Douglas Maxwell is currently reading for an MPhil at the University of Cambridge and spent the last three months working as a legal researcher at the Scottish Parliament for Margaret Mitchell MSP.
The sovereign will of the Scottish people has been exercised, and the United Kingdom remains intact. However, the apparent dignity of Alex Salmond’s initial acceptance has quickly been replaced by bitter entrenchment. Coverage of the referendum has brought Scottish politics to the forefront of world affairs and awakened the Home Nations to the realisation that all is not well in Scotland. But what does the future hold for the union?
The SNP would like to perpetuate their conviction that this is ‘Generation Yes’: a politically aware, young and enthusiastic Scottish youth, committed to Scottish independence, with a disdain for Westminster and especially Tory governments. In recent days the SNP have bragged about their strong base within Scotland’s youth who apparently voted overwhelmingly for independence. Alex Salmond went as far to speculate that, “when you have a situation where the majority of a country up to the age of 55 is already voting for independence then I think the writing’s on the wall for Westminster. I think the destination is pretty certain, we are only now debating the timescale and the method.”
So did 71 per cent of sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds really vote Yes, and is Scotland slipping inevitably away from the United Kingdom?
Firstly, the figure is drawn from a cross-break from a recent Lord Ashcroft poll intended to study the whole Scottish result. The sample of under-18s polled was therefore very small – fourteen were asked of whom ten stated that they had voted Yes and four stated that they had voted No. Quite simply attempts to use a sub-group from a poll as an accurate representation of voting patterns are incorrect. University and school mock referendums conducted prior to the vote showed overwhelming support for the Union. A study of over sixty different institutions, representing tens of thousands of individuals, averaged at sixty nine point five per cent in favour of the status quo. When looking at individual schools the results become even more stark. Westhill Academy in Aberdeenshire polled at 88 per cent No, Banchory Academy at 79 and Kemnay Academy at 77. YouGov published a study on the 18th of September showing that only 46 per cent of sixteen to twenty four year olds were planning on voting Yes.
When the results are properly looked at it becomes apparent that the SNP’s claims of a generation of young nationalists desperate to end the United Kingdom lack substance. The over-65s did vote overwhelmingly No but this was not the real indicator of voting patterns.
The areas that voted Yes, or where the results were close, coincide with areas with the greatest social deprivation and unemployment. It is over-simplified to state that those who voted Yes did so out of a longing for ‘change’ in any form but it is important to remember that the response ‘How can it get any worse?’ was often heard on the campaign trail when Better Together campaigners warned individuals about the inherent risks of independence. While the evidence overwhelmingly shows that the stability of the Union gives the best possible platform to tackling these inherent problems within Scottish society it was the Yes campaign that managed to rally their support. Their message was overwhelmingly positive, yet crucially lacking in substance.
If you were unhappy, all you had to do was vote Yes and your dreams would become a reality – and more importantly it would ‘end Tory rule forever.’ However, the anecdotal ‘there are more pandas at Edinburgh Zoo than Tories in Scotland’ doesn’t chime with the more than 400,000 Scots who voted Conservative at the last General Election or the fifteen MSPs in Edinburgh, comparable to the Liberal Democrats’ five.
When David Cameron spoke in Aberdeen the audience was notably youthful, highlighting that the Conservatives in Scotland are building solid foundations for the future. Scotland is moving away from wallowing in being the perceived victim of Thatcherism and past Conservative policies. The new socially liberal, secularist and fiscally conservative policies adopted under the energetic leadership of Ruth Davidson means the party is strongly positioned to re-emerge as a more prominent force within Scottish and indeed British politics.
The incredibly high turnout was certainly facilitated by the grassroots determination of the Yes campaign, whose energy was admirable and only sporadically fanatical. There does however remain a fear in Scotland of speaking out against independence. While most likely unfounded the worry remains that wearing a ‘No thanks’ badge or displaying a poster in support of the Union might expose one to ridicule and even violence from certain nationalist elements. The internet has become the most virulent example of this where every single news story or Facebook comment is followed by angry, often depressingly repetitive responses. Yet it would be wrong to state that this is a problem distinct to Scottish nationalism.
The portrayal of the overweight, bitter nationalist fanatically typing vitriolic abuse online while playing the theme tune from Braveheart is not useful, or indeed a fair reflection of how the Yes campaign was conducted overall. The point remains that Scotland’s youth has a duty to speak up and dispel the myth of ‘Generation Yes’ without fear of recrimination in any form. In short, I write this with underlying feelings of trepidation due to the often aggressive responses those who dare to speak out have faced over the past year.
The real challenge for Scotland is not its place within the United Kingdom but how to tackle the large numbers who feel disenfranchised from the main political parties. This has many causes and the solution requires a multitude of differing factors, injections of enthusiasm and a willingness to change. Independence is certainly not the answer but the fact Scotland voted No should not detract from the fact that almost 45 per cent of the electorate felt unhappy with the status quo.
The future is not Generation Yes, as the nationalists like to assert, but a more politically aware and assertive Scotland, proud of its own identity within the United Kingdom.