SEASONED debater Kezia Dugdale confessed they were the “scariest” audience she had faced in all the months of the referendum campaign.
Around 700 fifth and sixth-year pupils from Boroughmuir and James Gillespie’s high schools packed into Central Hall, Tollcross, to hear the case for and against independence and put their questions to the Yes and No camps.
Boroughmuir head David Dempster said it was the biggest gathering of new voters in the Capital – and possibly Scotland.
The decision to give 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote in the referendum has added thousands more people to the electorate. Polls suggest the original expectation that a majority of them would flock to the pro-independence cause was a mis-reading of the teenage mind.
However, yesterday afternoon’s event reflected a wide range of views and an eagerness to hear more from both sides about their vision of the future.
The 90-minute session saw Ms Dugdale, a Lothian Labour MSP, speaking up for the anti-independence Better Together campaign and Sarah Beattie-Smith, co-convener of the Edinburgh Greens, arguing for a Yes vote.
Ms Dugdale admitted to finding the sea of young people intimidating, but urged them to make sure they used their vote, whichever side they came down on.
She said: “You have a tremendous amount of power at your fingertips. This is your country, your future. It’s really important you cast your vote, whichever way you choose to use it.”
Questions ranged over familiar territory – the currency, European Union membership and defence – as well as what shape democracy might take after the referendum, the possibility of writing green principles into the constitution and the cost of independence.
But in contrast to some of the bitterness and bile evident in the wider debate, the tone of the answers from Ms Dugdale and Ms Beattie-Smith reflected the mood of positive inquiry coming from the audience.
The two women even found themselves in agreement at several points, not least when asked about the campaigns’ rival claims about a £1000 “independence bonus” or a £1400 “UK dividend”.
Ms Beattie-Smith said: “I don’t think people are that self-interested that money is the only thing that matters. There are more important things to be voting on.”
Ms Dugdale said she was “despairing” when she heard about the competing financial projections. She said: “No-one is going to run up and nick £1400 off you or stuff £1000 in your pocket. We need to get away from this kind of debate.”
And on the currency, Ms Beattie-Smith explained the Greens did not share the SNP’s view that a sterling zone with the rest of the UK was the best option for an independent Scotland. That was “not real sovereignty”, she said. She preferred the idea of Scotland creating its own currency.
Ms Dugdale said she had “huge respect” for that stance. “That’s proper independence,” she added.
Edinburgh University politics professor Charlie Jeffrey, who chaired the event, took a series of straw polls.
These showed everyone wanted to remain in the EU, a narrow majority believed the pro-UK parties’ promise of more powers if there was a No vote, most were against a currency union and a majority thought Scotland would be financially worse off under independence.
There was no show of hands on Yes or No. But by the end of the session, a majority of about 60-40 said they now felt they had enough information to make a decision, compared to nine in ten who said at the start they did not.
Donald MacDonald, head teacher at Gillespie’s, said the exchanges had been “dignified and respectful” and the event compared favourably with some of the TV debates between politicians from the Yes and No campaigns, which he said had been “quite poor” and “antagonistic”.
Mia Anderson, 15, from James Gillespie’s, said she had been reassured by what she had heard. She said: “I’m a Yes voter and it really consolidated how I felt before. And it settled worries, that whatever happens it’s going to be fine. Either way it’s going to be OK.”
Fellow Gillespie’s pupil Nadia Simoleit, 15, was impressed with the two speakers.
She said: “I thought it was very equal. They were open-minded and able to see and embrace each other’s views.”
But she added she was leaning more to a Yes vote. “I’m worried Britain tends to follow the United States too much,” she said. “Independence might mean it was easier for Scotland to be more like Scandinavia.”
Charlotte Jackson, 16, from Boroughmuir, felt the afternoon had left her clearer about the issues.
“It simplified all the information,” she said. “It’s not that there was a lack of information before, but it was really complex.” She said she was inclined to vote No. “They are both pretty strong campaigns, but I just feel we would probably still be better together.”
Another Boroughmuir pupil, Sofia Cogliano, 17, said: “I was undecided before the event and I’m still just as undecided. It was all useful and informative, but I’m no nearer a decision.”
Harry Rigg, 18, who has just finished at Boroughmuir, said he had previously decided to vote No – but he is not against independence for all time.
He said: “I feel this is not about my parents’ generation or my generation, but my children and their children. I think we might as well test devolution as much as we possibly can before going for independence – but may be in 30 or 50 years time it would be right for Scotland to be independent.”
Jamie Dorward, 17, from Boroughmuir, said he had been swayed one way and then the other: “There’s no single issue that will decide it for me. What I’m most interested in is how it would change day-to-day life.”
Consulting the nation
PEOPLE in Scotland are being asked for their views on how the nation would be governed in the event of independence.
The Scottish Government has published a draft Scottish Independence Bill and invited feedback through a public consultation over the next four months.
The document sets out ministers’ proposals for an interim constitution, which they want to be in place on the first day of independence, as well as the process for producing a subsequent permanent written constitution.
It proposes an obligation to advance towards nuclear disarmament and the strengthening of human rights protection.
Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she wanted the process of creating a constitution to be an “energising” one which ensures the people of Scotland are “centrally involved in designing and determining a written constitution as the blueprint for our country’s future”.
Such a constitution would form the “foundations of the state” by setting out, for example, where powers and duties lie in the state, the rights of its citizens, and the underpinning laws.
Scottish Green Party co-convener Patrick Harvie welcomed “this very clear statement of intent – that Scotland aspires to be a modern, compassionate democracy where power is held to account.”
But Scottish Labour MSP Jackie Baillie said: “People would be more interested if the Nationalists had set out what the start-up costs of independence would be, what would replace the pound, or how our pensions would be paid.”
Scottish Conservative chief whip John Lamont said: “The Scottish Government appears to be confusing a country’s constitution with an SNP wishlist.”