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As a young lawyer, Christopher Chope campaigned for Britain to stay in Europe in the 1975 referendum battle, rallying voters with the slogan: “For your children and your grandchildren!”
But as Britain prepares for another national vote on what later became the EU, he has changed sides.
Mr Chope, 69, is now a long-serving Conservative member of parliament — and a father — and he wants to leave the EU. His change of heart is very much in keeping with the views of his constituents in Christchurch, a southwestern town in Dorset that boasts the UK’s oldest residents. It also matches the sentiments of greying voters throughout Britain, who could yet decide the fate of the country’s ties with Brussels.
“There is something to be said for experience in these matters,” said Mr Chope.
There is plenty of experience in Christchurch, where 50 is the new 30 and 70-year-olds refer to “the older generations”. It is rich pickings for the Leave campaign, which is betting it will take as much as 80 per cent of the town’s vote on June 23.
That goal may not be so unreasonable. In an informal poll of the high street this week, 15 older-looking voters said that they were determined to leave the EU while just five wished to stay. Eight others were undecided.
Such attitudes mirror national trends. Across the UK, polls have identified the over-60s as among the EU’s most determined foes. Their support is all the more valuable as older citizens are far more likely to turn out than younger ones.
At first glance, the legions of greying Brexit supporters seem to confound expectations: older voters are generally thought to be more conservative and risk averse. Yet many are opting for the uncertain leap of British withdrawal from the union over the continuation of a stable, if uninspired, marriage.
Mr Chope has one explanation. Older voters remember life before the EU, he argues, while younger generations have developed a Brussels version of Stockholm syndrome. “If you have served a long prison sentence, when someone opens the door and says you’re free to go . . . people are conditioned to be nervous about doing something different,” he said.
Many voters in Christchurch also complain that they were misled in 1975 when they voted to stay in the Common Market, believing it to be only an economic project, not an ever-closer political union.
“We were sold on the idea that it was a trading arrangement,” said Robin Grey, the 66-year-old local head of the anti-EU UK Independence party. Raised on stories of sacrifice during the second world war, Mr Grey cannot understand how Britons could defend their sovereignty against German bombers only to cede it later to diplomats in Brussels.
Around town, older people voice the common Eurosceptic complaints — about EU bureaucracy, financial waste and uncontrolled immigration. These may be exacerbated in a town facing the closure of some bus routes and the merger of two nearby hospitals.
But they also suggest motivations that may be unique to older voters. One is that the resilience and perspective developed over the course of a life makes the risks of Brexit appear more, not less, tolerable.
“I have always found that when there have been calamities in life and you’ve been forced to change, it has always worked out better,” said John Glazer, 69, the owner of a care home. “There could be problems — but we’ll get over them.”
Many similarly seasoned voters also bristle at the tactics employed by David Cameron, prime minister, and his allies, who have issued incessant warnings about the supposedly dire economic and security consequences of leaving the EU. Just last week, for instance, the Treasury claimed millions of pensions would be hit by a British exit.
“The campaign being run by Cameron and [chancellor George] Osborne is utterly disgraceful,” said Keith Thomas. Old age, he added, did not make voters more fearful. (Asked his own, Mr Thomas replied: “I’m 66, and now I’m going to the pub.”)
At the nearby Bournemouth University, Darren Lilleker, a political scientist, said that older voters tended to be deeply concerned about sweeping issues of sovereignty and democracy — even though many would never see the long-term consequences of an EU exit.
By contrast, his students, who were more pro-EU, tended to take a narrow, utilitarian view of the referendum, dwelling on possible inconveniences such as mobile phone roaming charges.
“Older people feel there is this tide coming in from outside that’s changing the country — whether it be immigration or regulation,” Mr Lilleker said. Nostalgia played a big part in the debate, too. “They look at Britain and think: ‘it’s changed’, and they tie that to the EU.”
That would seem to describe Karen, a “nearly 70” retiree walking near Christchurch’s priory with a shopping bag of fennel she had picked from the road side.
Karen, who asked that her last name not be used, accepted that Britain’s withdrawal from the EU might result in a decade of upheaval. Still, she could not shake a sense that something had been lost through Britain’s four-decade experiment with the union. “I don’t think I want to be European,” she explains. “I want to be English.”
It was a realisation that had crept up on her later in life. “Only over the past 10 years have I begun to say, ‘Bloody EU!’” she said. “Maybe that’s because I turned 60?”
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