Scotland’s referendum gets a teenage kick

Referendum on Scottish independence is the first major election in the UK where 16 and 17-year olds get a vote.

Scottish National Party's Anne McLaughlin rented an ice cream van to reach voters [Andrew McFadyen/Al Jazeera]

Glasgow, Scotland – What do trainee hairdressers talk about over a cigarette between classes?

At Reid Kerr College in Easterhouse, in the east end of Glasgow, it’s not what you might think. The gaggle of young women standing outside the library are discussing politics, not hairstyles.

“You can’t believe what you see on the telly, it’s all lies,” one says to her friend. She is trying to persuade her to vote “Yes” in Thursday’s referendum on Scotland’s independence from the United Kingdom.

With less than 24 hours to go before the polls open, their conversation is an indication of the way in which the independence debate has helped to create the most politically engaged generation in Scottish history.

Rosemary Dickson, the chief executive of FARE, an Easterhouse-based charity that works with young people, says it is different from any other election in her lifetime.

“It doesn’t matter where you go, the shopping centre’s behind the counter or the person serving you in the cafe or the person you meet in the street, everybody is engaged in this conversation.”

I have heard a lot more positives from the 'Yes' campaign than I have from the no camp. We will vote in the people that we want, instead of London.

by - Jack Galbraith, 18-year-old voter

Teenage vote

These conversations are also happening in schools and colleges because this is the first major election in which 16 and 17-year olds get to vote. It is another way in which this referendum is unique.

Since the last Scottish Parliament election in 2011, more than 330,000 people have been added to the electoral roll. The Scottish government estimates about one-third of these are teenagers. In a tight contest, that could be enough to swing the result.

Five of the hairdressers say they are voting “Yes”, and just one is against. It’s a similar story among the young trainees at FARE.

Seventeen-year-old apprentice administrator, Siobhan Callaghan, is voting “Yes” because, “We will never get this opportunity again.”

Jack Galbraith, an 18-year-old apprentice youth worker, nods in agreement.

“I have heard a lot more positives from the ‘Yes’ campaign than I have from the no camp. We will vote in the people that we want, instead of London,” Galbraith says.

Independence receptive

There is a suspicion the Scottish government deliberately extended the franchise to younger voters because it believed they would be more receptive to the idea of independence. “Yes” campaigners were handing out leaflets to students on Monday afternoon.

The Scotish National Party’s Anne McLaughlin says £750 ($1,200) was spent to hire an ice cream van, which was decked out in “Yes” posters, to help reach voters. “If we win we are going to take it into the town centre to celebrate.”

However, polling evidence suggests a more complex picture. It is people in their 20s who appear to be most supportive of independence, while teenagers are much more split.

Martin Boon, director of the polling company ICM, suggests the biggest influence on 16 and 17-year olds is often their families.

“One thought is that some of the very youngest voters do not feel confident in their ability to ferment their own opinion, and thus are seeking guidance from their 40-plus parents who are evenly split or maybe leaning to ‘No’.”

Brandon Cairns, 17, is a pupil at Smitheycroft Secondary in nearby Riddrie. He has a “No Thanks” badge pinned to the lapel of his dark blue school blazer.

“I think the currency is a big issue because we don’t know if we are going to be able to use the pound,” Cairns says. “I believe we won’t be able to. I am proud of being Scottish, but I want to be British as well, because I think it is great that these countries have come together and we have done so much.”

His friend Alannah Boyle, 16, who is doing a course in emergency services, says she likes the idea of an independent Scotland, but is still making up her mind and is worried about what it might mean.

The United Kingdom hasn't been very good and we need a change. With our own government we could do more for the Scottish people.

by - Nathan Clarke, 17-year-old voter

“If we go independent and it doesn’t work, our generation is the one that is going to get it worst,” says Boyle.

‘Strong together’

Sixteen-year-old twins Iain and Dylan Cunningham, who help out at Soccerworld, a five-a-side football complex, voice similar concerns.

“I am voting ‘No’ because we are unsure what’s coming. I believe we are strong together, and I don’t want to change the currency. We are fine with the pound and we are fine as we are just now, and I don’t think we should change it.”

His brother adds, “It’s a massive gamble. Why would we risk what we’ve got when its not bad.”

Perhaps that’s the key question for voters of all age groups. As people make up their minds about how to vote, they are making a judgement about whether to stick with what they have got, or take a chance on something better.

Out on the pitches, 17-year-old Nathan Clarke has just finished playing football with his mates. He’s left school, doesn’t have a job, and is voting “Yes”.

“Why not vote ‘Yes?'” he asks. “The United Kingdom hasn’t been very good and we need a change. With our own government we could do more for the Scottish people.”

Follow Andrew McFadyen on Twitter: @apmcfadyen 

Source: Al Jazeera