popular culture, has come at the price of a blanding effect. You can go anywhere you like, but the experience, or product, that you have is increasingly generic and standardised. This is compounded by the way that everywhere speaks English – yet in England, the study of modern foreign languages languishes. Consuming opportunities for travel is not the same as a genuine sharing of cultural experiences; and indeed, it could be argued that being within the EU has made Britain more complacent and insular, rather than less.

More significantly – while young people are presented with an idea about an experience of the world, or a ‘life of opportunities’, that revolves around the notion that they should be flexible, well-travelled ambassadors for global citizenship, this can jar with many of the values and experiences that they have grown up with, and the commitments they hold dear. This became particularly apparent during the referendum campaign, in cases where young people found themselves at odds with their parents, and struggling to reconcile their own affection for, and experience of, their family with the stereotypes of the kind of people that might vote for Leave, and the reasons why they might do it.

Despite all the talk about intergenerational conflict, most indicators suggest that young people today are generally emotionally close to their parents, often financially dependent on them, and see their families as a source of stability and support in a world where other commitments seem increasingly difficult to make. We often hear the complaint that the job market, housing market, and the wider culture of enforced flexibility are conspiring to make it difficult for young people to grow up and settle down. Yet ironically, the willingness to be constantly on the move, to avoid being ‘tied down’ to people or places, is seen as the very quality that is prized in the globally minded, globe-trotting citizen.

The case for commitment

Whatever opportunities the Brexit vote might bring, they will not materialise overnight. The young people for whom the vote has shaken a fundamental sense of identity, about what it means to live in Britain and Europe, and what it means to be a responsible or active citizen, will not suddenly find these questions resolved. But a space has at least opened up for them to interrogate the meaning of citizenship, participation, and commitment; and to ask whether what they have been encouraged to do by way of engaging with the world is enough for them.

The case for commitment is an open-ended one. It should include recognising the importance of the commitments that young people have, to their families, friends and communities. The current tendency in policy thinking towards pitting the views and interests of the young against their elders is nothing more than an attempt at indoctrination. Of course young people will develop their own ideas, and an outlook that is different from their parents and grandparents – they have done this throughout history. But this is a process that needs to happen through interaction with older generations and wider ideas of the moment, rather than being fed directly to them via a set of officially sanctioned pseudo-values.

Young people’s commitment to the principles and causes that they currently see as important should also be properly recognised, through a willingness to engage them in debate about the rights and wrongs. To the extent that some young people are actively engaged in trying to make a difference, rather than simply going through the motions, this indicates a commitment that is far better than a shoulder-shrugging cynicism. But being patted on the back for caring, volunteering, or believing in something, is simply patronising. It is a performance of including young people in politics, which effectively keeps them at a distance from genuine engagement with the problems of the world.

The first priority, however, should be to break down the idea that we are living in separate realities, in which different understandings of what the Brexit vote meant are experienced as incomprehensible and threatening. The things that contribute to this problem – living, working, and socialising with people who hold the same views, engage with the same media, and end up in social-media silos which tend to affirm a particular worldview – are not restricted to young people. Indeed, they are open to a wider range of influences, from friends, family, school and community, than many of their elders. Encouraging an ongoing and open discussion is the challenge on which all other possibilities are based.

First published by spiked, 28 July 2016.

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