Ruth Davidson's Lessons from the Scottish Referendum

24 Jun 2015

The following is republished with the kind permission of Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson. It is one part of Giving 16 and 17 Year Olds the Vote - The Tory Case, a publication from the Tory Reform Group.

The Scottish Independence referendum on 18th September was unprecedented for many reasons. The decision, for the first time in British history, to give 16 and 17 year olds the vote was just one of them.

The extension of the franchise followed negotiations between the UK and Scottish Governments prior to the vote, at the insistence of the former SNP leader Alex Salmond. Salmond believed at the time that adding this extra 3% onto the electorate – or 125,000 voters – would help his cause. Some polls showed that support for independence was running highest among the younger generation (by as much as 8%, according to one survey). Thus, he ran a concerted campaign to give them a vote. The UK Government agreed to let him have his way.

The political motives for the decision may have been questionable but the democratic effect turned out to be entirely positive. As the campaign wore on, schools, colleges and universities across Scotland took the opportunity to engage with students about the referendum. Countless school debates and hustings were organised, and numerous mock referenda were staged. The level of interest was immense. Towards the end of the campaign, the BBC staged a live TV debate in the 13,000 seat Glasgow Hydro arena, inviting 16 and 17 year olds from every secondary school in Scotland. Despite widespread scepticism about whether the broadcasters could meet their ambition, the students filled the auditorium to the brim, providing a remarkable example of their level of interest and engagement.

The statistics backed that up. By polling day, the Electoral Commission declared that 121,497 16 and 17 year olds had taken the effort to register their intention to vote. It amounted to more than 90% of the total age group. Polling stations across the country witnessed school pupils in their uniforms eagerly taking up the opportunity to cast their ballot. By then, no-one was arguing that extending the franchise had been a mistake.

In the weeks following the referendum, the debate has inevitably shifted onto whether the franchise should now be extended to all other elections. 4 Those in favour of the status quo argue that while the referendum offered a clear, unambiguous choice, parliamentary elections present a more muddied, multi-layered decision which require a more mature electorate.

But having watched and debated in front of 16 and 17 year olds throughout the referendum, I have found myself unable to agree. My position has changed. We deem 16 year olds adult enough to join the army, to have sex, get married, leave home and work full-time. The evidence of the referendum suggests that, clearly, they are old enough to vote too.

There is a final irony in the referendum example. The Nationalists had only pushed the case for extending the franchise because they believed it would boost their vote. But there was evidence that, once they engaged with the facts, a majority of 16 and 17 year olds decided – just like everyone else - to say No Thanks. In a mock referendum of more than 10,000 16 and 17 year olds in Aberdeenshire, more than three-quarters voted No. Similar votes at the Universities of Glasgow, Dundee, Strathclyde and Edinburgh all followed suit. Surveys before the vote showed that 16-17 year olds had the exact same concerns as everyone else, the economy prime among them.

Far from being dazzled by the Nationalist banner, it appears 16 and 17 year olds considered the facts just as rationally – if not more so – as everyone else. If that doesn’t prove they are worthy of the vote, I don’t know what does.

Ruth Davidson MSP


10 Responses to Ruth Davidson's Lessons from the Scottish Referendum

Peter Penrose 24 Jun 2015

yes, go for it

peter rutherford 24 Jun 2015

I don't beluieve youngsters are ready to  vote at 16, and often don't give a hoot. They can be swayed by the likes of Rusell Brand and some temporariliy hip performer. This could be seriously abiused.

Peter Armitage 24 Jun 2015

Do you look at facts? Do you even read? Or are you just plain uninformed and prejudiced?

Callum Robertson 26 Jan 2017

If they could be swayed by the likes of Russel Brand then they wouldn't vote... Furthermore the assertion that they don't care is unsubstantiated and factually inaccurate.

david smith 24 Jun 2015

I never thought I would be complaining about Scottish affairs, but the scottish parliment is working any situation to allow them to win.It is what is known as moving the goalposts.
When they had the referendum about being independent myself and and a few  thousand other ex pats were not allowed to vote, but people who had moved into Scotland from everywhere in the world were given the vote.
I would now never trust Sturgeon or Salmon to look after my cat, let alne my country of origin.
I left many years ago because there was no work and they still have not done anything to improve the country. The Dynamic Duo will bring Scotland to it's knees.
Dave Smith

tern 24 Jun 2015

Including Scottish people born to emigrant parents, who had begun their lives in exile and had moved home.
Who obviously rightly had the vote, but who if they checked their facts, voted No after discovering an astounding racist atrocity, new Clearances, breaking up of families and purging of the nation targeting a section of its people for persecution, all in violation of European Convention article 8. This was, that they actually intended to make citizenship by descent, for those diaspora Scots who would not chance to already be resident here on independence day, refusable. For the whole 10 months after publishing the White Paper, they would never say the provision for  citizenship  by descent would not be refusable.
This made the ref a 1940-type moment. It justifies prosecution of the Yes leaders at supranational level for the global offence of planning ethnic persecutions against sections of a population. Yet the No campaign leaders who chose not to pay any attention to it in the national campaign, who instead calculated that in Britain's present racist conditiion they would portray Yes as the immigration-liberal side while knowing that it had this in its evil plan to make Scots rejectable from residence in their own country, would be in the dock too.

Janet MacLeod T... 25 Jun 2015

I too was incredibly impressed by the engagement and high level of debate amongst the 16 and 17 year olds at the televised debate in Glasgow before the Scottish Referendum. I think doing the same for the EU Referendum would be just the spur needed to get this age group active and interested south of the Border. It's their future too.

Peter Watts 24 Jun 2015

Apart from jockeying for advantage, the only argument against votes at 16 is fear that such voters wuld be too inexperienced to be informed, to understand or to resist illogical emotional pleas by demagogues. From my 50+ years of interest in politics, I've met a lot of older voters of whom I have had the same fears, It never occured to me to deprive them of the vote. Mind you, neither did I work out how to persuade them all of my infinite wisdom - fortunately, as I might have been wrong.

Will Richards 24 Jun 2015

Most young people are naturally disinterested in politics, or woefully ignorant of the issues. Even of those who do take an interest, or want to be able to vote, there is much emotive, knee-jerk responding, and high levels of naivety.  Worryingly, and particularly prevalent on the left of politics, we have witnessed predominantly young Green and Labour supporting people, screaming "racist!", "facsist!" or whatever at UKIP, Farage, etc, and absolutely no interest in discussing, debating, challenging, or indeed being challenged.
I agree with Peter Rutherford and David Smith, and suggest that allowing 16 and 17 year olds to vote has significantly more to do with the Scots Nats and Europhiles winning support, than with any apparent 'rights' youngsters should or shouldn't enjoy

Andrew Manning 24 Jun 2015

It appears the above comments have slightly meandered of the path from the original subject, votes for 16-17.. though thats not to say the above comments do not have merits and their  own,but placed in another section.To re- meander back on the path of the original subject,I find myself in the "Ruth Davidson camp" as a convert to lowering the age for voting.(16-17 but no lower)-see, i can convert on the road to Damascus  .....if we use the `materity measurer` of whom should vote,then many 40-plus would find automatic disqualification from this important fuction- oh and before i`m pillified as being anti-older people,i`m 50 myself.By lowering the age, does not neccesarly mean that age group will vote(or not) just be given an opportunity ..After all, my generation-don`t worry i`m not going to burst into song of THe Who`s famous soundtrack-have really made some blunders in our voting actions in the past, so let`s give the 16-17 years a chance either to amend our mistakes,or make their own..  

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