A newly politicized generation? We continue our series exploring the legacy of the referendum.
As young voters worldwide increasingly fail to use their vote, Scotland seems to have bucked the trend and politically mobilized a new generation of active voters keen to have their voice heard. The turning point came from the 2014 Scottish Referendum, the outcome of which was a profound moment for every Scot. ‘No’ campaigners breathed an uneasy sigh of relief knowing how close a call it had been, while pictures of distraught young ‘Yes’ campaigners with patriotic painted faces and Scottish flags were strewn across every newspaper’s front page. Never before has Scotland, let alone the UK, witnessed such an active political force of young people. Social media forums were filled with ‘#indyref’ in the weeks leading up to the vote and every corner of Scotland was buzzing with political debate and discussion. Described as a “strange, quirky outlier” in the realm of politics, the referendum recorded an astonishing turnout of 84.5 percent. (1)
What took most onlookers by surprise was the remarkable engagement of young people. Often bemoaned as politically disengaged and apathetic, the turnout for young voters was expected to remain low despite 16- and 17-year-olds being enfranchised for the first time. Yet it was these young voters that led the charge for their chosen side with 69 percent of 16-34 year-olds voting in the referendum – a remarkable 20 percent rise from the turnout of 18-34 year olds who voted in the 2010 General Election. (2) Many assumed this was an anomaly and considered lasting change merely “wishful thinking”. However such skeptics were effectively silenced following the 2015 UK General Election when Scotland recorded the highest turnout in the UK at 71.1 percent, a considerable rise from 63.8 percent in 2010. The young voter turnout in the whole of the UK rose from 44 percent in 2010 to 58 percent in 2015 and though official figures haven’t been published, it is widely believed that the higher political activity among youths in Scotland has vastly distorted the figures. Political Education for Students claims that if Scotland were removed from the 2015 General Election statistics, then the figures for both the overall and young voter turnout would decrease. (3) The resulting landslide saw the Scottish National Party (SNP) win 56 out of the 59 available seats for Scotland in Westminster. Young Scots (the majority of which voted yes in the referendum) seemed not to have been disillusioned with politics following their loss, but rather converted their engagement in the referendum into sustained political interest.
This turnaround remains a significant event in British politics and certain aspects of it offer lessons for all democratic states attempting to generate increased engagement with voters. Firstly, is it possible to assess how the young generation of voters became successfully engaged? Secondly, what legacy does this leave? Finally, what were the limits to success and what enduring lessons can other states learn?
Capturing the youths’ attention and more importantly their vote, has been a long-standing topic of debate in politics. Since both voting and abstention are habit-forming, (4) the importance of seizing the political attention of voters when they are young cannot be understated. Exactly how the SNP mobilized the younger generation should therefore be of interest and value to every democratic state. I would argue that the explanation is twofold – a result of the newfound sense of political power young voters felt in the referendum, and of the tactical campaigning and candidate demographic exercised by the SNP. ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ was one of the most important and daunting questions Scotland has asked itself since the new millennium. Such a profound question appeared to transcend daily politics, and gave young voters a sense of empowerment they had rarely been trusted with before. Enfranchising 16- and 17-year-olds delivered a strong message of faith in the maturity and political value of young adults, which they did not fail to recognize and respond to. Though the majority of young voters supported the ‘yes’ campaign, the vote was not about nationalistic idealism – it was about what people believed offered them the best future. The younger the voter, the longer they would have to live in a potentially independent Scotland. The significance of this was reflected in the manner of engagement. Social media generated heated debate among friends and strangers alike; cafes and bars became venues for discussion, town squares became platforms for speeches. As Dr. Craig McAngus from the University of Stirling explained, “…engagement in Scotland changed. People were sitting around talking about politics in ways that were different to the way they were before… The debate overtook the politics – the quality of the debate on the airwaves didn’t really reflect the quality of the debate on the ground, which was better.” (5)
For the first time among young voters, politics was no longer a taboo subject. For the SNP, the ace card played in the General Election was harnessing this feeling and fostering it. Their ‘Youth Manifesto’ established a commitment to supporting young people into employment, education, or training and pledging to extend the right to vote to 16- and 17-year-olds. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon publicly stated “the biggest investment we can make in Scotland’s future is in our young people – and as First Minister I am determined to do everything I can to support and empower them.” (6) The demographic of the SNP’s candidates also reflected their commitment to young people. One of eight new SNP MPs under 30, Mhari Black is the youngest MP for over two centuries at just 20 years old. First-time voters suddenly didn’t feel so distanced from politicians, especially when they were often closer in age than their parents. The gap was bridged and thousands of young Scots began to cross it, leading to the emergence of the ‘Nats’ – an ever growing force of young SNP supporters. By redirecting the energy young voters had for the referendum to the General Election, the SNP proved how much impact young voters can have.
