The mass involvement of 16 and 17-year-olds in Scotland’s independence vote was the “real achievement” of the referendum last week and presents a unique opportunity for the future, according to the chair of the Scottish Youth Parliament.
Louise Cameron, a first time voter herself, said the extraordinary level of debate and engagement had destroyed the myth that young people were indifferent to politics.
Her views were echoed by senior politicians in Scotland and the wider UK, who hailed the decision to extend the franchise to that age group for the first time and urged Westminster and Holyrood to follow suit for all elections.
“Many people will say that the announcement of the outcome of the referendum was a historic moment in Scottish history, but I think the real achievement of this referendum has been the process,” Ms Cameron said. “For the last two years, Scotland has been on the most amazing journey of political engagement, civic participation and national discussion.
“As a young person, I have been absolutely astounded at the amount of effort that has gone in from schools, youth groups and other civic and voluntary organisations, and the campaigns to try and remove barriers to participation and actively engage young people, particularly those young people who face more challenging circumstances.”
Ms Cameron said she was proud that the Scottish Youth Parliament, along with other groups, had successfully campaigned for 16 and 17-year-olds to be able to vote for the first time. It then led the way in developing innovative ideas and methods to engage thousands of young people below the age of 25 so that they could make an informed decision.
“Now 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 play a key role in shaping the next phase of devolution.”
There is therefore a compelling case for a much more “robust and consistent” political and civic education as a key part of the curriculum, she added.
Alex Salmond, who announced his resignation as first minister after the 55 to 45 per cent result against independence, agreed the involvement of Scotland’s youngest voters was a resounding success. Overall turnout was
84 per cent.
“I suspect no-one will ever again dispute their ability to participate fully and responsibly in democratic elections.”
Willie Sullivan, director of the Electoral Reform Society Scotland, said it would be difficult “and a bit cruel” not to include 16-year-olds in future Scottish Parliamentary elections. He also predicted the wider franchise would ultimately extend to UK general elections but certainly not in time for next May.
“Once this level of engagement has been reached, they can’t ‘unknow’ facts and arguments. But it’s important to direct things in a positive way and that won’t necessarily be via the main political parties because their centralised discipline and competiveness are not going to appeal to everyone in that age group,” he said.
“A lot of young people have got into grassroots activism of one kind and another during this referendum and it would be healthy to see that continue.”
However, Mr Sullivan was sceptical of a survey commissioned by Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft that said 71 per cent of 16 to 17-year-olds voted for Scotland to be independent and 29 per cent against. “It was based on a very small number of respondents and then broken down,” he said.
Wales’ first minister Carwyn Jones also backed a vote for 16-year-olds in all UK elections.
He said: “How often do we have discussions bemoaning the fact that young people don’t vote – that didn’t happen here.”
Senior Liberal Democrat minister and Scottish MP Danny Alexander told BBC Newsbeat he believed young people “bring a freshness to the debate and ask important questions”.
“Some of the best debates and discussion I have had about the Scottish referendum have been with young people in schools.”