Many people will remember the Monty Python sketch in which Judean activists demand angrily: ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ The joke, of course, is that they quickly remember a long list of things that the Romans have provided: better sanitation, medicine, education, irrigation, public health, roads, baths and public order. And the aqueduct.
I was reminded of this last week at a fascinating meeting organised by Positive Ageing in London about the impact of Brexit on older people. It was intended to identify the issues that Brexit might raise for older people and particularly those benefits that older people were at risk of losing when the UK leaves. Where, it asked, are the ‘red lines’ for older people in our negotiations around Brexit? What can’t we afford to lose?
Earnest people, myself included, presented on these potential challenges, from the risk to the EU migrant social care workforce (my particular bag: you can see the presentation here), equalities legislation, environmental protection, anti-discrimination laws, accessibility standards and so on.
Yet the older people I heard were unimpressed by these challenges and didn’t see them as ‘red lines’. Those in a group I chaired (admittedly, only a handful and this was, of course, only a small group of older people) said time after time that yes they wanted – for example - clean air but they didn’t see why that should be harder to achieve outside the EU than inside it. Nor were they convinced the EU had been responsible for it in the first place.
Essentially they were answering the question ‘what has Brussels ever done for us?’ by saying ‘Not that much. And what it has done, we can do ourselves, thank you very much.’ Their concerns were more familiar and they didn’t see them as related to the EU: health and care funding, isolation, ageist attitudes towards older people, the right to die.
This was a very interesting counter to the suggestion that older people voted to leave the EU because they are angry about sovereignty or immigration. My group weren’t angry, they were disinterested. They couldn’t see the point of the EU and didn’t think we’d miss it very much.
That’s worth bearing in mind when reading some of the more emotional reactions to the Brexit vote and the idea, expressed recently by a student in the Independent, that older people ‘betrayed’ the young over Brexit. No they didn’t. They just didn’t agree with them. The distinction is a vital one and if we are to ensure good inter-generational relations in the UK we need to respect it.