For 15 hours on September 18th, 100,000 young Scots had the chance to decide the fate of their nation. When the clock struck 10pm, they became powerless again.
The train from Glasgow to Edinburgh departs every few minutes, winding its way due east through the Scottish countryside and a smattering of towns over the course of 50 or so minutes. The service is a popular one, particularly at weekends, when Glaswegians and Edinburghers decamp to the other’s cities for a day of shopping. On September 27th, though, 16-year-old Belle Manning, her friend Marissa Bonner, 17, and Bonner’s mother Suzanne, were travelling on the busy Glasgow-Edinburgh train for another reason.
At one end of the Royal Mile, Edinburgh’s main thoroughfare, is Edinburgh castle. At the other end, down a cobbled street that throngs with tourists, the sound of bagpipes, and stores selling tartan knick-knacks, sits the nation’s seat of power: the Scottish parliament. The trio from Glasgow made their way out of Waverley station and down the Royal Mile, onto the ground behind the Scottish Parliament. There, little more than a week after Scots voted to stay in the United Kingdom, several hundred Yes voters congregated by the parliament’s doors in a mass gathering.
Most of the people in the crowd, and those speaking out through the blaring PA system, were middle-aged, but there was a strong youth contingent, with whom Bonner and Manning found friends and companions with a similar interest in the politics of their land.
The elder Bonner, who had chaperoned her daughter and friend to the event, was a ‘heart says Yes, head says No’ voter. It was her daughter’s passion over the course of the campaign that convinced her to follow her heart. “As a bystander, seeing my daughter’s maturity, and how energised she was, convinced me of the way to vote. I think on reflection they’ve given a gift to the country. People respect Scotland giving them the vote.”
“Voting was something your parents did,” says Manning over the sound of the crowd singing ‘Flower of Scotland’, an informal national anthem.
“They voted, you didn’t have a say. You were just young. And then when you realised you did have a vote you realise: ‘Okay, this is what’s going on.’ Before, we couldn’t vote, so what was the point?”
That all changed on September 18th. Scotland voted on a single, simple question: Should Scotland be an independent country? At stake was a 307-year-old union binding Scotland to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Polls opened for just 15 hours on the day. Doors at polling stations opened at 7am across Scotland; they shut at 10pm, after 3,623,344 people had passed through to cast their vote — 84.6% of the total eligible voters. Amongst those who had registered to vote in the nationwide referendum were 109,533 people under 18, the first ballot in the United Kingdom to enfranchise 16- and 17-year olds.
For first-time voters like Belle Manning, the situation was daunting. “I went in and I was really confused,” she explains. “I didn’t know what was happening. I was asking everyone, ‘What do we do?’ There were all these rules above the thing and I was really scared I would cross the wrong box when I did it. And I was worried because it was in pencil: I thought it could easily be rubbed out. But I don’t know.”
Those young people had a monumental decision to make: deciding the future of their country. And to do it, some people had to skip the last two lessons of their school day.
Joe Loughrey and his friends managed to avoid an hour-long history lesson — their last on September 18th — to vote. While most of his classmates had a short journey to their polling station, Loughrey had to take two buses on a trip just shy of two hours long to cast his ballot. But the 16-year-old wasn’t going to waste this chance to guide his, and his country’s, future.
Loughrey’s shy and retiring, just as you’d expect any 16-year-old on the end of a phone conversation with a journalist to be. His words are tentative and understated, but he’ll readily admit to being excited on the day. He and a group of friends had attended a political rally a few nights before: cheek to jowl with a band of strangers, he’d peacefully marched on the Scottish parliament building and felt part of a movement. Standing there in the polling station around 5pm, he had power. “It was a good feeling to put my cross in the box,” he admits.
The good feeling would be fleeting.
Young men and women just like Joe Loughrey exercised their right to vote on September 18th — and then promptly lost it again. At 10pm that night, as the ballot boxes were secreted away to be counted, and as Loughrey settled in with his family in front of the family television set to watch the results come in, he and many others his age went back to being without a voice. By the time Loughrey stopped watching around 6am the following morning, the result known, he’d been powerless for eight whole hours. Unless things change fast, those who don’t turn 18 before May 7, 2015 won’t get to vote in a poll of UK-wide importance until 2020. (Scottish youth may be able to vote in Scottish parliamentary elections in 2016, but presently that decision lies with the Westminster, not Edinburgh, government.)
“It’s very irritating,” says Loughrey. “I feel like because we’ve been given the opportunity now, we should be given the opportunity in the future. There are a lot of young people who have very valid political opinions.”
Jan Eichhorn, a chancellor’s fellow in social policy at Edinburgh University, has tracked the voting intentions and political engagement of 14- to 17-year-olds for the past two years, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). And contrary to the opinion that the young aren’t politically attuned or engaged, Eichhorn’s findings show that the young are just as interested in political events as adults. “Lowering the voting age has way more potential benefits than potential risks,” he says.
“The key thing is that their levels of political interest are about the same as adults. You have a very small group that are superpolitical, geeky; and a very small group completely disinterested. You get a normal distribution similar to adults.”
