Young Britons’ Liberalism Echoes Across Atlantic

It’s not just young Britons who don’t share their elders’ trust in big government anymore.

Young Londoners share a drink in the Old Truman Brewery in Tower Hamlets, England, October 11, 2006
Young Londoners share a drink in the Old Truman Brewery in Tower Hamlets, England, October 11, 2006 (Art Comments)

Young Britons are far more likely than their elders to be economically and socially liberal. But they are not alone. Young Americans, too, are skeptical of big government.

The Economist points out this week that Britons in their twenties and thirteen “are relaxed, almost to the point of ennui, about other people’s sexual preferences, drug habits and skin color.” And while, like older Britons, they not care much for high immigration, they are also “tired of politicians banging on about it.”

Their social liberalism corresponds with an economic liberalism. Almost 70 percent of those who were born before the Second World War considers Britain’s welfare state to be one of its proudest achievements. Of those born after 1979, the year Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher came to power and successfully challenged the collectivist consensus in British politics, less than one in three agree.

The Economist attributes young Britons’ liberalism to them having grown up in a racially mixed society with access to a variety of points of view online. Moreover, “society has become less generous to them.” Student grants have been replaced with fees while unemployment benefits are lower than they were a generation ago.

The old, by contrast, have been granted more generous pensions and will shortly be protected against having to sell their houses to pay for residential care. Small wonder they treasure the welfare state.

The magazine errs when it argues that young Britons are exceptional. It points out that young Americans are similarly liberal about gay rights yet “more inclined than their elders to think that the government ought to do more.”

Which is true when they are asked in general but on specific policies, young Americans aren’t so different from their counterparts overseas.

Support for legalizing marijuana in the United States is nearly twice as high among those under thirty than among seniors. In a survey conducted for Young America’s Foundation that was published earlier this month, more than 60 percent of college age respondents said the government should not be more involved in their private lives. Half said the government was hurting the economy while only 26 percent believed it helped. 58 percent favored lower taxes. 76 percent wanted government to spend less.

Like their peers in the United Kingdom, young Americans do not have a political party that corresponds with their mixed views. President Barack Obama’s Democrats are socially liberal, most of them favoring the legalization of gay marriage although not drug decriminalization, but also seek more state control in finance and health care. Republicans, by contrast, influenced by a Tea Party movement that deeply mistrusts government, have hardly ever been more economically liberal — even when they don’t propose to dismantle the welfare state entirely — but have also become gradually more socially conservative since the 1980s.

Similarly, in Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives, spooked by the rise of the more right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party, were divided over legalizing gay marriage and seem to be preparing to fight the next election on a Euroskeptic and anti-immigration platform. “Labour has social liberalism to spare,” writes The Economist. “But it has opposed welfare cuts and rediscovered its historical enthusiasm for economic meddling, which it calls ‘predistribution’.”

Little wonder that in both countries, especially voters in their twenties are increasingly disinterested in politics altogether.

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