State of the Debate: Evidence of Youth Engagement

Malcolm Harvey discusses his work with young voters in the run up to the referendum.

When the Edinburgh Agreement was signed in October 2012, it set out the rules the independence referendum would operate under.  One of the more controversial elements of the agreement was to extend the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds, which added some 124,000 new electors to the register.  It also prompted some concerns about the readiness of young voters to participate in the political process.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been working with several schools in Aberdeen, taking the opportunity to talk with S5 and S6 students who will be voting for the first time in the referendum.  I went to St Machar Academy, where around 50% of students suggested they were still undecided as to how to vote.  At Cults Academy a week later – the day after the second Alex Salmond v Alistair Darling debate – that figure was around 20%.  And a couple of days later I was at Northfield Academy, where undecided were lower still – around 10%.  Young voters, it seems, were making up their minds.

The sessions were tailored not only to introduce students to the actual act of voting (something which – at least to my experience from several years ago – schools don’t actually tell you how to do) but to introduce and discuss some of the key issues in the referendum debate.  In the course of the session then, we divided the group in two, asking one group to come up with what they considered might be the benefits of independence, the other the benefits of the staying in the Union.  The responses – albeit worded differently – were broadly what the campaigns have been saying: the opportunity to make decisions for yourself (for Yes); economic security (for No).

We discussed the vibrancy of the campaign – the depth of involvement, that it is not a partisan issue, that people with no political experience whatsoever are actively getting involved.  One or two volunteered that they themselves were delivering leaflets for the respective campaigns.

A second session saw students in smaller groups and asked to discuss several issues which have featured in the referendum debate: currency & economics, defence, education, the EU, health and international relations.  They were then asked to come up with a question to ask in that area.  This gave students the opportunity to not only discuss the topics in a peer-to-peer environment, but also to get an academic response to the questions asked.

Some – perhaps unsurprisingly given they are about to embark on university degrees – asked questions relating to whether higher education would remain free if we vote Yes.  Others asked about the currency we’d use, why the currency issue mattered, what would happen with EU membership, would pensions be secure, how long the process of becoming independent would take, what would happen with the armed forces… the list of questions was near endless.  They were also nearly identical to the questions the wider public are asking of the campaigns.

Make no mistake: Scotland’s young people are engaged, and ready to grasp their opportunity to vote for the first time.


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