Glasgow students reject Scottish independence

Campus referendum seen as a possible harbinger to next year’s vote on Scottish independence from the UK.

Votes being counted at Glasgow University [Andrew McFadyen/Al Jazeera]
The 'no' side won by a margin of nearly 30 percent [Andrew McFadyen/Al Jazeera]

Glasgow University is the fourth oldest in the English-speaking world.

It was founded in 1451, almost half a century before Christopher Columbus traveled to the Americas.

With its grand and impressive Victorian gothic architecture, the university’s elaborate stone tower and spire can be seen on the skyline for miles around. On Thursday, the historic campus was a hive of political activity.

For the first time ever, Scots were getting the chance to vote on independence from the UK. Polls were open throughout the day as over 2,500 students took part in a campus wide ballot.

The question was the same one that will be asked in next year’s referendum organised by the Scottish Government: “Should Scotland be an independent country, Yes or No?”

A recent Mori poll found support for independence had surged to 58 per cent among 18 – 24 year-olds and most observers expected the result to be close.

Instead, the “No” campaign romped home by a margin of nearly two to one. Just 967 votes (37 per cent) were cast in favour of independence, with 1,614 (62 per cent) against. There were eight spoiled ballots.

Youth engagement

The result was declared just after 9pm after a raucous debate in the Glasgow University Union. It is traditional here for students to carry their pint glasses from the bar into the debating chamber and heckle loudly.

Nationalists chanted “in-de-pendence”, while a gaggle of left wing activists at the back of the hall responded with cries of “the workers have no country.”

Scotland’s Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon campaigned for a “yes” vote [Andrew McFadyen/Al Jazeera] 

Labour MSP Jackie Baillie, who spoke for the pro-UK Better Together campaign said: “Young people have engaged with the issues for the past four weeks and it has been a rigorous campaign.”

“Students have spoken in overwhelming numbers. They want a strong Scotland in a strong UK,” she told Al Jazeera after the vote.

The referendum was the brainchild of fourth year politics student, Michael Gray, who is President of the Dialectic Society, which aims to encourage discussion and debate at the university.

21-year-old Gray says that he was inspired by the community referendums that have taken place in Catalonia on independence from Spain.

In April 2011, over a quarter-of-a-million people in Barcelona voted in an unofficial poll, which resulted in an overwhelming ‘Yes’ and pushed Catalonia’s independence debate to the centre of the political stage.

“I felt what was happening in Scotland was pale, stale and lifeless – not a grassroots democracy, so that is what we are trying to do,” Gray told Al Jazeera.

He added that it was a great opportunity to have the first actual ballot on independence in Scotland and he wanted to grasp it before he graduated.

For the past month, the campus in Glasgow’s west end has been flooded with thousands of glossy leaflets and visits from high profile politicians.

‘Fund education’

Scotland’s Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who studied law at Glasgow University from 1988 to 1993, spent most of the day there on Monday along with Green Party leader Patrick Harvie.

In a speech delivered to supporters from the steps of the library she said: “The people who are most important are those who are not sure yet. You have got the opportunity to engage with students who have not made up their minds.”

Those who came to hear her carried placards that read “Great Things Start With Yes” and “Fund Education, Scrap Trident”, in refernce to a controversial UK military investment. 

“Young people have been particularly hard hit by austerity measures. Many can see the links between what they are experiencing and investment decisions… ” Sturgeon told Al Jazeera.

24-year old PhD student Sam Beaton, who is involved in the Radical Independence Campaign, asked, “Why is there money available for nuclear weapons and not for education? What we get to do with independence is bring issues like this, and unemployment, back to the table.”

“We still believe in the power of our arguments and will work to do it in 2014. We will be back out soon enough, campaigning on campus with our leaflets and tea stalls outside the library 

– Dan Paris, National Convenor of Scottish National Party students

The Labour Party has also been campaigning hard. With around 190 members, it is the biggest political group on campus and its chair Oliver Milne claims not to have slept for three nights.

Milne was brought up in Govan, a working class district of tenement flats and shipyard cranes on the south side of the River Clyde. He sees Scottish independence in moral terms as something akin to a desertion of comrades and colleagues south of the border.

“It is not right to leave the north of England and parts of London and cities like Bristol to perpetual Tory government,” he says.

He adds that many students are also worried about what independence would mean for their job prospects. Almost one in five young people in Scotland are unemployed and competition for graduate level jobs is intense.

‘We will be back’

Last week, it emerged that the café chain Costa Coffee had received 1,701 applications in response to an advert for five part-time and three full-time positions at a new branch. These jobs paid between $9 and $15 per hour. Many of those who applied were vastly over qualified.

This glimpse into the state of the economy in the UK explains why many students are reluctant to take what they see as a leap in the dark.

Glasgow University is not a representative sample of young people in Scotland, as nearly a third of students come from other parts of the UK or overseas. Campaigners say the results of this referendum should not be given undue importance as a metaphor for broader trends in public opinion. 

But “Yes Scotland” had high hopes that the ballot would give them a symbolic victory and some of the young activists involved in the campaign had to fight back tears when it became clear that they had lost.

Dan Paris, the National Convenor of Scottish National Party (SNP) students, admits they have a lot of work to do over the next 18 months.

“We still believe in the power of our arguments and will work to do it in 2014. We will be back out soon enough, campaigning on campus with our leaflets and tea stalls outside the library,” he said.

Perhaps the outcome is less important than the way in which this successful exercise in participative democracy has put young people at the heart of the debate about the UK’s future.

Follow Andrew McFadyen on Twitter: @apmcfadyen

Source: Al Jazeera