A small, but formidable country of 5.2 million people, Scotland caught the attention of the world as it’s citizens engaged in a national referendum on 18th of September 2014, to decide if it should depart from it’s political union with the rest of the United Kingdom, and become an independent country.
For many Scots the independence referendum was the first time, in a long time, that they had engaged in politics. The country exercised its democratic muscle like never before, voter turn out was 84.6%, the highest on record for any Scotland wide poll. The referendum was historic for a number of reasons, an important one being the expansion of the voter franchise to include 16 and 17 year olds for the first time. In high schools and high streets across the country, apparent previously ‘apathetic’ young people, rolled up their sleeves and put themselves front and centre of the debate.
The referendum showed that for young people, indeed for all voters, when they perceive an issue to be important and are inspired by it, they will both participate in the debate and turn out to vote. 62% of 16-19 year olds voted yes, for an independent Scotland. Indeed, the majority of under 30’s also voted yes – now dubbed ‘Generation Yes.’ Whilst older people in Scotland, perhaps with more to loose through fear of any economic uncertainty, voted no, with two-thirds of over 70’s voting to stay in the union.
Speaking to 23 year old Robert Grant, he commented ‘I noticed that I was very much interested in the Indy ref and still am. I’d vote yes again, ten times over.’
The referendum campaign was a festival of democracy – its was fun, vibrant, energising, diverse, and inspired a generation to think about their place in the world, as relative to their peers and as citizens. A quarter of Scotland’s 16- and 17-year-olds have joined a political party since the independence referendum. A hailed success of the legacy of the referendum, is that 16 and 17 year olds now have the right to vote in all Scottish elections. However, they cannot vote in UK elections, as Westminster has yet to extend the franchise for 16 and 17 year olds. This also means that they will not be able to vote in the upcoming referendum on membership of Europe – another important constitutional issue for the population of Scotland and across the UK.
Like young people across Europe, young Scots are experiencing the brunt of economic downturn and financial crisis. As academic Alan Mackie puts it ‘it is young people who have been hardest hit by the economic turbulence of recession and austerity with the unemployment rate for young people running (at times) at three times the rate of the rest of the populace.‘ He goes on to say that ‘this is further compounded with recent studies showing that their real incomes have fallen faster in comparison to other age groups.’
Asking Robert about the upcoming referendum vote on membership of the European Union he commented ‘I’m not terribly clued up about this EU vote, however a big selling point is that we have the right to travel, to work in these EU countries. My friends and I have discussed this a few times, and we have came to the conclusion that we should stay in the EU.’
When speaking with 24 year old Aileen McKay about the prospect of the rest of the UK voting to leave, whilst Scotland is likely to vote in favour of staying in, she commented:
“I cannot pretend to be hugely enthusiastic about the future of the EU bureaucratic structures given their track record of late. But to leave on a wave of semi-state sanctioned, press-hyped British Nationalism would be wrong.”
“Scotland’s young citizens think differently to the middle-aged media barons orchestrating the current debate on EU membership around a racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric. We are outward-looking and forward thinking.”
In Scotland our experience shows that when given a real say, and power to make decisions and shape the future, young people will grasp them with both hands. The local and national context is important to young people, and they will engage with global and international issues, when they feel that they have influence to change things. Scotland’s independence referendum enables people to set a vision for a future country, this inspired young people to see themselves as part of this future, and gave them hope for a future tat worked for them.
I wonder, and in some ways suggest, that perhaps the future of Europe, and its success, lies with handing more power, both political and economic, to our young people. We are after all, the ones that will have to live with the consequences of continued failures the longest. And perhaps we might also be the ones that our future Europe has been waiting for.