Peter Jones: Young are not ripe for revolution

Alex Salmond extended the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds in the expectation they would favour change. Picture: Neil Hanna
Alex Salmond extended the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds in the expectation they would favour change. Picture: Neil Hanna
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Despite a Scottish sense of identity being on a high, circumstances just do not favour independence, writes Peter Jones

Why is independence failing to attract young people? For Nationalists yearning for a Yes vote, probably the most troubling statistic thrown up by opinion surveys is that 16-24-year-olds intend to vote No by a three-to-one margin. Why? The answer, I suspect, is rooted in history and in the nature of contemporary society, both of which the SNP can do very little to alter.

An ICM poll for our sister paper Scotland on Sunday found that when the referendum question was put to 16-24-year-olds, 59 per cent said they would vote No and only 18 per cent would tick the Yes box. When the undecided 23 per cent are excluded, the margin of opposition to independence among young folk rises to four-to-one.

This is way above the 60:40 rejection of independence in the electorate as a whole. It is also a bias consistently found by other surveys. One, of 14-17-year-olds carried out earlier this year by researchers at the University of Edinburgh, found that 60 per cent of them would vote No and 21 per cent Yes, with 19 per cent undecided.

This is very strange. General political experience is that radical politics is intuitively appealing to young people and, right now, there is no more radical an ideology around than nationalism and independence. Who else is offering anything as exciting as a democratic revolution and a complete overthrow of the established British order?

But the young just don’t seem to be excited. I find it even stranger when I think back to the 1980s, when I was running opinion polling for this newspaper. A regular feature was that support for the SNP and independence was at its highest among 18-24-year-olds. The older a voter was, the less likely they were to back either.

At the time, this prompted a lot of optimism among the SNP. To put it crudely, unionists were dying off to be replaced by nationalists. This was also why many unionists fervently opposed devolution. They feared it would accelerate what looked like an inevitable trend that had only one destination – independence.

And yet, just at the point when those who backed this inevitable theory of Scottish political history can argue that they are being proven right, up comes this peculiar fact about young people – which says they could well be wrong.

Why might it be? The general theory of nationalism says that it flourishes under three conditions. First, that there is a shared sense of national identity that is being denied the right to express itself. Second, that there is an external threat to that identity. Third, that there is an opportunity to escape from the denial or the threat, or both.

Though all nationalisms around the world are different – because each national identity is by definition unique – some or all of these factors are present to a greater or lesser degree in all of them.

In Scotland in the 1970s and 80s, all three can be identified. Throughout that period, social scientists charted a rising sense of national identity – increasing numbers of people defined themselves as entirely or mainly Scottish and fewer as wholly or mostly British.

The threat to that identity came first through de-industrialisation that began in the 1970s with closure after closure of the traditional heavy industries, which were such a big symbol of Scottish prowess. And it came, secondly, through the arrival of Thatcherism, which appeared, to most Scots, to be continuing that industrial destruction and worsening it with public spending cuts, capping all that with the final indignity – the poll tax.

The opportunity to escape from it was provided, obviously, by the discovery of North Sea oil and the prospect that an independent Scotland, hitherto being impoverished by external political forces, could instead enrich itself. Thus there were pretty much ideal conditions for nationalism to flourish.

At this point, it is important to distinguish between two types of nationalist, defined by the late Professor Sir Neil MacCormick as existentialists and instrumentalists. The first believe that Scotland does not and cannot exist unless it is a sovereign country and achieving that status is all that matters.

They differ from instrumentalists – those who see independence as a means to particular ends, such as making everyone richer – because they reckon that it doesn’t matter too much if independence makes Scots a bit poorer; sovereignty is more important. Instrumentalists would not choose independence under those circumstances.

ICM polling detail in The Scotsman yesterday makes the point. If independence was to make those polled £500 worse off, only 18 per cent would vote for it. But if it was to make people £500 better off, then 47 per cent would support it. Other polling suggests it is reasonable to conclude that between 15 and 20 per cent of Scottish voters are existential nationalists, and between 20 and 30 per cent are, or potentially are, instrumentalists.

The interesting feature of the age breakdown of current independence backers revealed in the same poll is that it starts low among 16-24-year-olds, rises to a peak among 45-64-year-olds, and then falls among those aged 65 and over.

The 1970s and 80s were a period of rising national identity, an external threat and an internal opportunity – precisely the circumstances that would encourage existential nationalism and also the period in which current 45-64-year-olds grew up.

But if you look at today’s political environment, then you would be extremely hard pushed to argue that the current UK government poses as much of an existential threat to Scotland as did those of Baroness Thatcher, or that North Sea oil is as much of an opportunity as it was then.

If you accept that there are not the perceived existential threats that there were, then the fact that the sense of Scottish identity is higher now than it was then has no great political impact because there is no need to defend it by seeking independence. Nor has the SNP yet convincingly proven that independence will provide greater job opportunity than exists now.

And, finally, a big difference between now and 30 years ago is that much of the lives of today’s 16-24-year-olds is spent in a space where nations and governments are completely unimportant – the internet. Maybe they just don’t see the point of this argument between unionists and nationalists and, therefore, that there is no point in this radical revolution they are being offered.

And that, paradoxically, offers some hope to the Yes campaign – that having extended the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds only to find that most may vote No – that they don’t use their new democratic right.