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.


Comments policy

All comments posted on the site via Disqus are automatically published. Additionally comments are sent to moderators for checking and removal if necessary. We encourage open debate and real time commenting on the website. The Centre on Constitutional Change cannot be held responsible for any content posted by users. Any complaints about comments on the site should be sent to

Latest blogs

  • 22nd January 2019

    The UK is increasingly polarised by Brexit identities and they seem to have become stronger than party identities, a new academic report finds. Only one in 16 people did not have a Brexit identity, while more than one in five said they had no party identity. Sir John Curtice’s latest analysis of public opinion on a further referendum finds there has been no decisive shift in favour of another referendum. The report, Brexit and public opinion 2019, by The UK in a Changing Europe, provides an authoritative, comprehensive and up-to-date guide to public opinion on each of the key issues around Brexit. CCC Fellow, Dr Coree Brown Swan contributed a chapter on "the SNP, Brexit and the politics of independence"

  • 22nd January 2019

    In the papers accompanying the draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill published at the end of 2018, the UK Government says that it is “exploring opportunities to co-design the final proposals with the devolved administrations.” There are clear benefits in having strong co-operation and collaboration across the UK in the oversight of our environmental law and performance. Yet the challenge of finding a way forward in terms of working together is substantial since each part of the UK is in a different position at present. Given where things stand today, it may be better to accept that a good resolution is not possible immediately and to revisit the issue at a later stage - so long as there is a strong commitment to return and not allow interim arrangements to become fixed. Colin Reid, Professor of Environmental Law at the University of Dundee examines the issues.

  • 17th January 2019

    Richard Parry assesses a memorable day in UK parliamentary history as the Commons splits 432-202 on 15 January 2019 against the Government's recommended Brexit route. It was the most dramatic night at Westminster since the Labour government’s defeat on a confidence motion in 1979.

  • 17th January 2019

    What is the Irish government’s Brexit wish-list? The suggestion that Irish unity, as opposed to safeguarding political and economic stability, is the foremost concern of the Irish government is to misunderstand and misrepresent the motivations of this key Brexit stakeholder, writes Mary C. Murphy (University College Cork).

  • 17th January 2019

    Brexit is in trouble but not because of the Irish backstop, argues the CCC's Michael Keating.

Read More Posts