Youth Impact on Scotland’s Independence referendum
Last week students at two of Scotland’s premier universities held significant events for the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014. On Thursday, University of Glasgow held the first mock-ballot referendum asking the official question approved by The Elector Commission, an independent review group: “Should Scotland be an independent country? Yes/No.” The same question will be asked on the official referendum next year.
At the University of St. Andrews, another of Scotland’s four ancient universities, the Foreign Affairs Society held a conference yesterday titled, “Nationalism in the New Era: Scottish Independence and Similar Movements,” which brought together some of the foremost experts on Scottish independence.
A recent poll by Ipsos MORI places support for Scottish independence among 18-24 year olds at 58 per cent, drastically increased from that group’s 27 per cent approval last October. Considering 16 and 17-year-olds will be enfranchised on next year’s referendum, youth opinion carries special importance to both pro-independence and unionist advocates.
Some of the biggest names on both sides came out to help garner student support at Glasgow’s referendum, with MSP Nicola Sturgeon of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and MSP Patrick Harvie of the Scottish Greens representing the Yes campaign, and MSPs Jackie Ballie and William Bain of the Scottish Labour Party, amongst others, representing the anti-independence group Better Together.
Many on campus were amazed by the attention placed on the mock-referendum. In an interview with the Glasgow Guardian, a student newspaper, second-year Callum Courtney said: “I can’t believe that Nicola Sturgeon is on campus today campaigning in a mock student referendum. As the minister tasked with improving the economy you would hope she’d be here at a jobs fair or working to improve graduate prospects.” Mrs. Sturgeon defended her position in a speech outside the university library but was subsequently disappointed when the referendum landed a definitive victory for pro-union groups.
Glasgow’s Dialectic Society, which organized the mock-referendum, tallied the final result at 1,614 votes against independence, 967 in support, and eight spoiled ballots. The turnout, at just over 10 per cent of the student body, was deemed a success by the event’s organizers, who had expected lower participation. Michael Gray, a fourth-year student and President of the Dialectic Society, told reporters that separatist events in Catalonia, where independence supporters are pushing for a referendum of their own in 2014, gave him the inspiration to organize the event at Glasgow. “The result of the real referendum will impact students in Scotland for the rest of their lives,” he said in a statement for the university, “so holding our own vote is one way of finding out what young people think.”
In St. Andrews, the Foreign Affairs Society convened on similar grounds. Professors Michael Keating, who teaches politics at the University of Aberdeen and the University of Edinburgh, spoke of how “political opinion is diverging” in places like Quebec, Catalonia, and Scotland, rendering the “old state structure…increasingly problematic.”
He added: “We’re getting a bi-polar choice in the referendum of next year. The opinion polls don’t reflect that, they don’t reflect this binary choice.” Professor David McCrone, Emeritus Professor of Sociology and co-founder of the University of Edinburgh’s Institute of Governance, predicted the final referendum will be swung by people who want increased autonomy. If supporters of “devo max,” as the option is known, switch to vote for independence, “the game is on,” he said.
Professor Montserrat Guibernau, politics lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, explained that Catalonia’s attempt to hold a referendum will be challenged by the federal government. She said to students who are taught the values of democracy and dialogue, “this is a bit of a shock, especially for younger generations.” The final speaker of the conference, Professor Tom Mullen, who teaches law at the University of Glasgow, his alma matter, said the eventuality of Scottish independence necessitates unprecedented, though not unfeasible, preparation; but also warned that today’s political promises “will not necessarily be the case in an independent Scotland.”
Sarah Gimont, the St. Andrews Foreign Affairs Conference (SAFC) coordinator, said: “I’m incredibly pleased by how the conference turned out. Both the lectures and the lecturers themselves were engaging… We hope to continue the tradition of bringing a contemporary and exciting discussion to the St Andrews community.”
Political leaders and academic experts weighing in on the independence debate at Glasgow and the conference in St. Andrews show how significant youth opinion is for referendum in 2014. As MSP Nicola Sturgeon told students outside Glasgow’s main library: “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.”
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