Lowering the voting age has made Scotland’s youth one of the fiercest battlegrounds for independence
FRESHERS’ week: two words which, to those who have experienced this rite of passage, will call to mind a particular mood; the shivery, in-betweeny, nervous excitement of a fresh start in a place where you are no longer defined by your personal history or family ties and where you can create for yourself a new identity – confident, free, open to the world.
It is, then, a good time to discuss those other two words – Scottish independence – and all the trembling feelings of possibility and risk, hope and dread contained within them. So, to Aberdeen University for the first week of term.
It is an unseasonably cold day on campus. Scarves, packed to placate anxious parents, have been plucked gladly from suitcases; the flashy library building gleams against a grey sky, and the joke that Scotland should stop worrying about the pound and use instead “the dreichma” gets a few grim snorts of recognition.
On the King’s Pavilion playing fields, a huge marquee has been set up to welcome newcomers and those returning to the university and city. It is refreshing to observe that the prospect of independence appears to be a subject of huge interest among the students. There is a buzz about it all. Having the referendum as your voting debut is a bit like your first football match being the Champions League final – it really matters, there’s a grandeur to the occasion, and everyone is looking forward to it enormously. “It’s going to be emotional,” one female fresher tells me. “I think I might cry in the booth.”
Youth is a key battleground in every political campaign, but especially so in this case, the franchise having been extended to 16 and 17-year-olds. A mock referendum staged at Aberdeen University in April saw No win 64% of the vote. However, a little more than half of the students to whom I speak on campus plan to vote Yes. What’s fascinating is that for these people, the decision is not always about the nitty-gritty of finance; rather, they see Scotland through the prism of their own circumstances – a fledgling on the cusp of flight.
“I just believe that it’s time for us to break free,” says Ruth Morrison, an 18-year-old originally from Harris who has moved to Aberdeen to train as a teacher. “You break free from your parents eventually, but you are still connected to them. This is the same. It’s about being grown up. We should be grown up as a country.”
Fine words, but are they just empty sentiment? When I spoke with elderly voters in Fife, many worried that young Yes supporters were going to bring Scotland to ruin. Teenagers, they felt, did not have enough experience of the hard truths of life to be able to make an informed decision. So, I ask the students, is your idealism insulating you against the chill winds of economic reality?
“I’m not idealistic at all,” replies Molly Davidson, a 19-year-old politics undergraduate. “I just don’t trust the UK government any more. A Yes vote is the only hope. Idealism has nothing to do with it. Things couldn’t get worse for us. It’s time to make a change.”
Like many at Aberdeen Uni, Davidson has a parent who works in the energy industry. These are, to a large extent, the children of oil, and their voting intentions are influenced by whether they believe the sector would flourish or decline under independence.
“Have you seen Aberdeen?” says Davidson. “This is meant to be the oil capital of Europe. It doesn’t look it. Union Street is a shambles. Aberdeen should look like Abu Dhabi, but it doesn’t. The UK government have taken our money and are bleeding us dry.”
Jonathan Goodyear, 19, believes Yes would be bad for the business. A fresher studying law, he has recently left the parental home, but says that almost all of the – mainly English – oil industry employees in the affluent west of the city where he lived are planning to vote No. He is, too: “My family will move, for job security, if Scotland gets independence.”
Ysabelle Mcguire and Steven Graham-Smith are a couple. They believe that they and the UK are better together. They’re both 20. She’s doing English Lit, he’s studying molecular microbiology. Mcguire is from Buckinghamshire, but feels British rather than English, having spent much of her childhood visiting family in North Lanarkshire. Graham-Smith is from Dumfries, but feels British rather than Scottish, being so close to the Border and making regular trips to Carlisle and Newcastle. They met during Freshers’ Week two years ago. You know those intense soul-mate romances you have at that age, when the other person seems a perfect jigsaw fit? They’re like that. It is tempting, therefore, and they are not immune to this temptation, to see their relationship as symbolic of that between Scotland and England, albeit one based on a shared love of tattoos and the Red Hot Chili Peppers rather than a 300 year history.
For both, the referendum is, in large part, about identity. It’s about memories and personal history and who you feel you are. “I’ve always classed myself as British and I want to protect that,” says Mcguire. “The UK represents all different parts of me, bits where I’ve grown up, things that I’ve seen.”
Graham-Smith would be heartbroken if Scotland votes for separation: “I’ll feel as if something I really care about has been taken away from me.” Such a vote could lead to difficult decisions for them both. They would like to build lives together in Scotland, but think they may have to head south to find work.
