Monday’s headlines made much of the fact that, according to an Edinburgh University study, 60 per cent of Scottish 14- 17-year-olds will vote No in next year’s independence referendum. In fact, a mere 21 per cent were in favour, with a significant 19 per cent still trying to make up their minds.
These findings mirror the negative outcomes of several mock independence referendums held in Scottish universities. A vote in Glasgow University – the intellectual home of the modern Scottish nationalist movement – saw 62 per cent vote No and 38 per cent say Yes. True, only 2,589 out of 23,000 GU students took part in the poll, but that’s still statistically significant.
The curious thing is that, traditionally, Scottish nationalism has appealed to the young above everyone else. Besides, how on earth can you have a revolution – and, surely, wanting to break up the old, moribund UK state constitutes a revolution – if the nation’s youth can’t be bothered to join in, or actually side with the status quo?
The response of the SNP was hardly calculated to inspire teenage rebellion. A spokesperson countered: “In the coming months, the Scottish Government will continue to publish a series of papers covering the main arguments for independence, leading to a white paper in the autumn…” Yawn.
Mind you, the other side sounded even more old-fogeyish. Michaella Drummond (age 17!) was widely quoted as saying: “What the SNP is proposing seems out of touch with modern society.” Has no one told Ms Drummond that 29 new nations have come into being since she was born, including no fewer than seven members of the EU?
For the record, I think the Edinburgh University study has got it right. Battered by mass unemployment and a lack of social mobility, today’s youth – north and south of the Border – are far more conservative than their forebears. The latest British Social Attitudes Survey found that 48 per cent of British 18- 24-year-olds disagree that most unemployed people on benefits are “for the most part unlucky rather than lazy”. That is twice as many as in the over-65s group, where only 25 per cent disagreed.
Traditionally, the SNP has drawn its strongest electoral support from the young upwardly mobile. In particular, folk of the post-war baby boomer generation who were leaving manual working class family backgrounds for the professional middle class. Scottish Labour, on the other hand, clung on to its traditional allegiances in the poorer parts of Glasgow and the Central Belt, where deprivation and despair ruled. Scottish Labour’s message remains as always: “Things can’t get better, so keep the UK for protection.” It’s a seductive message, but profoundly conservative. I understand our young people listening to its siren call.
Yet the youth in other countries – Spain, for instance – are rioting. Why are Scotland’s teenagers so politically docile? One answer could lie in the declining weight of young folk in the population, which has a marginalising effect socially and culturally. In the 1980s, there were 1.3million young Scots aged between 11 and 25. In fact, they were the largest, single demographic. Today, the population of Scotland looks distinctly grey. By 2030, over-65s will be the dominant population group in Scotland. Who wants to be a young citizen of a country run by geriatrics?
It is because Scotland’s youth are so put upon that I predict an eventual reaction in a nationalist and left-wing direction – there’s nowhere else to go, especially with Labour turning more right wing by the day. The real question is: who will lead it?
In the 1960s, when young people flocked to the SNP, they saw Scottish nationalism as part of a widespread youth revolt that encompassed the folk music revival and getting Polaris missiles out of the Clyde. Today, the average age of SNP members is, like me, 63. Though he will never use the word, Alex Salmond is proposing a confederal Britain with a common monarchy, currency and security policy. How many unemployed young Scots are going to get out of their beds to campaign for that?
Certainly, the SNP could and should boost its youth and student wings, giving them more autonomy and financial support. It also needs urgently to project some young political leaders (ie under 25). But I already detect a stirring in the political heather. Last year’s 800-strong Radical Independence Conference (RIC) in Glasgow saw a coming together of socialists, trade unionists and greens to found a new, pro-independence movement to the left of the SNP. Above all, they were young. And their idea of campaigning is refreshing: it was activists of the RIC who harangued Nigel Farage in Edinburgh.
To date, the Yes campaign has been on the defensive, arguing the obscure nitty-gritty of how a common currency might work. Instead, it needs to be pro-active and attack the austerity policies pursued by the Westminster parties (not forgetting Alistair Darling when he was chancellor). It needs to put youth unemployment at the heart of the independence campaign. Why is youth unemployment in small, efficient economies such as Norway and Switzerland half what it is in the UK? Answer: they control their own economic policies.
There is still everything to play for in the youth vote. My bet is that the age gap in voting intentions will narrow the closer we get to the referendum. One reason is that the SNP is much more attuned to using youth-friendly social messaging than are the traditional Westminster parties. The SNP Facebook page has 26,519 likes. That compares with a paltry 1,980 likes on the Scottish Labour Facebook page. Even Labour Voters for Scottish Independence has more than that (2,871).
The movement to build a new, dynamic, fairer country called Scotland is the natural home of young Scots. In fact, they are the only ones who can ensure its creation. But the SNP will have to work harder to ensure our teenagers are given the inspiration to get involved.