The Scottish independence referendum shows that young people can be mobilized politically given the right circumstances

16 and 17 year olds were entitled to vote for the first time in any election held in the UK in the Scottish independence referendum. Advocates of the reform argued that it would help to engage younger people in the political process, setting the stage for greater engagement in democracy over future election cycles, while critics suggested that 16 and 17 year olds weren’t ready to discharge the responsibility that comes with voting. Here, Graeme Baxter, Elizabeth Tait, Peter McLaverty, and Iain MacLeod show that young people can be mobilized politically given the right circumstances, but that questions as to the longevity of the engagement achieved as yet to be answered.

Credit: Alf Melin, CC BY SA 2.0

Given the Scottish independence turnout figures, the four of us, together with colleagues from the School of Computing Science and Digital Media at RGU, were awarded pilot project funding by the Culture and Communities Network+ of theResearch Councils UK Digital Economy Programme to investigate the ways in which 16–19 year old first time voters had engaged in politics during the Scottish independence referendum campaign, and how their political activism had developed since the referendum. We conducted 21 interviews with 16–19 year olds from across Scotland, exploring their levels of political engagement before, during and since the referendum campaign. We also conducted interviews with representatives of major political parties and civic groups active in the referendum campaign.

We were advised during our research by the Scottish Youth Parliament, who suggested that we should conduct a survey of young people (including their cohort of Members of the Scottish Youth Parliament) on their political activism before and after the referendum. With the help of youth wings of political parties and other relevant organisations, the survey was publicised across social media in April/May 2015 and over 200 responses were received from around Scotland. In addition, we analysed the Twitter output of over 600 first-time voters, as well as tweets to ‘youth-oriented’ organisations in order to gauge the extent of youth engagement using Twitter.  However, in order to do justice to our findings and due to space restrictions, we will not report on the findings of the Twitter data in this blog.

Survey Results

  • Contrary to wider discourse about youth disengagement from politics, the survey suggested that 75% of the general youth public were interested in politics prior to the referendum.
  • Partly confirming the premise of this study, around 73% of the general youth public indicated that the referendum had increased their interest in politics a lot.
  • Compared to the pre-referendum period, the proportion of young members of the public who actively campaigned on behalf of a campaign group during the campaign increased tenfold.
  • Since the referendum, young people’s engagement appears to have transferred from campaign groups to political parties: the proportion of young members of the public who are members of a political party quadrupled following the referendum campaign (again compared to pre-referendum campaign levels) while group-related activity dropped off sharply.
  • A clear emerging narrative is that non-partisan political groups were the primary vehicle for young people’s engagement during the referendum campaign, and that these have largely been supplanted as vehicles of engagement by political parties since the referendum.
  • 69% of members of the public (and 75% of MSYPs) reported that their use of social media to discuss political issues increased during the referendum campaign. Since the referendum, around 44% of young members of the public (and around 39% of MSYPs) report that their use of social media to discuss political issues has increased even further.
  • The nature of their social media usage appears to represent more of a ‘civic monologue’ than an ‘elite dialogue’. With the exception of MSYPs, there is little direct engagement with politicians, journalists, commentators etc., but a much higher incidence of giving their own opinion or retweeting someone else’s opinion.

Interviews with Young First-Time Voters

Our interviews have produced the following headline results:

Interest in politics

  • All interviewees stated that they had little or no interest in politics and policy issues before the Scottish independence referendum campaign began, but that the campaign had sparked increased interest and engagement.
  • Aside from independence and devolved powers, interviewees expressed interest in a wide range of policy issues, including: education; the state of the NHS; women’s rights; welfare benefits; immigration; wealth distribution; international affairs; defence; assisted suicide; childcare; zero hours contracts.
  • Whilst all of the interviewees have retained an interest in politics since the referendum campaign, many of them reported a drop in interest in relation to the 2015 General Election. This was largely due to many of them not being eligible to vote in 2015, and/or the ‘distraction’ of exams at school.

Voting behaviour, party membership and ‘activism’

  • 11 respondents said they had joined a political party during, or in the aftermath of, the referendum campaign. 9 of the 11 had joined the SNP, one the Scottish Greens, and the other the Conservatives.
  • 10 of the interviewees had actively campaigned during the build up to the independence referendum, all of them on behalf of Yes Scotland and/or the SNP. Their activities included: door-knocking, delivering leaflets, staffing street stalls, and attending or participating in rallies and debates. Most talked positively about their experiences, although some reported receiving verbal abuse.
  • Many of the interviewees reported ‘unofficial’ campaigning e.g. their efforts to influence the voting choice of friends and work colleagues through informal debates and discussions, either face-to-face or via social media.

Interviews with Parties / Groups

  • All of the parties and groups that we spoke to described a ‘referendum effect’ in terms of an increase in the number of young people engaging in their work during the referendum campaign.
  • However, they also confirmed our earlier finding that much of this activism moved dramatically from campaign groups to political parties immediately after the referendum.
  • Some of this was sustained in the 2015 General Election campaign, with most political parties describing how their new 16-19 year old supporters were keen to be involved in the full range of campaigning activities. These were often thought to be the young people who had an existing interest in politics prior to the referendum rather than those who were ‘activated’ by the referendum.


The findings reported suggest that young people can be mobilized politically given the right circumstances. Key questions remain about whether the activism and interest reported will be sustained, or whether the ‘referendum effect’ turns out to be ‘a flash in the pan’. Further study will be needed in the future to investigate the factors that influence political mobilization among young people. The future of Scottish politics, while uncertain, looks as if it will remain interesting in the next few years.

Note: this post gives the views of the authors and not those of Democratic Audit, or the LSE. Please read our comments policy before posting.

This post originally appeared on Democratic Audit – Scotland

Graeme Baxter
is a Research Fellow and part-time Lecturer at Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen.

Elizabeth Tait is a Lecturer at Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen

Peter McLaverty is a Reader at Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen

Iain MacLeod is a Lecturer at Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen

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