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The U.K.’s Old Decided for the Young in the Brexit Vote

7 minute read

It took Gus Sharpe about two seconds to make up his mind on the question that tortured his country for months: Should the U.K. remain a member of the European Union or not? “To people my age it’s pretty obvious,” says the 19-year-old, whose mop of curly hair makes him look even younger. “We stay.”

What bothered him about the question was the government’s decision to put it to a vote in the first place—not just a survey to assess the public mood but an all but binding referendum to decide whether all British citizens would be E.U. citizens or not. “That’s such a personal decision,” says Sharpe.

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Growing up in the seaside town of Margate, his identity as an Englishman was always intertwined with his sense of being a European. Besides, his E.U. passport has been incredibly valuable to him. It ensures a lifetime of freedom to travel and work in any of the union’s 28 member states, each with its own culture to explore, its own charms and opportunities. “So my generation has the most at stake in losing that,” he says.

But it wasn’t Sharpe’s generation that decided. Across the U.K., polls showed that only about 19% of people between the ages of 18 and 24 supported a British exit—the Brexit—from the E.U. Among pensioners, who came of age before the E.U. was created, a staggering 59% wanted their country to leave. And when all of the roughly 33 million ballots were counted on Friday morning, the position favored by most pensioners won out by a margin of around 1.3 million votes.

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Over the next two years, the country will now have to go through a messy political divorce from its European partners, while British families will try to cope with their own internal splits. As the benefits of E.U. citizenship are slowly stripped away, young Brits will be tempted to put at least some of the blame on their elders, who may struggle to explain what right they had to make such a permanent choice on the nation’s behalf.

In Margate that rift between the generations will be particularly stark. Ever since 2011, when a new museum of contemporary art opened on the town’s main promenade along the shore, millennials from London and other big cities have been coming to Margate for the cheap rent and the budding art scene. Dozens of restaurants and shops have cropped up around High Street, selling everything from vegan cookies to bongs and vintage clothes.

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“At first, I think there was definitely some opposition and suspicion,” among the older and more conservative locals, says Sarah Martin, the head of exhibitions at the Turner Contemporary Gallery, which began bringing world-famous artists to show their works in Margate over the past few years.

Investors soon followed. Nick Conington, who made his fortune in the London financial industry, moved down to the coast a few years ago and poured millions of pounds into the rusty old rollercoasters of Dreamland, turning it into a “heritage amusement park” to attract the hipsters who came from London on the train. “Before the Turner Gallery opened all the windows around here were boarded up,” Conington told me at the bar of the Sands Hotel, which he opened in Margate three years ago. “This used to be considered one of those most deprived High Streets in Britain.”

That distinction has since gone away. But Margate is still one of the only places in the country where hardcore opponents of E.U. membership dominate the town council. One of its members, 84-year-old Jeffrey Elenor, came to meet me on referendum day at a Margate pub, wearing a pinstripe suit and a large pin on his lapel that said, VOTE LEAVE. A few of the other patrons, mostly around his age, patted him on the back in solidarity.

To people of his generation, Elenor said, identity and culture are often defined not with reference to Europe or even to Britain, but rather to the town or village where one was born and bred. “A Margate lad might not marry a Ramsgate girl, for instance,” he said, referring to a town that lies about five miles to the south. “That’s when the problems start in a marriage, when you have these differences in understanding.”

This was as far as one could get from the globalized idea of the world that the transplants from London tend bring with them, and Elenor can understand their lust for travel. He’s been dreaming of a visit to Moscow ever since he picked up a Russian novel as a kid. He wasn’t impressed, though, with all the changes that the new museum has brought to town.

“They claim it’s brought a resurgence of culture. But I don’t find it particularly exciting,” he said. “Paris it is not.” Nor did the councilman have much patience for the claim that his generation has less at stake in leaving the E.U., and therefore less of a right to decide. “What do they want us to do, move to Australia?” he said. “This is our choice, too!”

Given the opportunity on Thursday, older Brits seized that choice with a lot more enthusiasm than younger ones. The highest turnouts were recorded in areas where pensioners make up more than a quarter of the population, and nearly all of them swung heavily in favor of leaving the E.U. In the district of Thanet, where Margate is located, 73% of voters backed the Brexit.

Not even the recent influx of millennials managed to skew that result, but they may still have some ways of fighting back. An online petition seeking to call a do-over referendum has already gathered more than 160,000 signatures. Mass demonstrations could also put pressure on Parliament not to pass any laws that would formalize the split with Europe, though at this point the legislature clearly intends to go along with the will of the majority.

If the divorce does go ahead, it isn’t likely do much good for the newcomers in places like Margate. “The arts community wants to stay in the E.U.,” says Martin. “And if we leave, there is a lot of concern that we could start going backward as a community.”

There could be less cooperation with European museums, for instance, fewer grants and scholarships from E.U. institutions. More broadly, there is likely to be more incentive for ambitious young Brits to move to Europe or find another way to hold on to the benefits of an E.U. passport. In the last few months, as the chances of a Brexit began to seem real, there was a sharp spike in the number of British applications for citizenship in Ireland, an E.U. member. The Irish government reportedly had to hire 200 new temp workers process all the requests.

Gary-Paul Derriman, who runs a pie business in Margate and is easy to spot around town by his blond Mohawk, wouldn’t blame anyone for packing up and moving across the Channel. For him it’s too late, he says, because he’s turning 60 soon. “But with these youngsters, Europe is in their bones,” he told me, looking across the bar at Sharpe and his friend, who had come to visit him from London. “It’s not right that us olds should be deciding for them.”

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