Chloe Smith is a former Cabinet Office Minister, and is MP for Norwich North.
The referendum split Britain in many ways, and it is the Conservative Party’s job to bring our country back together.
In my own county of Norfolk, for example, Norwich – a small, vibrant city often different to its rural surroundings – voted decisively to Remain whilst all around it voted to Leave. On a far larger scale, other geographical parts of the country went their different ways.
The split that worries me most is by generation. I’ve written on this site before as as one of the party’s youngest MPs about the generational schism in British politics, and how our Party must respond to it. The need is more urgent now than ever, and the next Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister must bridge the generational rift gaping after the referendum.
What happened, in age terms, is quite clear. A large majority of younger voters opted In and a large majority of older voters opted Out. The difference pivots somewhere around the age of 40. People aged 40 and younger today were born after the last EU referendum of 1975. As I, with other young MPs of a similar age across parties in favour of Remain, wrote in the Huffington Post last week: “We did not grow up to re-fight old battles.” But this generation was outvoted, and many are now contemplating the result with concern for their future. But democracy is democracy. We live by it, and we must accept the result.
I am always concerned by turnout rates, in which younger people vote less in general than their elders. Never mind fighting new or old battles: it may well be the case that young voters don’t exactly come out in enough numbers to fight any battle at all. Democracy works thanks to those who take part, so if you care about something, you simply have to be there. Your vote or your failure to vote really does count. Your vote or your failure to vote also means what it says. There aren’t many excuses in a major democratic event like this one – and considering that many people around the globe still literally die for one-person-one-vote, we should appreciate our democracy. The lesson is robust: politics actually does mean something after all.
But I am also concerned by generations divided from each other. One of our great reforming Conservative Prime Ministers, Benjamin Disraeli, spoke of “two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.” The two planets might as well now be a tribe of older voters and a camp of young non-voters, neatly split today between those who wanted Out and those who saw their future In.
So I call on the next great reforming Conservative Prime Minister to heal this wound. The health of democracy depends on all being represented, and it must balance the needs of different generations. It must attract all generations, doing more now to extend a welcome to young voters than ever before.
My party has depended on older voters to date. In particular, a cohort of voters that first supported the Conservative Party in the 1970s has maintained that support ever since. It’s a myth that people get more Conservative as they get older; one large cohort has instead got older. Who has come after them? Too few: we have not won amongst first time voters in the last five general elections. And the first time voters of the 1990s are today’s 40 year olds.
It is the duty and the opportunity of our next leader to reach out to young voters now, and offer them a future.
Leadership is forged with fresh attitudes, and campaigning ability that goes out to listen and respond. It is also, of course, built on good policies and it’s notable that George Osborne conceded during the referendum that generous public spending on current pensioner benefits may not be tenable.
Today’s younger voters don’t want handouts, though: we are outward-looking, socially liberal, multicultural and confident. We prize social responsibility, but this doesn’t make us socialists. We are individualists and entrepreneurs. We don’t tolerate poverty but we like the welfare state considerably less than previous generations. We are a generation with Conservative values.
Who will bring Britain’s generations back together in the daunting world after this referendum? Who will uphold young people’s freedom and values, these solid values of enterprise, imagination and responsibility? As I wrote last year, it won’t be Jeremy Corbyn. It must be the next Conservative leader, reuniting the nation.
If we ensure that our big, traditional, established party is the party of working young people as well as their parents and grandparents, we can keep British democracy on the road. If we don’t, it’s our shared British values which suffer: responsibility, self-determination, choice, equality, modernity, enterprise, lower taxes and flourishing jobs, our place in the world. For Britain’s sake, let the Conservative Party now bring generations together with these values.