To say we find ourselves in uncertain times in the UK barely touches the tip of the gargantuan iceberg that is, precariously, drifting in a murky sea of unrest. OK, I think that might be the most dramatic sentence I’ve ever written, but, honestly, the seismic shift in how everything in this country may work (or rather, not work), has been more palpable than I think many of us ever imagined. Perhaps the only thing that people in this country can currently agree on is that the feeling in a now leaderless post-Brexit Britain is one of collective trepidation and chaos. The results a week ago truly scared me, not only because of my own personal beliefs (I voted Remain), but because of the way they plainly proved how little faith many people my age have in politics in general, to the point where the majority didn't even feel it was worth their time to vote. Sadly, I’m not exactly shocked by this revelation either. The Internet has allowed people my age (24) to feel plugged into the world, but not necessarily to what’s going on in our own country. And why would we? I don’t look at our government and feel I’m accurately represented or spoken for, and I’m a white, middle-class, Guardian-reading Londoner. What, then, does an unemployed woman my age from my mum’s hometown of Hull see when she looks at the people calling the shots in parliament? How far away does the House of Commons feel from the everyday reality of those whose lives will remain difficult, Brexit or no Brexit?
It's impossible to say, accurately, just how many young people did get out there to mark an ‘X’ in the referendum vote, but most of the figures online are sitting at around 35% for the 18-24s, which spells out a real problem we have here, in terms of a great portion of us not being included in the conversation whatsoever. Then, of course, there’s the matter of how polarised the votes were in terms of young people largely voting to Remain, and an older generation largely voting to Leave. Because of this, many young Remain voters feel they were robbed of their future in Europe, and that the decision being made by people who won’t have to live (at least as long as we will) with the consequences is wholly unfair. You may or may not agree with that sentiment, but one thing is certain: millions of people our age, by not voting, have deprived themselves of a say either way. Almost more disappointing than the poor youth turnout itself is the backlash and downright snobby attitude that’s been summoned in many people as a result of the figures. The young people of Britain are being unfairly and cruelly painted as a bunch of lazy, Kevin and Perry mouth-breathers, with seemingly no responsibility being taken by anyone for why the level of engagement here is so low. “If they really cared they would have bothered to get out and vote”, seems to be the general rhetoric of our disappointed elders, and it's no wonder that these totally un-empathetic generalisations and disappointingly low-expectations of people who have, ultimately, been shortchanged, don’t exactly inspire young people to involve themselves in matters that they already feel unqualified to comment on. I myself have never been particularly vocal or even overly engaged in politics, and if I’m honest, that’s due, in part, to a fear of saying the "wrong" thing. Last Friday though, after the Brexit results came in, I finally felt like it was time to do something. My friends and I woke up in utter disbelief at the result, and so – despite having never done anything similar – I decided to stage some sort of event for all of us. I wanted to give young people who were disappointed at the result an opportunity to speak to others, face-to-face, and air their frustrations. How hard could it be? I started a Facebook page, ran to Maplin to buy a megaphone and tweeted a bunch about it. Then spent all of that evening hyperventilating as the attendees crept up, and pranging about whether or not I should cancel it.
When the day came, it was genuinely beautiful. The turnout was amazing, and people as young as 15 were making speeches to hundreds, given the space and strength to speak their mind. It might sound cheesy, but it taught me a valuable lesson about the things we prevent ourselves from doing, and the rights we deprive ourselves of, just out of fear. I was so worried that, mostly because I didn't study politics at Cambridge, I shouldn't be standing up and speaking on a topic that I'm no expert on. The thing is, it is that exact attitude that's preventing people our age across the country from involving themselves in politics at all, and that has to change. It's not easy. Politics is fucking complicated, and in this referendum especially, it was near impossible to school yourself on every shred of legislation that would be affected by either result. A lot of the information was completely conflicting, and involving matters that felt irrelevant and difficult to wrap your head around. Did you know what the single-market was before this whole thing? I didn't. We really had to do our homework for this one, which was off-putting as is, but even after having read as many articles as I had time to, I, along with many others, felt somewhat ill-equipped to fully grasp what was at stake on either side. Judging by the shit-show that's unravelling in parliament as we speak, it doesn't look like the people who called for the bloody thing fully understood it either. I left school at sixteen, but me, you, our girl from Hull, Cambridge politics students, all of us, whatever our background, have the same right to vote, and now more than ever before, we have to stop millennials switching off from politics and leaving it to the older people to decide our fate. With a potential early General Election looming, we must ask ourselves how we can begin to address, or at least investigate the issue of youth disengagement.
I don’t have the answer, but seemingly no one in this country has the slightest idea of what comes next. I think a good place to start would be to listen. Listen to the people who have had no voice, and give them a forum in which they can discuss why they did or didn't vote, how politics could and will affect them, and how they could feel more involved. With that in mind, I’ve decided to try and get out there and do something about it. My friend George and I are travelling to different areas of the UK – at long last taking the spotlight off London – so we can actually hear what our peers from all over are thinking in the wake of last week’s news. We'll be partnering with local youth groups and charities to put together events where young people can come and hear from other people their own age about shared experiences and shared hopes for the future. The discussions will be politically neutral, with no agenda being rammed down anyone’s throat, the main message being that, whatever your beliefs, you should vote to support them. This area needs some serious work in order to bring about longterm change.
Talk of whether politics should be taught differently at school has long been considered a controversial topic, but having myself attended an overcrowded, under-resourced comprehensive where the majority of students didn't speak English as their first language, I feel I probably speak for many of us when I say we weren't exactly reassured that our voices meant something. This needs to change too. We're all dealt a different hand in life, but we must, despite this disparity, ensure we all feel entitled to have a say on the future of our country.
You can donate to the Use Your Voice project here.
You can donate to the Use Your Voice project here.