“It will somewhat feel like we are being forced into decisions and potentially out of the country that we both love,” says Mcguire.
Earlier, I visited Northfield Academy, a secondary school not far from the university, and spoke to senior pupils who, a year hence, are likely to be experiencing Freshers’ Week for themselves. Here, too, there is division. Becky Jamieson, Fraser Gow and Neale Taylor, all 17, are voting Yes – citing a desire for more power and better representation. Matthew Farquhar, 16, is for No. “I’m too afraid to take that leap,” he told me. “If it goes wrong, there’s no going back. Obviously there is a chance that we could go independent and it would be perfectly fine, better than now, but I’m just too afraid of the risk of poverty.”
What’s striking is how engaged the pupils are by the referendum. It has been a real political awakening. “They feel the weight of responsibility,” said Paul Rorie, head of the faculty of humanities. “They understand that they are voting on their futures, and if they screw that up then they can’t just blame the generation that came before.”
Total immersion in the internet gives teenage voters ample opportunity to make an informed decision and debate it with their peers. The referendum is thus the talk of the common room, the school bus, and on social media. And far from simply copying the voting intentions of their parents, the opposite seems sometimes to be true. “I’m more of an influence on my parents than they are on me,” Jamieson said. “I do the research, I watch the debates and then they ask me questions. So, now they are voting Yes.”
Back on campus, the Freshers’ Fayre is heating up. Literally. It’s roasting in that marquee. Thank goodness for the student volunteer handing out restorative cups of our other national drink. “Would you like to try some Irn-Bru, or some shortbread?” she offers in a heavy accent that mingles the Baltic and the Doric. This is Aiste Valiukaite, in her second year studying law. She will vote Yes in part because she grew up in a nation, Lithuania, which gained independence from the Soviet Union not long before her birth. Almost one third of Aberdeen University students are from outside the UK.
“I loved it here from the moment I got out at the train station,” says Valiukaite. “I asked people for directions and they were so kind. I phoned my father, and said, ‘Dad, I’ll be fine.’ I love Scottish culture. It has raised me. When I came here I was 18. Now I’m turning 21, and I’m a completely different person. I’m much friendlier and much happier than ever before.” She plans to stay, to work, to give something back, to be part of a New Scotland which she thinks, based on the character of its people, is certain to prosper.
How thrilling and moving it has been, this week, to see Scotland roar and echo with debate. Yes, there have been lost tempers. Yes, there has at times been more heat than light. But there has, too, been 7,500 teenagers talking politics in the SSE Hydro. There has, too, been the news that around 100,000 16 and 17-year-olds have registered to vote, to leave a mark on the country’s destiny. Regardless of your politics, that’s a victory in itself.
It’s their future, it’s ours, and it’s almost here.
John Curtice: Salmond’s ‘secret weapon’ has yet to live up to fears of those opposed to extending the ballot
THEY were meant to be Alex Salmond’s secret weapon. But in the event they may prove amongst the most typical if not necessarily the most engaged voters of all.
Many of the First Minister’s critics were convinced that the decision to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in the referendum was a cynical ploy to increase the number of young voters, a group that was expected to be more willing than their elders to embrace the prospect of independence.
That criticism largely ignored the fact that the SNP had a long-standing policy in favour of allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in elections, and one that the party had implemented previously in the limited circumstances in which it previously had the power to do so.
But in any event, the critics’ expectations look as though they will be confounded. As the campaign draws to a close it appears that Scotland’s young people are no more – and no less – likely to support independence than anyone else.
In the four polls published in the past week for which the information is available, on average 48 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds said they would vote Yes (leaving aside the Don’t Knows). That is exactly the same as the equivalent figure for all voters.
This age group seem less willing to back independence than those who are in their late twenties and early thirties, among whom average support for Yes stands at 55 per cent.
Perhaps for a generation brought up in an era when Scotland already had its own parliament, the case for independence has appeared a little less compelling.
Critics of giving 16 and 17-year-olds the vote also suggested that many would fail to vote. After all, many an 18 to 24-year-old typically fails to do so in UK and Scottish elections.
That seems unlikely to be the case this time. On average the most recent polls have reported that nearly four in five of 16 to 24-year-olds (79 per cent) say they are certain to vote.
However, this figure is still lower than that for Scots as a whole, no less than 87 per cent of whom reckon they are bound to make it to the polls.
It seems that some young people will still give the ballot a miss, even though they of all Scots actually have most at stake.
But at least they will have had the chance to have their say.
• John Curtice is Professor of Politics, Strathclyde University