Constitutional reform has long been a rallying cry for young liberals. The rules which govern the people who make the rules often leave youth feeling underrepresented and frustrated, but they don’t get enough attention compared to more acute policy issues like housing or health. As the Government intends to launch a phase of British renewal in parallel with Brexit, I want to take a look at the state of the British constitution, and what the UK’s independent future might hold for reform.
Votes at 16 has been an ambition of reformers for decades. The 2014 Scottish Indyref was the first national poll to hand 16 and 17 year olds the vote, which was now seen as a resounding success; lively debate led to a whopping 75% turnout. Scots led from the front at the 2015 General Election as well, returning 6 MPs under the age of 30. Unfortunately, this progress didn’t spill over to the other nations and regions. In the EU Referendum, 18-24 turnout was 64%, some 8% behind the national average and a country mile behind the 90% of over 65s who voted. This lag, alongside the resoundingly pro-EU message espoused by young voters, are unlikely to convince the hard-Brexit Government that 16 and 17 year olds should be handed a say in the nation’s future. Labour have previously endorsed lowering the voting age, however Jeremy Corbyn faces a mountain to climb if he is to win a majority in 2020. The outlook for votes at 16 is, in a word, bleak.
Equally unlikely now I think is electoral reform which introduces a proportional voting system. The current first past the post system ensures that only the Conservatives or Labour can achieve their own majority, suggesting it’s unlikely either would reform it. Smaller parties including UKIP have double-figured support across the country, but can’t win much more than a couple of seats and a spot on the panel of BBC Question Time. Ironically UKIP has secured withdrawal from the EU Parliament, where the proportional voting system won them the most seats in the 2014 elections. Labour and Conservative support for a country-wide proportional system is now reserved to committed backbenchers like Jonathan Reynolds and Ben Howlett. One of first past the post’s attractions – that it creates stable governments – will be important now more than ever as the UK exits the EU. So don’t hold your breath for anything to change.
Somewhat more positive is the chance of much-needed reform to the House of Lords. As the Article 50 Bill works its way to the Lords, the Government may face stiff opposition from Labour and Conservative Peers who reject hard-Brexit but aren’t beholden to leave-voting constituencies. Fireworks may well ensue. Asserting the Commons’ primacy over the Lords is not a new phenomenon – the Strathclyde review of 2015 further the curtailed the Lords’ powers over financial and secondary legislation. It is not in a Conservative Government’s nature to radically overhaul a legislative chamber. But if the Lords obstruct Brexit, then elements of the Conservative Party may perform a damascene conversion from staunch traditionalists to zealous reformers, in order to deliver the hard-Brexit they desire. After all, the people have spoken, and who are the Lords to reject this?
By far the biggest constitutional implication of Brexit is the question of governance over Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England. The UK, a country of countries, has further fragmented along national lines. Scotland voted firmly to remain and the SNP views any attempt to drag it out of EU structures as a green light to its independence movement. Wales voted leave. Northern Ireland voted to remain by 8%, although both sides acknowledge the peace process as the key factor in the upcoming Assembly elections. Stormont must negotiate its position in relation to the UK, the Republic of Ireland and the EU very carefully. England as a whole voted resoundingly to leave, providing the motor for the Government’s hard-Brexit agenda. The net result of these national fractures have led some to dub the UK a “zombie-state”, stumbling forward unaware of it’s slow death. These fractures seem frankly irreconcilable. If the union is to endure then a fully-fledged federal UK may well be necessary, with the nations and regions free to cultivate their own distinct relationships with the EU.
Constitutional reform is difficult. But, to paraphrase Nicola Sturgeon, so is absolutely everything else about leaving the EU. Brexit could kick start an innovative phase of constitutional rejuvenation, addressing the problems which caused discontent towards the EU in the first place. Solutions aren’t limited to the electoral reform or federalisation which this article discusses, although the Government does not seem to be considering the urgency of reform. As the UK separates itself from European institutions existing British institutions must be updated, to make sure they’re fit for a 21st Century, global Britain.