The enfranchisement of 16 and 17 year olds in the 2014 Scottish referendum saw remarkably high levels of voter turnout among this youngest group, accompanied by wider forms of political engagement. We interviewed young people who’d voted in favour of Scottish independence, to explore this engagement in the immediate aftermath of the result, a narrow 55% vote to remain part of the United Kingdom. Analysis led to the finding that interviewees explained their political engagement autobiographically and situated their new political attitudes and actions in the context of their own transitions to ‘independent’ adulthood.
Initial scepticism about the enfranchisement of 16 and 17 year olds in the referendum, according to Eichhorn et al., was based on assumptions that ‘Young people are less interested in politics’, ‘will vote exactly like their parents’, and ‘will be prone to copy ideas they are given in schools’. Contrary to such expectations, 16 and 17 year olds voted ‘in greater numbers than 18-24 year olds and at levels close to the overall population’. The underlying assumption that 16 and 17 year olds do not have meaningful political agency relies here on conceptions of them as somewhat dependent on families and educational institutions.
However, our research found that participants understood their new political attitudes and actions as increasingly independent from their parents, teachers, and peer-groups. For these young people, political participation was enmeshed in a developing a sense of their adult self, learning new competencies, and carving out a kind of independence; leaving school and planning for a future of employment and/or further study.
We interviewed ten young ‘Yes’ voters in Dundee, Edinburgh, and Glasgow, in March-April 2015, to understand the participation dynamics of IndyRef from the perspective of young people who voted for the first time, and continued to be politically engaged despite their disappointment with the result. Interviewees described new and renewed interests in a range of political issues and action, so our research findings join those that challenge claims of youth disengagement both from formal parliamentary politics, and political issues more broadly.
From (Dis)Interest to Active Involvement
Interviewees presented themselves as rather ‘disengaged’ prior to interest in the referendum.
They’d [my family] been No straight from the start, but I was a No at the start, I wasn’t actually gonna vote at the start of it, ‘cause I wasn’t really interested in politics before the referendum. (Anne)
Anne describes her past self as the stereotypically disengaged young person, voting ‘in exactly the same way as their parents’. Political interest was new for other interviewees too, Tom and Sandra gave similar accounts. Others described a long-standing interest in politics, but saw themselves as inactive prior to the referendum:
I’ve always been politically aware, but I’ve not always been politically active, I think that’s what the referendum did to a lot of people, got people who were interested to be active. (Mike)
I’d been doing nothing to do with it [Indyref] at all… I didn’t know how to get started, but I wanted to… (James)
Significant Others and Critical Moments
Interviewees pointed to the importance of family members, partners, and teachers in fostering political interest and activity. Anne identified her pro-Yes ex-boyfriend, who encouraged her to research referendum issues and decide for herself, and her Media Studies teacher. James remembered his cousin, ‘coming round in 2007’ with pro-independence stickers and leaflets, inspiring his interest in independence politics, catalysed into action by a chance encounter with a ‘Yes shop’ in 2014. Brian attributed his ‘staying interested in politics’ to his Modern Studies teacher, and Fiona likewise described her Modern Studies tutor as ‘the reason I vote SNP today, is because of him’. School was crucial to developing political engagement, but this was not confined to the classroom; Anne, Russell, Mike, and Sandra described an on-going process of developing their own political standpoints in conversation with other young people.
Crucially, interviewees saw themselves not as dependent on significant others for their political attitudes, but as inspired and supported to develop their own views. Interviewees did not see themselves as uncritically copying what they were told, but reflected on how their own ‘independent’ understanding had developed.
This was especially evident in relation to interviewees’ close family members. Those who broadly agreed with their immediate family, and those who disagreed, emphasized the development of their own political attitudes. Interviewees painted a picture of themselves as becoming increasingly autonomous, and their descriptions of their political participation were embedded in narratives of transitioning to a relatively independent, politically engaged, adulthood.
Transitions to ‘Independent’ Adulthood
According to Mike, he ‘went his own way’, diverging from his ‘nationalist’ and SNP-supporting family by joining the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP). Russell similarly told of broad ‘ideological’ agreement with his parents on independence, but disagreement over ‘logistics of campaigning’. Anne described divergent political views from her parents as a mature disagreement and respectful understanding, explaining how her parents supported her right to a different position on independence and ability to think for herself. Seemingly amicable disagreement was common, with Russell ‘discussing things in a grown-up way’. Mike’s political disagreements with a friend were sometimes ‘tiresome’ yet enjoyable because he liked debating and ‘it was never going to break a friendship’.
