An empowered youth may turn out to be the Scottish independence referendum’s greatest legacy

Scotland’s youngest voters are twice as likely as their peers south of the border to visit a polling booth during next month’s British General Election. The extensive debate around last September’s referendum appears to have been the ‘catalyst’ for the newfound political hunger amongst Britain’s most northerly residents.

St. Andrews, United Kingdom – On a Monday afternoon in Saint Andrews, home of Scotland’s oldest university, students are making the most of a rare glimpse of Scottish sun. Two history students sit on an old stonewall, still seemingly surprised to have been freed from the grip of their scarves. When the conversation turns to politics, their opinions are clear but divided.

With May the 7th and the General Election only 3 weeks away, people are starting to make up their minds about what box to cross or even whether to cross one at all and it’s no different here.

“I plan to vote for the Tories, they’re the least worst party,” says James, a 19-year-old student who has pledged his vote to the British Conservatives. His companion on the wall, Connor, is less keen. As he’s asked if he plans to vote, he pauses for a second: “Uh…probably not… no,” he delivers his opinion with a glance to his right to gauge his friend’s reaction. James looks as if he’d heard it all before. It seems that Connor is in the minority though.

A study from across the Firth of Forth at the University of Edinburgh has revealed that Britain’s youngest voters have twice the likelihood of voting in Scotland as they do in England. At the ages of 18 and 19, 63% said they planned to vote, more than double the 27% of those who responded positively in England. (See Graph Below)

This isn’t the only place where the referendum is leaving its legacy. A study in The Guardian revealed that a quarter of Scots aged between 16 and 17 had a joined a political party since the referendum last September.

The referendum has had a ‘lasting effect’ due to the fact that the pro-independence campaign was focused on the Scottish economy and social inequalities instead of being constructed on the idea of ‘national identity’ according to Jan Eichhorn, the co-author of the study at Edinburgh University.

Eichhorn believes that by making a difference in a discussion of ‘pragmatic politics’ in September, young people in Scotland have realised they can make a difference in the General Election and that now, for many, ‘politics matters.’

Euroviews asked young St. Andrews students whether or not they planned to vote.

Sleeping in separate beds
Politics may matter for young voters in Scotland but there is still some work to be done in order to repair the ‘disconnect’ between politicians and young voters, at least according to former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell.

Campbell, who represented Saint Andrews as an MP for 28 years before retiring this March, believes that capturing the enthusiasm amongst young voters is key and would represent an ‘investment for the future’ as politicians look to convince more Brits to make the trip to the polling booth.

Not everyone is so confident that it will be easy though. Nicola Wildash, a research executive for polling organisation YouGov, believes that the referendum’s engagement may never be matched by any future general election.

Wildash added that the main problem, in her eyes, was that the main topics of discussion in an election campaign, such as the economy, health and pensions, don’t ‘resonate’ with young people.

Eichhorn doesn’t see this as an insurmountable obstacle though, he believes that by introducing more political discussions in schools and lowering the voting age to 16, like in Austria, the British youth will become more ‘intertwined’ with the political system.

Even in the smallest of sample sizes, Euroviews found a difference in London.

Eager to participate
His suggestions may be already reaping some rewards too, in Scotland the voting age was lowered to 16 for all national elections and this has been met with a massive upturn in political participation.

The University of Edinburgh’s study also shows that 71% of Scottish people aged from 18 to 19 are likely to take part in ‘any political action’, 24% more than the same demographic in England. The pro-independence, Scottish National Party’s [SNP] membership has, over the same period of time, surged from 25,000 to over 100,000.

Wildash believes that this no coincidence. She thinks that the ‘dramatic consequences’ associated with an SNP landslide [Current projections suggest the SNP could take 54 of Scotland’s 59 seats, making them the UK’s third biggest party] in the general election as well as, SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon’s strong performances in the leadership debates have helped maintain the interest of young voters.

She is, however, wary when it comes to polls on voter participation. She compares saying that you’re going to vote with ‘saying you’re going to donate to charity’. She thinks the ‘social desirability’ connected with someone’s status as an informed voter could be the reason so many say they plan to travel to the polling booth on May the 7th.

Whether or not young people in Scotland are actually willing to participate, or they just want to be seen to do so only time will tell but Eichhorn is optimistic for the future. He thinks that the fact the people who were still in school during the referendum campaign are voting now shows that with a political education, Britain’s youngest voters can get back to delivering at the ballot box.

And Connor might be one of those joining the 63%, when asked why he didn’t plan to vote in three weeks, he replied: “I’m not qualified to do so as I don’t have enough information”. If Eichhorn gets his way, Connor’s future children will never have to worry about that.


Additional London reporting by Zhuliyana Boyanova