Brexit: The Boomers' Final Betrayal

Exactly 75 years ago, George Orwell wrote his affectionate -- if brutally honest -- tribute to the specifically English national character, a character distinct from those of the Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish, but fundamental to the identity of the so-called United Kingdom. He pointed to how, in times of crisis, the English could not be relied upon to necessarily to do the right thing, but always the same thing. Regarding the election of 1931 that returned the Conservative Stanley Baldwin as prime minister, Orwell wrote, "We all did the wrong thing in perfect unison ... we were as single-minded as the Gadarene swine."

In last week's referendum on the British exit from the European Union, the English defied Orwell's analysis, narrowly voting 53.4 percent to 46.6 percent in favor of leaving. Had the result been sizable either way, Orwell's depiction would have held, and the English might have been happy doing the wrong thing together and -- as he equally faulted them for -- dealing with the consequences later.

Certainly, the political apocalypse in the aftermath has been boiled down to a stunning failure to anticipate the result. But, more than this, it is because opinion is not only divided, but divided in highly complex ways.

In the classic style of economic exploitation, the campaign to leave the EU was an effective way for an elite to fracture any solidarity among the working and middle classes, using immigration as their political fulcrum. This is traditional political hucksterism: blame the immigrants, because they are the closest and weakest target, and avoid addressing real economic issues. What nobody understood was quite how effective it could be when combined with the added brilliance of stoking inter-generational conflicts that pitted families and friendship groups against each other.

The majority -- almost two-thirds -- of older English baby-boomers voted to leave the EU, while the two-thirds or so of the younger generations who voted to remain have spent the week pointing their fingers in bitter recrimination. With some justification, the younger generations see the boomers as selling them down the river on yet another issue for which, in terms of life expectancy, they will never be held morally or materially culpable. The boomers, they argue, voted for the continued membership of the UK into the-then European Economic Community in the referendum of 1975, and lived high off the hog of it for more than four decades.

Perhaps more than the selfishness of putting their lifestyles in hock for future generations to pawn back -- economic austerity and environmental destruction are already done deals, after all -- the resentment stems from the perception that the boomers trashed the whole agreement out of exquisite spite.

Whether either generation is right in terms of political or economic policy implications is a moot point. In their defense, the baby-boomers have the hindsight of assessing the system they voted for 40 years ago and they had no more powers of clairvoyance then than the younger generation does now. Instead, the question turns, as so many do, on issues of changed and changing national identity, which is precisely why Orwell's analysis three-quarters of a century ago is relevant.

English baby-boomers have resolutely clung to a monocultural and often monolingual identity. Perhaps they were never quite prepared to relinquish this, even if a dream of a united Europe in 1973 -- faced with the fascists in Spain, the colonels in Greece and the communists in the Eastern Bloc - was the alternative to the nightmare of exclusionary nationalism that their parents had fought a vicious world war over. In contrast, many of the younger generation, shaped by school exchanges and cheap vacations to sunnier climes, define themselves in more inclusive and post-national terms. Even if they do not explicitly identify as European, they do not perceive their identities as solely English or nationalistic, but as multicultural citizens of a wider, and appealing, post-national area.

As such, there is a deeply felt rejection of the premise that all economic woes are caused by immigrants, since it is difficult to square the idea that the freedom to seek a better life elsewhere should be confined only to the already better off. This is acutely felt among a generation who are materially worse off than their parents. The perception that the burden has been shifted downwards is related to the moral sense that it is equally unfair to shift the blame sideways.

The younger generations are uniting in solidarity across national and cultural boundaries, and yet potentially becoming divided from their elders. The new fissures and seams are only emerging, but the referendum has redefined what it means to be English. Whatever it turns out to be, it will be scarcely recognizable to Orwell.