This leads to the question of the legacy left by the referendum and the likely consequences thereof. Among the possible outcomes is the permanent enfranchisement of 16- and 17-year-olds in future general elections. The referendum disproved the once-popular opinion that those below 18 are neither mature enough to know what they really want nor trustworthy enough to bother using their vote. Indeed, before the referendum 74 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds reported that they had sufficient information to decide how to vote, which was only 5 percent below that of adults. (7) The call to extend enfranchisement has consequently loudened and campaigns are mounting. Carwyn Jones, the Welsh First Minister stated “the case has been made much more strongly for 16-17 year-olds to get the vote more generally in elections across the UK… The mould has been broken and it now needs to be looked at with some urgency.” (8) A second possible outcome is another referendum. If youthful and national enthusiasm for the SNP continues to rise at the current rate, a UK vote to leave the EU in the upcoming referendum would most likely allow the call for another Scottish referendum to be answered. Since guaranteed EU membership was a critical argument for ‘no’ campaigners in the referendum, leaving the EU would probably prove to be an existential choice for the UK; if Britain leaves the EU, Scotland will leave Britain. Perhaps ‘yes’ campaigners may yet get to don their saltire flags and stickers again.
However, despite such significant progress caution must be exercised.
Complacency is dangerous since change will not last or develop unless politicians actively work to keep young voters interested. The rise in youth engagement in Scotland is indeed remarkable, but young voters still offer the lowest turnout in every election including the referendum. Significantly, where 16- and 17-year-olds presented a 75 percent turnout in the referendum, the turnout for 18-35 year-olds was only 69 percent. This highlights the importance of seizing the interest of young people long before they reach General Election enfranchisement age; failing to do so leads them to feel unappreciated and to fall into the habit of abstention. The power of the referendum came from its ability to make every generation in Scotland feel valued. This was especially true among first-time voters as young as 16-years-old, for whom the seeds were sown for continued engagement in years to come. Change may be developing, but breaking the habits of unenthused young voters whose first political experience was not the referendum will prove much more challenging. Nor should we simply assume youth engagement will naturally continue beyond the referendum and General Election. Participation in other elections such as the EU or local elections is likely to remain low since young voters still perceive their value to be vague and less tangible. There is therefore much work yet to be done and we certainly cannot congratulate ourselves on an outright, irreversible victory for youth political participation. What we can do, however, is remain cautiously optimistic that this is the beginning of real and lasting change in Scotland which can be encouraged and fostered in years to come.
There are a number of lessons that can be learned from the referendum in Scotland. The most critical of these is that political apathy among young people is not simply a given. The disinterest in politics seen worldwide among young adults is a direct result of exclusionary policies from parties who view them as relatively unimportant to an election outcome – it’s no coincidence that pension policies are always a higher priority than student policies when the voter turnout for the 55+ age group is usually at least 20 percent higher than their younger counterparts. This leads to a self-perpetuating cycle of exclusionary policies leading to apathy leading to further similar policies and so on. In order to stop this merry-go-round, young voters must be made to feel valued. Scotland has proven young people genuinely want to contribute to politics, but only when they are taken seriously. Policies must appeal to them in order to engage them and the SNP’s focus on improving future prospects for young adults was crucial to their success. Accepting and fostering this can lead to greater political participation and improved democracy. England would do well to take heed of such lessons rather than churlishly dismiss them as the result of some form of overhyped nationalist sentiment.
Tides are turning in Scotland. The SNP appear to have discovered the antidote to apathy among young voters and are rapidly gaining momentum. At 20 years old, I believe that I will live to see the day Scotland declares itself as independent. Whether or not I am for or against it is irrelevant; SNP have set the ball rolling and Nicola Sturgeon is proving a force to be reckoned with. A YouTube video of fellow 20-year-old Mhari Black’s maiden speech as an MP in Westminster posted on the 14 July gained nearly 200,000 views in just one day. In her surprisingly mature speech, she claimed “we [the SNP] have triumphed on a wave of hope.” It is on that wave that so many young Scots have seen the power of politics and their own voice.
4) Goodyear-Grant, E. and Anderson, C. (2008) ‘Youth Turnout: Adolescents’ Attitudes in Ontario’, in Canadian Journal of Political Science, Vol 41:3, p. 697