First-time young voters in Scotland’s independence referendum will repay First Minister Alex Salmond by voting to keep the Union
When the ink dried on the Edinburgh Agreement, both sides of the debate on Scottish independence were able to claim some element of victory. The Prime Minister was able to return to the pro-Union movement, having won the promise that a single, decisive question would be asked in 2014, while Alex Salmond could tell the independence campaign that the voting age would be reduced to 16 for the referendum.
Both of these are positive outcomes. Asking one, clear question will ensure an unambiguous, clear result, and will also serve to keep the preceding debate clear and absent from issues of further devolution, a subject which is arguably a debate for a later date. The addition of those between 16 and 18 to the electorate is a progressive move, and is, in the opinion of this commentator, very much ahead of the curve of history; in typically Scottish style. After much reflection it does seem odd to bar those who can work and pay taxes from taking part in the biggest decision Scotland will make in their lifetimes. Both the UK Government and the Nationalists ought to be proud of how successful the Edinburgh negotiations were.
However, findings published recently by the distinguished academics at the University of Edinburgh are surely cause for concern in nationalist circles. It has emerged that more than 60% of those who are or will be aged 16 or 17 are in favour of Scotland remaining as part of the United Kingdom, while less than a third are in favour of full separation. Suddenly, it seems that the UK Government got the better deal from the Edinburgh Agreement negotiations. One wonders if there was any legal advice received beforehand.
It would be easy to discount the importance of these findings and undoubtedly there will be those in Scottish politics who will try. Attempting to discredit the work itself is an exercise in futility; the academics who carried out this research are at the top of their field, as is their institution. A more genuine line of enquiry would be to ponder just how important the 16 and 17 year old demographic is in terms of the result of the referendum.
While it may be true that the younger age group tends to have a lower level of turnout at elections, it would be wrong to suggest that this is indicative of what will happen in the referendum. This age group have access to more levels of information technology, and are far more engaged than their predecessors have ever been. Particularly in a referendum which will be fought in a large part using digital and social media, the younger demographics are not only the most involved and the most passionate, but are in many cases the most persuasive in their ability to represent their side of the debate.
While older political campaigners may swear by door-to-door canvassing and other traditional means of disseminating their argument, this younger group’s skill with social media means that they very much punch above their weight in terms of influence, and those in favour of the UK remaining together ought to be thankful that this group, in the majority, stands with them.
Among the usual academic and partisan head-scratching, the question must be asked: why are young people in Scotland so in favour of keeping with the UK? One thought is that it represents the expression of the rebellious spirit inherent in that age group. As peculiar as this may sound, it becomes somewhat more clear when one considers that, for the majority of these voters’ politically-aware lives, the SNP has been in government, Alex Salmond has been First Minister, and a desire for independence has been the reigning political orthodoxy. So it’s perhaps hardly surprising that a majority of this age group takes the contrary position it does.
Additionally, this generation is living in the smallest world ever and has grown up in the absence, in practical terms, of imposing national borders. Many of them have friends across the world and across the UK. It is entirely possible that arguments based on ideas of nationhood alone are no longer appealing to an age group who could quite easily envision themselves living and working in Geneva more than Glasgow. Perhaps it is the ideas of strength, unity and global clout which are at the core of Unionist beliefs which have won over the younger generation? They seem to want a message which shows a positive, global and interconnected outlook rather than one simply of bashing Westminster.
The emergence of these findings puts the deal reached in Edinburgh in a very different light. It seems that the Prime Minister and the UK Government have been rather shrewd in their concession, as it seems, for the Nationalists, to have backfired. Perhaps that is merely deserving, for a campaign which has been presumptuous in assuming the support of Scotland’s youth: or perhaps it is a result of them sticking too rigidly to a principle and falling gallantly on their own sword.
One thing’s for sure, though: if the deal struck in Edinburgh is to mean anything to them, Yes Scotland must do better.
Alan Grant is a blogger, journalist and radio broadcaster, who specialises in writing on Scottish politics and economics. He tweets as @alangrantuk