I’d be lying (and that’s something Vice-Chancellors should never be caught doing) if I said that I played any part at all in the 1975 referendum on Britain’s membership of the Common Market. I was sixteen, I had plenty of other things on my mind. There was the first Cricket World Cup to occupy me, and, when I got bored with that, my O-levels to revise for. The referendum was something in the distant background. I have a vague recollection of being out one Saturday morning in a (then new) shopping arcade, and having leaflets thrust into my hand by earnest-looking adults. The news archive photographs which are unearthed from time to time show a different world – there is a striking one of Margaret Thatcher wearing a jumper knitted with Common Market flags all over it which must have embarrassed everyone at the time, let alone later. Even so, it is much livelier than the grainy black and white photographs of dull middle aged men sitting in front of badly-produced posters. But I didn’t think much about the referendum – Europe was, to paraphrase a much earlier Prime Minister, a faraway place of which I knew little. I’d never been ‘to Europe’ (although, of course, growing up in the English Midlands it turns out that I had, in fact, spent my entire life in Europe). I thought of it as distant and a bit glamorous and I hoped, rather than expected, that one day I might get to go there so I wanted the ‘yes’ side to win the referendum – which even as a pre-occupied sixteen year old I realised was a wily Prime Minister’s solution to an intractable problem of party management.
Rolling forward forty-one years and there is a sense of déjà vu: a wily Prime Minister has a problem of party management and once again we are debating our future in Europe. And now I am one of those adults who thinks more about it than most young people. One striking thing about the 2016 referendum debate is that so far it has by and large been an argument amongst middle aged and elderly people. And that’s wrong. The decision we make on June 23rd will shape everyone’s lives in one way or another, but it will shape the lives of young people far more decisively than the lives of (and imagine the pain I feel in writing the next few words) old men like me.
All the evidence we have is that older people are more likely to vote than younger people. And that also has to be wrong. The referendum vote on June 23rd will – it has to – be a moment of national decision making. It’s more important than a general election: we get the opportunity to vote on our government every five years, but this is a decision which will shape decades. And it will be decisive. Even if the result is, as it looks like being, very close, it is one of those fork-in-the-road decisions. A vote of 50.1% to leave will produce a very different trajectory from a vote of 50.1% to stay.
And so this blog is really addressed to the students of Sheffield Hallam University, and to students wherever they may be. It’s really important that you vote. This is about your future – about the sort of country and world you are going to live in. Back in 1975, I thought that the Cricket World Cup and my O-levels were more important. I was wrong – no-one ever really showed much interest in either after they had happened. But the referendum result did matter: in big and small ways, it shaped my life. I did get to travel around Europe, routinely, taking it for granted, and my life and perspective were changed as a consequence. So in 2016, however obscure and remote the arguments seem, vote. The registration deadline for voting is 7 June. If you do nothing else today, make sure you are registered to vote.