‘Young people cannot be trusted with political decisions’ – Why actually?

The minimum voting age for the Scottish independence referendum will be 16 rather than the usual one of 18. Many commentators have expressed strong views on whether this is a good idea or not. On the one hand it has been argued that younger people can judge the merits of or problems with independence just as well as anybody else, and that they ought to be involved in a decision about what will very much be their future. On the other hand multiple public figures have claimed that under-18 year olds would be ill-informed, largely uninterested, and inclined to follow the views of others rather than make a choice for themselves.While sometimes presented eloquently, these viewpoints, were not usually based on any empirical research. Until now there has not been any investigation of the attitudes of a representative sample of 14-17 year olds towards Scottish independence – even though all those currently aged 14 ½ or more will be able to cast a vote. Funded by the ESRC a team of researchers from Edinburgh University (Prof Lindsay Paterson, Prof John MacInnes, Dr Michael Rosie and myself) has now filled that gap.The core finding of the survey is intriguing: Only just over one in five said they supported independence, while 60% disapproved and just under 1/5th said that they were undecided. This represents a markedly lower level of support for independence than in any recent poll of the adult population.This difference suggests that young people are inclined to make up their own minds rather than all simply following the lead of others,  in particular their parents. That indeed is the case. As well as interviewing 14-17 year olds themselves, we also asked one of their parents whether they supported or opposed independence. This revealed that while 59% of young people had the same view as the parent to whom we spoke, over 40% held a different view.

Not that young people are forming their views in isolation. Nearly all (88%) had talked with someone else about the referendum – though to whom they have talked varies a lot. While some have talked to parents, others have discussed the issue with friends or classmates. Some have talked to all three! How their views are formed differs and means that we have to consider the perspectives of young people as complex.

Indeed young people seem hungry to learn more. No less than two-thirds said they wanted more information before making their final decision. It looks as though whichever side can get its message across more effectively might yet be able to win many a convert.

Moreover, there is little sign of apathy. Over two-thirds say they are ‘very’ or ‘rather likely’ to vote in the referendum; only 13% say that do not intend to vote in the referendum. Indeed far from being a disengaged generation nearly 60% say they are interested in politics ‘to some extent’ at least – as was evident in the interest that young people exhibited in our project when we asked a group of them to tell us how we might improve a draft version of our survey.

Uninterested? Certainly not. Following the lead of others? Not obviously so. Ill-informed; well at least young people seem to be aware of the importance of making an informed choice. And to help them do so, we will be developing politically neutral materials that can be used in classroom activities and will be meaningful to young people. But it looks as though there is plenty of work for the politicians and campaigns to do too.

More information and updates about the project can be found at http://www.aqmen.ac.uk/youngscotsurveyresults

Topics: The Scottish independence referendum

About the author

Dr Jan Eichhorn is a research fellow at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Social and Political Science. His research focuses on issues of political participation as well as subjective well-being.