Ian Swanson: Has referendum ended age of apathy?

Alex Salmond meets teenage first-time voters during the referendum campaign. Picture: PA
Alex Salmond meets teenage first-time voters during the referendum campaign. Picture: PA
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THERE’S one thing both sides in last year’s independence vote agree on – regardless of the result, the referendum got everyone talking and thinking about the future of the country and kind of place they wanted it to be.

Now a study by Edinburgh University researchers suggests this new interest in politics has continued and will feed through to an increased Scottish turnout at the general election in May.

The study grabbed headlines with its finding that 47 per cent of Scots think independence will happen within the next decade and 69 per cent believe it will happen eventually.

But perhaps more significantly, it also found people in Scotland are now much more likely than those in other parts of the UK to take part in political activities, talk about politics to their family, friends and colleagues – and turn out to vote.

Almost twice as many 18 and 19-year-olds in Scotland say they are certain to vote as people of the same age in England.

Overall, 76 per cent of Scots questioned said they planned to vote in the election, compared with 64 per cent in Wales, 63 per cent in England and 55 per cent in Northern Ireland.

That does not quite compare with the record 84.5 per cent turnout for last year’s independence referendum, but it is well up on the 65 per cent who voted in the 2010 general election and a dramatic contrast with the record low turnout of 59.4 per cent at the 2001 election.

The study also found more Scots had taken part in political activity than other people in the UK. Researchers asked if people had signed a petition, written to their MP, taken part in a boycott or joined a demonstration. In Scotland, 63 per cent had done at least one of these things, compared with an average 58 per cent for the UK overall. And 71 per cent of 18 to 19-year-olds in Scotland had taken part in some political action in contrast to just 47 per cent in England.

The referendum sparked much discussion and debate across Scotland – and the researchers found the habit had not gone away.

Some 62 per cent said that, within the past three months, they had 
discussed how the UK is governed with members of their family, compared with just 39 per cent in England. Some 54 per cent of Scots had had such discussion with friends and 29 per cent with colleagues, compared with 31 per cent and 14 per cent in England.

The findings point to a remarkable upsurge in people showing an interest in politics, wanting to discuss issues and eager to vote.

And after so much talk of voter apathy in recent years, fuelled by poor turnouts, that is a real boost for the democratic process.

It is widely accepted that people are more likely to bother to vote when they feel they can make a difference. The independence referendum was a good example of a high-stakes decision in which voters wanted to have their say.

The closeness of the polls in the run-up to this May’s general election may well mean people are generally more inclined to vote, but the striking thing from the Edinburgh University research is the gap between Scotland’s democratic engagement and that in the rest of the country. And it’s not just voting, but also discussing issues and taking part in political action.

It will be interesting to see if the referendum has brought about a permanent cultural shift and left Scots with a new confidence that they really can influence their own and their country’s future.