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What Do Young People In The U.K. Think Of Brexit?

Many young people have been politically energized by Brexit, even if they didn’t get to cast ballots in 2016 when the U.K. voted narrowly to leave the European Union.

On the busy King’s College campus in London, three students engage in a robust and hopeful conversation about the future of the country as they wait for history to unfold.

Some students were too young to vote in the 2016 referendum — like 20-year-old Atyab Rashid, vice president of the KCL Liberal Democrat Society, and 21-year-old Melissa Gurusinghe, president of the KCL Conservative Association.

President of the KCL College Politics Society Katharina Fletcher, 23, had lived abroad for too long and wasn’t eligible to vote.

But if they had been able to vote three years ago, all say they would have voted to remain.

Today, Rashid and Fletcher say they still believe the U.K. should stay in the EU but Gurusinghe says she now believes Parliament should deliver on Brexit. She doesn’t think there should be a second referendum.

“I feel like a confirmatory referendum wouldn’t be particularly democratic,” Gurusinghe says. “We as a country and the people of this country have a right to carry out what was voted for by the majority of people in this country in 2016.”

Fletcher would like to see a second referendum with more options than remain or leave. She wants voters to have more detailed choices on the U.K.’s future relationship with the EU under a leave result.

“Yes, the majority of people voted to leave but it was by such a slim margin that almost half the population voted to stay,” she says, “and a confirmatory referendum would then put a lot of the division and polarization to rest.”

Rashid also supports a second referendum.

“I don’t really think saying that because we voted one way in 2016, it’s illegitimate for people to vote another way in 2019 or 2020,” he says. “I’m not really sure I see the logic behind that.”

Gurusinghe responded to that argument by saying, “the logic is regardless of whether it was a slim majority, it was still a slim majority and that’s how democracy works.”

This back and forth speaks to the feeling that these three young students expressed — that Brexit is a huge development that could affect the rest of their lives if it happens.

Fletcher says the 2016 referendum was not like a general election with short-term results.

“This is meant to be something permanent and as something permanent, I think it needs to be done more delicately,” she says.

There hasn’t been anything delicate about the debate over Brexit in Parliament. The ruling Conservative Party doesn’t really have a majority and the opposition Labour Party really doesn’t have a unified position on Brexit.

Rashid supports a smaller opposition party called the Liberal Democrats and says they would try to revoke Article 50, which triggered the Brexit process if they had the power.

Gurusinghe dismissed the handwringing over the Brexit process being a mess. She says everyone knew the process of exiting the EU in Parliament would be very difficult.

“I think the only way forward now is a general election,” she says, which she hopes the Conservative Party would win and then impose a “soft” Brexit.

All three of these students are concerned about the impact Brexit could have on their lives — if it happens.

Rashid says Brexit would create unnecessary barriers to work and travel, plus a “negative economic impact.”

“We won’t be able to spend as much on our NHS [National Health Service] on our public services as we’d like to and I think that’s a matter of shame,” he says.

Fletcher agreed, saying the referendum would affect her passport.

“It’s not just something that stays within the national borders,” she says. “Now I belong to a country that I didn’t have a say in and has decided to become more of a closed nation rather than an open nation and it’s not something that I ideologically stand for.”

Brexit has frustrated Britain and Parliament has taken most of the heat, but these three young people have not given up on the political process.

“People have views and people disagree,” Rashid says. “While it might not be this glorious revolutionary future where everything right will get implemented, it’s a slow march of progress.”

There’s “no alternative” for not being fully invested in politics, Fletcher says, because it has a direct impact on her generation’s future.

“If you’re not interested in politics that’s akin to saying I don’t really care what happens to me,” she says. “That would be a miserable existence to just go through life so passively as to not care when decisions are made that affect you so fundamentally.”

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From left to right: Melissa Gurusignhe, Atyab Rashid and Katharina Fletcher. (Jeremy Hobson/Here & Now)
From left to right: Melissa Gurusignhe, Atyab Rashid and Katharina Fletcher. (Jeremy Hobson/Here & Now)