When defining a ‘war generation’ that experienced the majority of their formative period during the Second World War, as well as a number of other more recent generations, this war generation is revealed as displaying significantly more positive views towards European integration than the immediate post-war generations. In fact, the size of this generational effect between the war and post-war generations is approximately equivalent to the same change in attitude that would be expected from a two-year reduction in education levels, a factor well known to increase Euroscepticism... the war generation have more positive attitudes towards the EU than the immediately following generations. Indeed, only the most recent generation, the millennial generation, display more positive attitudes towards the EU than the war generation.
One explanation for these results is that the war generation give a premium to the pacific benefits of European institutions. Having experienced first-hand the horrors of war, they place a high value on the founding principles of unity that the EU promotes. The most recent generations also view integration more positively, given that these individuals have grown up with the UK’s membership of the EU as the norm. The concept of not being a part of Europe – with its visible signifiers of flags, anthems and institutions – is likely to be discordant to those from the millennial generation. Conversely, the post-war and 60/70s generations in the UK have neither the memories of wartime nor the routinised experiences of EU membership during their formative years. They therefore display the most hostile attitudes towards integration.
However, this analysis also reveals additional elements that are driving the cohort effects between the war and the following generations. Indeed, the post-war generation are in fact more likely to associate the EU with bringing peace than their younger counterparts, and yet they display more negative overall attitudes towards integration.
Explanations for these results can be found in British history; the post-war and 60s/70s generations were the first to confront the fall of empire during their formative years, as well as the first mass immigration from the Commonwealth. This fuelled insecurities over British identity, coming to the fore in such instances as Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood Speech” and the Immigration Acts of the 1960s. These results therefore support the notion that it is during times when identities are threatened that they become mobilised as points of political salience, and that these heightened political environments can shape individuals’ opinions long into the future.