The future of Scotland: the journey is only beginning
Youth Parliament Chair says the journey to deciding Scotland’s future begins now
Yesterday, we witnessed one the greatest acts of self-determination in history where our country went 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. Instead of focusing on the outcome, and what has been achieved, 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 in 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 fundamentally has set our future course 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 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.
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, political parties, schools, colleges and universities, youth clubs, voluntary organisations etc have a responsibility to take the lessons, both positive and negative, and learn from them.
What have we learned? Well firstly, we know for certain that young people care about politics, certainly issue based politics. We know that young people want as much factual information as possible before they make their decision; they want to know how their vote will affect their everyday lives. This has been further supported by extensive social attitudes research undertaken by the University of Edinburgh. We know that young people appreciate politicians making a genuine and meaningful effort to speak to them directly to answer their questions. Finally, we know how valuable educational institutions, youth work facilities and other voluntary organisations throughout civic society can be in terms of starting the conversation with young people about politics, and why it’s important to vote. Surely this makes a compelling case for much more substantive, robust and consistent political and civic education as a key part of the curriculum.
In addition, this process has proved the case for extending the right to vote to 16 and 17 year olds. Young people have shown that when political parties and politicians, when given a little nudge by organisations such as the Scottish Youth Parliament, meaningfully engage with them, on their terms, in their environment, providing honest answers to honest questions, then young people will turn out and make an informed decision for themselves at the ballot box
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. We all have a responsibility, so let’s work together and make it happen.