Today, we will witness one the greatest acts of self-determination in history where our country will go to the ballot box to decide the course of its own future.
There will be much analysis and discussion about the result, a lot of celebration, and a lot of disappointment. I don’t think anyone could say that this debate lacked passion. However, instead of focusing on the outcome, and what it might be, I want to focus more on the process.
However, I think we need to cast our minds back to October 2012 to fully appreciate what has been achieved from the process. The Scottish Youth Parliament, along with other organisations successfully campaigned for 16 and 17 year olds to be able to vote for the first time in recent history. This presented both a huge opportunity, and a huge challenge.
It’s no secret that young people aged 18-24 have always been lowest age demographic to turn out to vote. This has always led to all sorts of unsubstantiated remarks such as “young people just don’t care about politics.” From our work at the Scottish Youth Parliament, which primarily focuses on engaging young people with politics on the basis of issues rather than political parties, we knew that wasn’t true. Yet it was always quite tricky to disprove, until October 2012.
For the last two years, Scotland has been on the most amazing journey of political engagement and civic participation. There has the usual confrontational party political element as always, but I guess that is to be expected; both sides are trying to win a debate. However, what has been more prevalent and more important is how the people of Scotland, and civic society, have engaged in this debate which will fundamentally define our path for generations to come. Many people who have never voted in their lives, or were once voters and have since become disillusioned, have become engaged or re-engaged over the last number of months. What is more impressive still is that the debate has turned into one of not just constitution, but of national identity, civic pride and self-determination.
As a young person, I have been absolutely astounded at the amount of effort that has gone in from schools, colleges and universities, youth groups and other civic and voluntary organisations, and the campaigns, to try and remove barriers to participation in this debate and actively engage young people, particularly those young people who face more challenging circumstances.
I am proud that the Scottish Youth Parliament has led the way in developing innovative ideas and methods to engage thousands of young people, in an impartial manner, pointing them to sources of information to help them make an informed decision for themselves. As an organisation, we have been out and about in schools, youth clubs, colleges and universities and city centres all over Scotland speaking to thousands of young people about why it’s important to vote.
The process and the level of participation, combined with extraordinary efforts to engage young people, is the real achievement from this referendum.
The task now is to build on this achievement. All of us have a responsibility to take the lessons, both positive and negative, and learn from them.
However, turning back to the vote itself, I want to encourage all young people to ensure that, regardless of their view, they turn out and vote. Historically, big decisions made by Governments and political parties have tended to disproportionally take into account the views of other demographics at the expense of young people. This is because those sections of society vote. If we want to have a say, if we want to be able to shape the future of our country, we must get out and vote.
In addition, there is a lot at stake. The Scottish Youth Parliament has long fought for the lowering of the voting age to 16. This has been an incredibly effective tool for engaging with young people for the referendum, as schools and colleges provide an invaluable forum in terms of accessibility. We want the voting age to continue to be 16 for all future elections. The eyes of the world are on Scotland, and the lowered voting age has been one of the most interesting topics for discussion. We have an opportunity to prove that when 16 and 17 year olds are given the right to vote, they will use it. If turn out is high, we have a mandate to secure the right for 16 and 17 year olds to vote in all future elections.
We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to build on what has been achieved through this process, to harness all of the positive young voter engagement work that has taken place over the last two years to ensure Scotland’s young people have their voices heard, as well as secure the right to vote for 16 and 17 year olds for all future elections. We all have a responsibility, so let’s work together and make it happen.