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The Tragedy of Dave, Prince of Europe

Martin McQuillan argues that to win the EU Referendum, David Cameron now relies on the votes of the same people who have suffered most under his policies. But the alternative could be even worse.
This article is more than 6 years old

Martin McQuillan is a former Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation) at Kingston University, London.

Earlier this month, the already elevated eyebrows of HE policy observers were raised to new heights with the news that the Universities Minister, Jo Johnson, has written to every university encouraging them to help students register to vote in advance of the referendum on European Union membership on 23rd June.

This latest missive from the minister follows an online poll by Opinium published in The Observer on April 3rd that gave Leave a four-point lead over Remain but suggested that within the age group 18-34 there was a clear preference for Remain. 53% of young people said they wished to stay in the EU while 29% said they would vote to leave with 18% undecided, almost the mirror image of the over 55 age group which has a significant preference for Brexit. However, worryingly for the government, only 52% of the younger age group said they would definitely vote while 81% of their elders said they were sure they would participate in the ballot. The moral that Conservative central office has drawn from this and other similar polling data is that mobilizing the youth vote may be the key to securing victory for Remain. The deadline for voter registration is on 7th June.

As William Shatner famously observed in Airplane 2, I guess irony can be pretty ironic sometimes. David Cameron’s premiership began with raising university tuition fees to £9,000, a provocation that brought students onto the streets in their thousands and resulted in the occupation of Tory headquarters at Milbank Tower. The student demonstrations only came to end in the face of symbolic prosecutions and police threats to use rubber bullets against protesters.

Cameron’s future as Prime Minister after the referendum may now depend on an appeal to those same students to help bail him out of the fine mess he has got himself into over Europe. For students and young graduates repaying tuition fees, it must be like watching the man who burgled your house now crying out for help as he sinks in quicksand surrounded by the same baying mob that encouraged him to go on the rob. Fortunately, these young people have been to university and are capable of making a complex decision, tempting as it might be to watch the Cameron flotilla go down with all hands.

Throughout the period of the Coalition and since victory in the 2015 election, it is almost as if the Conservative Party has gone out of its way to alienate young voters. Alongside the unprecedented hike in tuition fees and the end of the maintenance grant, the Educational Maintenance Allowance in England has been scrapped for 16 to 19-year-olds, under-25s are not eligible for the living wage, and housing benefit has been cut for 18 to 21-year-olds. Anyone familiar with the plight of so-called ‘Generation Rent’ will know of the difficulties this age group experiences with access to the housing market, unpaid internships, and low-paid apprenticeships.

Fine words about social mobility and budgets for future generations have not distracted the young from the evidence of their own senses as they experience the practical consequences of government policies. At the general election in May, Ed Miliband’s Labour Party only achieved the swing required for victory amongst the 18-34 age group, even though less than half of them turned out to vote. It was the same youth vote that in part brought the pensionable Jeremy Corbyn (a politician who never grew up) to the Labour Leadership.

In September 2014, the law on electoral registration changed from household registration (where students could be registered to vote at their parents’ address or by flatmates) to individual registration (where students need to register by themselves and must register at their current address). As a result, millions of potential voters have fallen off the electoral list, notably amongst the young itinerant population. Ostensibly, the law was changed to help prevent cases of electoral fraud. It has had the consequence of removing from the electoral lists swathes of a key demographic that has recently been minded to vote against the government.

In his inaugural conference speech as leader, Jeremy Corbyn promised that the Labour Party would be active on ‘every university campus’ to ensure these voters were not lost. However, there has been precious little evidence of any such campaign. The sight now of Jo Johnson asking universities to help register student voters was almost too comic for comment. The minister would seem to be unaware of the term dates of British universities. There will be precious few student renters still eeking out their loans on pot noodles in halls and bedsits by the 23rd of June.

If they have studied the tragedies of William Shakespeare, these student voters may have encountered the idea of the ‘contretemps’, which tells us that only when it is too late to do anything about it that the tragic protagonist realises that they are doomed. As Mr. Cameron and his court sit watching the ‘fruitcakes and closet racists’ approach the Tory Dunsinane, they might be beginning to realize that it may be too late to ask the students and the young they set out to so profoundly antagonize to save his kingship.

