Engaging young people in politics – the lessons of the Scottish referendum

Yesterday, at the annual Scottish Learning Festival in Glasgow, attended by 4,000 delegates, the Scottish Education Secretary, Mike Russell, announced a Children and Young People’s summit in Scotland. Although neither the format nor the timing of the event is clear as yet, the announcement was broadly welcomed – and with reason. The engagement of young people in the recent Scottish referendum was uplifting: of the 3.6 million voters (a fantastic 85% turnout rate nationally), over 100,000 were 16 and 17 year olds, voting for the first time, and the quality of their thinking and reflection became clearer and clearer as the day of the referendum approached. This kind of political engagement, in a demographic frequently accused of being politically apathetic, was absolutely to be welcomed, and is most certainly to be encouraged for the future.

In fact, what was noticeable about the weeks and days running up to 18th September was how engaged all young people were in the issue, from the youngest to those verging on adulthood. 11 year olds were heard to declaim their views passionately; 5 year olds were seen gleefully pointing out and counting ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ signs in the windows of houses. (It was a Literacy and Numeracy specialist’s dream.) I was approached, even, by a 3 year old who asked me what I was going to vote; when I turned the question round and asked him what he thought, he was able to tell me exactly what and why. It does not matter that in all likelihood these were the views of his parents – what matters is that politics was at last seen as something that meant something to young people, and that they were engaged with it.

We often underestimate young people; and, to be fair, not all of them always do themselves favours in trying to make the wider world think differently. As someone who has worked closely with young people for two decades, however, I believe firmly in the potential of the young to think intelligently and with tremendous, enormous creativity. Often, they refuse to be hidebound by the restrictions we place on ourselves, and will not accept the argument that ‘it can’t be done’ … we need thinkers like this in our society, and we should encourage their involvement as we challenge them to find solutions. By giving them responsibility – be it in a Summit or otherwise – we will help them to develop their own sense of responsibility, and they will be enabled to embark sooner rather than later on the path towards global citizenship.

What have we to lose?


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