Interviewees also described how they had influenced older family members. Gregg encouraged his otherwise apathetic Grandmother to vote, and eventually to volunteer her flat as a canvassing base. Fiona successfully persuaded her father, initially a ‘no’ to vote ‘yes’, and attempted to persuade her Grandmother too. Mike attempted to persuade his maternal Grandmother to vote ‘yes’, and Russell persuaded his Dad to join the Scottish Greens. Our participants, therefore, were not only not ‘copying’ their parents’ political views, but described a varied intergenerational influence that ran both ways.
Further, participants narrated their burgeoning political engagement in relation to their own emergent ‘independent’ adulthoods in three senses: they developed new skills, competencies and confidences; imagined new career possibilities; and reflected on disappointments and opportunities in their own life-courses. Sandra and Mike both organised debates at school, and Fiona and Sandra described increases in their confidence, talking to new people and trying public speaking for the first time. Politicization here included ‘personal’ and ‘biographical’ changes such as overcoming shyness, learning public speaking, and building the confidence to research and form opinions.
I’m going to do social sciences at college, I applied to do that, and I applied to do it ‘cause it had politics in it, and I told them that was why I wanted to do it… (Anne)
Anne orientates her future self towards politics in a way that is broader than voting, party membership and wider activism, to include decisions about her education. Russell, Gregg, Brian, and Mike all spoke of their referendum engagement as inspiring their choices about what to study and their imagined future careers. Russell had recently applied for an internship at the Scottish Parliament and spoke of commitments to both charity work and campaigning for the Scottish Greens. Brian was committed to engaging younger people with political issues through his employment as a youth worker. Interviewees saw their political engagement as situated in relation to their lives as a whole:
I felt like school was great but I’d really like to be at the next thing, and I felt kind of like independence would let me [do that], kind of, it was about, I suppose my independence just as much as Scotland’s. (Russell).
Russell linked a personal wanting ‘something different’ for himself to the political changes he’d like to see:
I’d have really liked to have been part of independence, I dunno, to maybe even be a professional politician… I really felt like I wanted something different, for me, and then, that kind of translated into my radical politics for Scotland as well… it was just kind of a pretty deep desire for change (Russell)
He went on to compare ‘losing’ the referendum to other disappointments of a more personal character, his decision to leave school, and reconsider his options:
I turned the defeat of the referendum into a drive to then do something with my life […] I think, I know, dealing with kind of things like not getting the apprenticeship [at the Scottish parliament], not getting the Yes vote, it’s really difficult but the only way you can, or I can, deal with that is by going ‘okay well what’s the next thing?’, ‘cause, if you just sit and think ‘it’s so terrible that that happened’, then you don’t achieve anything, but if you just keep going, as long as you find out why you didn’t get, you know the apprenticeship, or why Scotland didn’t vote Yes, as long as you learn your lessons. (Russell)
While respondents, rather bombastically, could claim that ‘politics won’t be the same again, definitely not’ (Fiona) we can moderate this statement and suggest that politics won’t be the same again for them: developing political engagement was bound up with biographical changes, as interviewees made sense of what it means for them to become independent in relation to their worlds of family, friends, school, further study and careers.
Overall we found that:
- Participants described moving from ‘political disengagement’ (which for some included being interested but not active) to active engagement not only with Scottish independence, but with a range of broader social and political issues;
- Significant others – including friends and family members – were important to participants’ understanding of turning points and critical moments in this shift;
- Yet interviewees saw themselves as moving away from the influence of these significant others and developing their own more autonomous political ideas, allegiances, and actions.
Moreover, participants spoke of developing new skills, and drew on their referendum experiences to make sense of leaving school and transitioning to further study and/or employment, as well as to understand disappointments and opportunities in their life-courses. In the wake of the referendum result, interviewees (re)connected to political institutions and saw their emergent adult selves as politically engaged.
Maddie Breeze is a Lecturer in Public Sociology at Queen Margaret University. She tweets at @maddie_breeze.