59% of 14- to 17-year-olds polled in Scotland said they were interested in what is going on in politics to some extent, or a great deal this year. You might think that’s an artificially inflated figure, buoyed by the proximity to a national-level referendum (polling was taken in April and May 2014, when both Yes and No campaigns were criss-crossing Scotland). But 57% said they were engaged in 2013.
Compare the six in 10 youngsters who said they were engaged to the 66% of those aged 18 or older who said they were interested in politics when asked by the 2013 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, and the argument that the young shouldn’t be given a vote because of disinterest fades away.
What is different, says Eichhorn, is that the young are less likely to feel close to political parties. “What we find at the core is not an apolitical youth, but a youth less likely to find resonance of their political ideas in those traditional political institutions like parties,” he explains.
A lot of young people want to stay involved in politics, says Eichhorn. There is evidence from Austria, where the voting age was lowered to 16 in 2007, that such an action, when coupled with a change in curriculum structure in schools, has a positive effect. “There’s a real opportunity now,” Eichhorn says. “There’s a more politicised population at all ages, especially young people. But it’s contingent on what happens next. If for some reason they wouldn’t be able to now vote in the Scottish parliament elections at 16, it’d send a very strange message.”
“After the referendum I want to vote in the next general election,” says Indie Orr, a shy 17-year-old with a sweeping fringe and shoulder length hair, downheartedly. “I’m disappointed I can’t now. I’m too young for that; I won’t be 18 by May. It kind of feels like I’ve been given a voice for one day and then it’s been taken away again.
“You can get married; join the army; start paying taxes; get jobs when you’re 16, and yet we can’t vote. It doesn’t seem fair.”
Orr was stood with his father Gordon, clad in combat trousers, a metal tee and a military helmet, a Saltire slung over his shoulders like a cape. Though Orr’s father is glad his son was given the vote, he can see the reasoning behind those who say 16 is too young. “I suppose 16-year-olds are more of a firebrand,” he says, grinning through tombstone teeth. “You’re more of an activist. You’re a child. You’re at that stage where everything is so important.”
Certainly, that appeared to be the case talking to the young men and women of Scotland who cast their vote. Belle Manning was conscientious of every moment and action when in the voting booth. Now, a week removed, she’s more determined than ever that she shouldn’t have to wait several years to vote again.
“I want the vote because we are the ones who are going to have to live with it,” she says clearly and calmly, her eyes unblinking. “We’re going to have to live through the changes that people are making through their votes. We really do know what’s happening. We aren’t voting just for the sake of voting. We got involved and we know what we are voting on.”
Others are more sanguine. “I’m so happy I got to vote,” says Loughrey — even if the result didn’t go the way he wanted. (His vote went to the Yes campaign, which gained 1.6 million votes, 44.7% of the total.) “I’m still proud that at least I tried.” As things stand, Loughrey’s next chance to cast his ballot will be the morning of May 7th, 2020.
Loughrey’s one of the lucky ones: at least he had the chance to vote. Had he been born in England, rather than Scotland, he’d still be disenfranchised. He has a simple stance on extending the voting age down to 16 across the UK, and to all elections: “I think everyone should get the vote. We got to. Why shouldn’t others?”
It seems like such a small thing, to put a cross in a box. But it’s loaded with such power and responsibility that for the disenfranchised, those long years could seem like a lifetime.
In the UK, the outgoing leader of the Scottish National Party, and Scotland’s First Minister (and the figurehead of the unsuccessful Yes pro-independence campaign) Alex Salmond has said that Scotland’s referendum experiment should be extended to national elections. He told the Scottish Parliament after the referendum that “there is not a shred of evidence for arguing now 16- and 17-year-olds should not be allowed to vote. Their engagement in this debate, this great constitutional debate, was second to none. They proved themselves to be the serious, passionate and committed citizens we always believed they should be. There is an overwhelming, indeed an unanswerable, case for giving 16- and 17-year-olds the vote in all future elections in Scotland, indeed across the United Kingdom.”
The Liberal Democrat party, who rule as the supporting party in a coalition government, made it a pledge in their 2001, 2005 and 2010 election manifestos. Ed Miliband, the Labour party leader, and head of the UK opposition, said at his party’s conference earlier this month that “it’s time to hear the voice of young people in our politics. We are going to give the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds.”
The Conservative party, the main group in government, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, has been studiously silent on the issue. The party’s conference, which ends today, so far hasn’t mentioned the issue. The legislative process moves at such a glacial pace that it’s unlikely, were there to be a large push in favour of extending the voting age downwards, it’d be effected in time for many of those who voted for the first time on September 18th. So they’ll continue to be engaged in UK politics, but without a say over the Westminster government, until 2020.
Watching Manning and Bonner pose themselves in front of the camera, eyes locked on the lens and shoulders set to the shutter, it’s easy to think of these people as typical teenagers, more interested in Snapchat than member’s bills, Instagram than the finer parts of policy, but that’s not true at all.
These are bright young minds, young adults eager to control their own future, to have a say in it, who were eager to craft a state. Many of them were not just shorn of the vote on Thursday night but ended up on the losing team on Friday morning.
Yet they’re not packing up and heading home: they pulled an all-nighter watching the results come in, and they’re still sticking around to see what they can contribute, what they can change, what they can affect in spite of their young years.