The referendum on EU membership is the result of attempts to manage the troublesome right wing of the Conservative Party and the separatists of the UK Independence Party. Rather than face down this minority with counter arguments in favour of the economic benefits and geopolitical importance of EU membership and population mobility, David Cameron has pandered to the right both on immigration and with anti-Brussels grandstanding. He did so because the heart of the Cameron and Osborne political project is not founded on unshakeable principles or long-held beliefs (at least not ones they are prepared to articulate) but rather a pragmatic, managerial approach geared towards reacting to events.

The theatre of the renegotiation with EU heads of state was a classic example of Cameron’s team attempting to manage their way out of the problem. The negotiation completed, the referendum was supposed to be the final column on the Gantt chart that would see the Prime Minister outflank his critics and for Tory divisions on Europe to be settled for a generation. However, as many an ambitious vice chancellor has learned to their cost, management and democracy is not the same thing.

With the emergence of totally predictable, seismic disruptions with the Conservative Party and the uninspiring performance of the Remain campaign, the EU referendum now presents a real danger to the continuation of David Cameron’s leadership, the stability of the nation, and the future of our universities. It is a sizeable own goal and a situation that could have been entirely avoided by a Prime Minister with an inch of backbone, because while EU membership was a minority interest for voters during the May election, Cameron has allowed it to become a surrogate for arguments around immigration. Universities and international students have suffered as the clouds of populism have gathered over a coarsened public discussion of immigration. When such atavistic forces are unleashed their outcomes are seldom predictable, and now they may yet propel the UK out of the European Union and unseat David Cameron and his Chancellor, George Osborne.

The situation of the EU referendum is the exact opposite of the plebiscite on Scottish independence. On that occasion the three leaders of the main parties were shaken out of their Whitehall complacency by polling data, rushing to Euston to board northbound trains in a desperate attempt to stem the nationalist tide. However, in that case, younger age groups showed a preference for Leave while older voters wished to Remain in greater numbers. In the end, even in that heightened atmosphere and with an unprecedented turnout of 85%, older voters still voted in greater numbers than the young, securing the union and Mr. Cameron’s job. Between this result and the May 2015 election, you might think there would be ample evidence for Conservative central office to have learned this lesson in advance of the EU referendum: apparently not.

The recent referendum in Holland on the EU-Ukraine trade deal demonstrates what can happen when motivated anti-EU enthusiasts seize their opportunity in the face of low voter turnout and pro-EU apathy. With 61 days to go before the referendum, it seems far too late for the UK government to attempt to engage students and the young. Vice chancellors are much more naturally drawn towards helping governments out of a hole. It will be interesting to see how many, during the exam and assessment period and with UCU industrial action looming, are prepared to push voter registration given that UUK have strongly expressed a preference to Remain. However, it is not clear that university managers hold any more sway over the voting intentions of the young than government ministers.

If Mr. Cameron is forced to hand in his resignation on the morning of June 24th, he will have plenty of time to reflect on all of this. In tragic drama, the protagonist always suffers in some way from blindness to their situation. The Prime Minister may come to regret thinking that because the young are not natural Conservative voters he could treat them with disdain. Rather, he might learn that securing a future for a nation depends on treating its young with fairness, teaching them justice and providing them with opportunities. Almost always, attempts to gerrymander the electorate have unseen consequences for politicians seeking to secure their own position. Democracy is like that; you never see what is about to happen until it is too late.

Tragic drama is about the race to correct the protagonist’s own errors as the stopwatch ticks away. They have a chance to correct it, but then it’s too late, the chance has gone, and it is out of their hands. It usually all ends badly. Students should be careful not to repeat the mistakes of their elders. If they do not vote in the referendum, they risk their own future outside the EU or under a Prime Minister they may be even less enthused by than the incumbent.

As Fortinbras, the young prince of Norway arrives on stage to clean up the bloody mess left by political infighting he says ‘I embrace my fortune/ I have some rights of memory in this kingdom.’ He is speaking to Horatio of the University of Wittenberg who has the job of telling the story aright. If any academics are wondering whether to engage themselves and their students in the EU debate they might remember Hamlet’s advice to his friend, ‘Thou art a scholar, speak to it, Horatio…’

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