Young people and Brexit: will Brexit spark young people’s interest in devolved Welsh politics?

Cardiff National Assembly Building

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Brexit in Scotland and Wales

A majority 64% of young people voted in the UK referendum on EU membership last June, but 70% of them were disappointed. Media coverage brought this disappointment home with wide coverage of the generational divide, depicting a young generation forced to live with the consequences of a decision made by their elders. Previous blogs on this site have highlighted young people’s favourable views of the EU and their continuing wish to hold another referendum, indicating an ongoing dissatisfaction with Brexit. In a devolved Scotland, where a majority of the population voted to remain and the First Minister has made clear her intentions to represent that population in Brexit negotiations, aided by the bargaining chip of a potential Independence referendum –  ‘stopping’ Brexit in Scotland is a genuine possibility. So, for young people living in Scotland who voted to remain, devolution is, in Hopkin’s words ‘a politics of hope’. In Wales, at present, it is not.

Despite being a population of three million governed by a state and cross-party campaign to remain in the EU, and in receipt of a considerable sum of EU funding, Wales voted to leave. Coupled with the weaker constitutional arrangement and the unlikely event of an independence referendum in the near future, this leaves Wales with a weaker bargaining chip to use in pursuing Welsh interests than Scotland. While Wales’ First Minister, Carwyn Jones, has laid out his plans to push Welsh interests in Brexit negotiations, to the point of media headlines accusing Wales of fighting the referendum result, it is possible to argue that young people in Wales are unlikely to experience Brexit very differently to young people in England. However, this does not mean their views on Brexit and their perceptions of their own influence over Brexit will not be different to those of young people in other countries and regions of the UK. It is possible that while devolution in Wales may not affect the route to Brexit, Brexit may affect perceptions of devolution in Wales.

The convergence between the views of young people and those of Welsh ministers on Brexit is one factor that may affect young people’s attitudes towards devolution. In addition, the Welsh Assembly’s emphasis on the participatory rights of children and young people at a time when young people are feeling disappointed by Brexit may also promote more positive attitudes towards devolution. Since its establishment, the devolved administration in Wales has prioritised the rights of children and young people in a number of ways, such as through the appointment of the UK’s first Children’s Commissioner and the introduction of the Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure (2011), which places a duty on ministers to give due regard to children’s rights under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). The Welsh Government is also looking at options for gathering the views of children and young people on Brexit and considering how these can feed into discussions on how leaving the EU will affect Wales.  Most significantly perhaps, the Welsh Government has released a White Paper which proposes allowing 16-year-olds to vote in local elections. Previous WISERD Education research found that 61% of the secondary school students surveyed through the project (in years 8 and 11) believe the voting age should be lowered to 16. If votes at 16 are introduced, this may give an important signal about Wales’s commitment to providing young people with a means to participate in democracy. This in turn may result in greater awareness of and engagement with devolved governance in Wales.

Young people and Welsh devolution before Brexit

Before Brexit, interest in Welsh politics was relatively low amongst the general population in Wales, as shown by the low turnout for devolved elections (45.3% in 2016) and low diffuse support for devolution. For young people, turnout is the lowest of all age groups (around 40-41% in 2016) and interest is low. The table below shows levels of political interest in Wales among under 18s before Brexit to set a baseline for our post-Brexit research. The following data were collected in early 2016 before the UK referendum on EU membership, as part of WISERD Education. They show levels of political interest by geographical scale among 14- to 17-year-olds, which allows us to establish young people’s interest in issues affecting Wales before June 2016.

Table 1: ‘Interested’ or ‘very interested’ in politics by geographical scale (%)[1]

Age Local politics Welsh politics UK politics World politics
14-15 10.1 11.1 19.4 21.8
15-16 14.2 18.7 31.8 31.5
16-17 18.2 27.3 45.5 42.4
N=707
         

The table shows the youngest age group’s interest is in world politics, followed by UK politics. Welsh politics is of little interest to this group, with only 11.1% showing any interest. The picture changes slightly as we move up the age groups to 15- and 16-year-olds. This group is most interested in UK politics, followed by world politics, then Welsh politics with 18.7%. Finally, we see the 16- and 17-year-old group ranking UK politics highest, followed by world politics, then Welsh politics. In short, while we see changes in scales and in general levels of interest, Welsh politics comes third in terms of interest amongst all the under 18s.

WISERD Education data has also identified links between young people’s ‘political issues of concern’ and awareness of devolution in Wales, providing a partial explanation for the low interest. Young people in the study, aged between 14 and 17, were predominantly concerned with political issues either at micro-geographical scale (day-to-day issues that affect them directly), or at macro-geographical scale (issues identified through the mainstream media, such as global warming and terrorism). Few were concerned with issues specifically at Welsh level. However, when it came to responsibility for governing over these issues of concern, focus groups of young people identified the UK government as the institution with most responsibility and accountability for their concerns, while the Welsh Government’s responsibility was more commonly limited to Welsh language and culture.

Can the Welsh Government use Brexit as a flint to spark interest in devolution?

There is clearly work to do to raise interest in devolved politics in Wales among the next generation of voters. Academics and political commentators have suggested routes to increasing awareness of devolution in Wales which include investment in a Welsh media to address a current deficit and improving Welsh citizenship education. However, with Brexit dominating UK politics, and the headlines so far highlighting a Brexit resistance (or ‘Bresistance’) from Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru, future Young People and Brexit research will be asking questions of young people in Wales about where they see their reaction to Brexit leading them, both in terms of political engagement more generally and in terms of their attitudes to devolution.

WISERD Education is a multi-cohort longitudinal study at WISERD (Wales Institute of Social & Economic Research, Data & Methods), a research institute at Cardiff University. Please contact Rhian Barrance (barrancer@cardiff.ac.uk) for more information.

WISERD Civil Society a national research centre undertaking a five year research programme addressing Civil Society in Wales, the UK and Internationally. Young People and Brexit is part of WISERD Civil Society and looks at youth participation and engagement in politics post-Brexit through survey and visual data collection methods. For more information on Young People and Brexit contact Sioned Pearce (pearces11@cardiff.ac.uk) or Stuart Fox (foxs8@cardiff.ac.uk).

[1] WISERD Education collects data from selected participating schools in Wales.

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