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17 September 2014updated 24 Jun 2021 12:58pm

Inheriting Scotland: how Scottish teenagers could save the Union

Alex Salmond's lowering of the voting age to 16 for the Scottish referendum may have backfired on the Yes campaign.

By Danny Bartlett

Last year, I had the pleasure of attending One Young World, which, as well as being the largest gathering of nations after the Olympic Games, also brings over 1,300 millennial leaders together in an attempt to find solutions, led by young people, to some of the world’s more pressing issues.

Cynical Brit that I am, I expected little more than an elitist event made up of those of significant wealth and stature, whose political ambitions were predestined by their parents.

I found myself humbled. The people I met were bound together by a passion for change so powerful that I began to think that, just maybe, this generation – the millennials as they are sometimes dubbed – might have it in them to fix a world that has rarely looked so broken.

Perhaps the word that best describes what I saw is “unity”. The ease with which cultural and linguistic barriers can now be overcome – thanks largely to higher levels of connectivity, access to technology and increased travel – has set about eroding the divisions that once kept us apart.

That is why it unsettles me all the more that Britain finds itself teetering on the edge not of greater unity, but instead of irreversible division.

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Of course, such sweeping assertions of a newly digitised and internationalised youth are not always borne out. Back in 2009, when Alex Salmond lowered the voting age to 16 – enfranchising more than 125,000 Scottish teenagers to vote in the Scottish independence referendum – many accused him of seeking to gerrymander his way to independence.

Indeed, Pauline McNeill, Scottish Labour’s constitution spokesperson, claimed the SNP’s proposal to lower the voting age was done out of “desperation”, telling the Daily Telegraph that it was, “yet another scheme to try to manipulate the result they want.”

Five years ago, reasons for Unionist consternation seemed clear. Polls consistently suggested that young people had stronger nationalist tendencies than their elders with around 45 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds supporting a Yes vote at a time when more than two thirds of Scots backed the union.

Fast forward to this week, however, and you would be forgiven for suggesting that the SNP’s electoral reforms have somewhat backfired. Data from a recent survey conducted by TubeMogul suggests that some 57 per cent of 16 to 18-year-old voters said they would vote No, giving Better Together a 14-point lead over their rivals.

There are two main factors behind this reluctance of Scotland’s millennials to embrace the Bannockburn spirit. The first is that the recession, swiftly slipping into the annals of history for many older Scots, continues to present a real and present challenge to thousands of young people.

A report published by Demos earlier this year entitled Introducing Generation Citizen found 14 to 17-year-olds to be more socially-engaged and career-focused than their predesessors, with 43 per cent citing “employment and access to work” as their primary concern. Bearing this in mind, it is hardly surprising that, with youth unemployment rates north of the border still above 20 per cent, teenagers are loath to risk voting in favour of a further wave of economic uncertainty.

The second crucial factor is how large a part technology has come to play in defining young people’s worldview. That is not to say that Better Together has more effectively exploited digital tools to communicate with the electorate – in fact, the opposite is true. Rather, it is the simple fact that technology is a natural enemy to the idea of borders. Online it is individuals, not nations, who are king.

It is perhaps unsurprising then that those aged 14 to 17 are much less likely to have a strong sense of Scottish identity than those aged 18 to 24 or, indeed, adults in general. Only 12 per cent of 14-17 year olds say that they are “Scottish, not British”, compared with no less than 34 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds and 23 per cent of adults as a whole. Although very few young people claim to be primarily or exclusively British, no less than 45 per cent say they are equally British and Scottish, well above the equivalent figure for 18 to 24-year-olds (22 per cent) and that for all adults (30 per cent).

The ability to communicate with anyone in the world instantly and for free is, it would seem, swiftly banishing the kind of localised territorialism upon which the SNP’s brand of nationalism thrives.

Generation Citizen has a way to go before it can save the world but, just maybe, come tomorrow, it can save our Union. 

Danny is the founder of Hands up who’s Bored, a project confronting political apathy in the UK

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