The Scottish capital has hosted what is thought to be the biggest gathering of new voters as some 700 senior secondary pupils packed a hall to hear both sides of the independence debate and question politicians in each camp.
With the September 18 referendum on Scotland’s – and the UK’s – future less than three months away, the 5th and 6th year pupils from Edinburgh’s Boroughmuir and James Gillespie’s high schools challenged Kezia Dugdale, a Lothian Labour MSP from Better Together, and Sarah Beattie-Smith, co-convener of the Edinburgh Greens, who made the case for an independent Scotland.
Sixteen and 17-year-olds will be allowed to vote for the first time in the UK, a move that was originally seen as likely to boost the cause of independence. However, the audience at the debate last month displayed a broad range of views and appeared to find it highly informative.
Professor Charlie Jeffrey of Edinburgh University, who chaired the event, reckoned a show of hands before the debate on whether politicians and the media had put their views across clearly to the public came out nine to one against. Afterwards, about 60 per cent indicated they would be able to make an informed decision on independence.
Ms Dugdale said a host of issues from low wages to corporate tax avoidance and dangerous working conditions in many parts of the developing world motivated her career in politics. “These things make me angry, and I hope they make you angry, but they don’t make me want to vote for independence.”
Ewan Forres, from Boroughmuir, asked if Scottish independence would improve the democratic system for the whole of the UK.
“Not automatically,” replied Ms Beattie-Smith. “The SNP is too centralised but it would be a good spur.”
She envisaged a Scotland where people did not have to choose between “eating and heating”, and with better public services. An inferiority complex towards England would diminish if the country had to take full responsibility, she said.
“It’s about growing up – but the No campaigners in effect are saying we’re too poor, too wee and too stupid to look after ourselves.”
Ms Dugdale, on the other hand, dismissed the idea that it was possible to have “Scandinavian childcare with Texan taxes”.
The speakers debated other central issues, including whether Scotland could or should keep the pound and join the EU, as well as nuclear weapons and oil.
However, the tone was remarkably civil, a feature that pupils and teachers alike seemed to appreciate. Both speakers were united in dismissing competing claims put out by the official campaigns about the precise extra cost or benefit of independence to each individual per year.
Ms Dugdale said she despaired when she heard about the rival financial forecasts. “No-one is going to run up and nick £1,400 off you or stuff £1,000 in your pocket. We need to get away from this kind of debate,” she said.
Ms Beattie-Smith said: “I don’t think people are that self-interested that money is the only thing that matters. There are more important things to be voting on.”
Even on the pound, Ms Dugdale agreed with her Greens opponent that keeping sterling would not amount to “proper independence”.
Nadia Simoleit, 15, from James Gillespie’s, said: “I thought it was very equal. They were open-minded and able to see and embrace each other’s views.” She added that she was tending more to a Yes vote. “I’m worried Britain tends to follow the United States too much,” she said.
“Independence might mean it is easier for Scotland to be more like Scandinavia.”
Mia Anderson, 15, from James Gillespie’s, said she had been reassured by the arguments. She said: “I’m a Yes voter and it really consolidated how I felt before. And it settled worries, that whatever happens it’s going to be fine. Either way it’s going to be okay.”
Charlotte Jackson, 16, from Boroughmuir, said the event had clarified several issues.
“It simplified all the information,” she said. “It’s not that there was a lack of information before, but it was really complex. They are both pretty strong campaigns, but I just feel we would probably still be better together.”
Another Boroughmuir pupil, Sofia Cogliano, 17, said he was still unsure. “It was all useful and informative, but I’m no nearer a decision.”
Prof Jeffrey’s other straw polls showed not a single pupil wanted to leave the EU, most opposed a shared currency, a slight majority believed the pro-UK parties’ pledge of more powers for Holyrood if independence was rejected, and a majority thought a separate Scotland would be financially worse off.
Both speakers concluded by urging the young audience to exercise their right to vote. “You have a tremendous amount of power at your fingertips,” Ms Dugdale said. “This is your country, your future. It’s really important you cast your vote, whichever way you choose to use it.”
Donald MacDonald, Gillespie’s headteacher, said the exchanges had avoided the antagonism and misinformation of some of the television debates.
“The event was a great example of how to run a debate and engage with young people. As I commented on in my vote of thanks, I was particularly impressed at how carefully and respectfully both speakers listened to others’ points of view. We need much more of this in the weeks ahead.”
CAPTION: Good debate: Labour MSP Kezia Dugdale (left) and Edinburgh Green’s Sarah Beattie-Smith during the debate (top image)