The votes were counted, the results were announced and – with that – the United Kingdom remained exactly as it was. For first time voters Sabina Jedrezejczyk, Sean Thomson and Amina Davidson, the Scottish independence referendum was so much more than just a ballot.
AS THE NEWS that Alex Salmond has stepped down as First Minister of Scotland pops up on my phone – interrupting our interview – Sean and Sabina both give a little gasp. “I told you!” exclaims Sean to Sabina, “I said this morning that would happen!”
Political engagement has been a welcome new dynamic among Scottish teens in the last few months, in the lead up to what was a potentially life changing referendum on independence. Our chat takes place the day after the results are in: the country’s electorate have chosen to remain in the UK, by a margin of 55 per cent of those against independence to 45 per cent for it.
With the voting age in Scotland being lowered to sixteen ahead of the decision, and with an unprecedented 84.5 per cent voter turnout on the day, this revitalised level of engagement and enthusiasm in politics from teenagers like Sabina and Sean is – Scotland should be proud to admit – nothing unusual.
However, there are a couple of differences between this pair of sixteen year olds and their peers. The two have been part of the BBC’s Generation 2014: a small group of young Scottish residents discussing issues for and against independence in the public eye since last September.
Thursday’s referendum was the first time they voted. It was a decision they made with some certainty, but not – I’m told – without a lot of thought and changes of heart beforehand. But for both, in the end, it was a “No”.
Sabina, who lives in Dalkeith but is originally from Poland, was undecided until only a week before the vote: deciding in the end that, ultimately, it “wasn’t worth the risk”.
“We’re stronger and safer together”, Sabina says decidedly, highlighting that security issues were a big part of her decision. “There could be a war soon – I’m not saying there will – but for all we know, it could happen any second”. Being part of the United Kingdom safeguards Scotland against this as part of a wider defence strategy.
Sean – a first time voter from Perthshire – nods in agreement. His stance on independence has gone through an even more drastic transition. Sean has gone from being an ardent ‘yes’ campaigner and SNP member, to an active advocate of the Better Together campaign and self-proclaimed convert to the political right.
This switch he attributes to the “contradictory and opaque” nature of the White Paper: a document released last year by the Scottish Government, outlining their vision of an independent nation. Far from convince him, the paper – which Sean adds, with some pride, that he read in its entirety – “pushed” him towards the No campaign.
“Yes was good in principle, but bad on paper: the more they wrote the less they said”, he summarises.
Even the promises of new powers to Scotland in the aftermath of a No vote aren’t something Sean is necessarily in favour of. Further plans for devolution should be taken “with a pinch of salt”, he argues: “there are just some things we should decide as a nation: its good to keep things within the existing framework”.
Sabina doesn’t necessarily agree. “No doesn’t have to mean no change” she says, the statement an echo of a popular phrase used during campaigning by Better Together. For her, waking up on the morning to find the country’s decision had been to remain in the UK brought a great sense of relief.
“I thought for a while that Yes were going to win, especially after the Glasgow ‘Yes’ rally. I was scared for the future. This morning I switched on the TV, and saw that No had won, and I was really relieved.”
“We had it in the bag”, Sean chimes in – confident in the No campaign’s victory from the beginning – “I knew we would win.”
There’s no need to be smug
Still, it’s not something to be ‘smug’ about: this they both agree on. Indeed, the high levels of discussion and engagement around the country are not entirely positive now that the referendum is over, and just under half of the population have been given an answer they’re unhappy with.
The friction between Yes and No voters in the lead up to the referendum wasn’t just constrained to rallies and televised debates: Sean and Sabina describe regular lunchtime fall outs in the playground over the country’s future.
“We discussed it more and more as it got closer” Sabina says, to the extent that “we would be shouting over each other”. Sean agrees that – while most of his friends were also No voters – the flipside of other young people informing themselves meant “yet another argument”.
“Some people took a lot of convincing!” Sean jokes, adding – on a more serious note – that he’s planning already to return to school on Monday and “acting as though nothing’s changed”, in awareness of how high emotions can run on this topic.
“The nation is divided”, Sabina says: this decision is now something that we should all “accept and move on” from.
A disappointed Yes voter
As we continue to chat over coffee, more of the Generation 2014 group enter the cafe. Among them is sixteen year old Amina Davidson: a first time voter from Edinburgh who had decided to vote Yes in Thursday’s referendum.
“Obviously I’m a bit disappointed” she says, adding that the seeming momentum of the Yes campaign had her really “hope towards the end” for a positive result.
Amina tells me that she’s been a Yes voter since the very beginning. This is because, put simply, “we should decide what happens in our own country, and our wealth should be spent in other ways”. Far removed from Sabina’s worries on security and Sean’s disillusionment with White Paper specifics, Amina outlines arts funding, Trident nuclear defence and the expansion of Gaelic media among her reasons for voting in favour of independence the day before.
Much like her Generation 2014 peers, she worries about division in Scotland’s future between those on either side of the vote. “I’ve always been open to both sides”, she explains to me. “My friends were a big mix, though we mostly voted yes. I’m just worried about No voters being smug now – they seem a bit up themselves today. Not all of them, obviously, but some”.
Nonetheless, the opportunity to vote and to participate in shaping the future of Scotland is something Amina found extremely exciting – even if the vote didn’t go the way she’d hoped. “We’re mature enough to work, to marry, to have kids and pay taxes: we’re old enough to decide our future”.
The real legacy
During my afternoon chatting with the most well-informed teenagers I’ve met in a long time, I get a glimpse of what they’d like their own – personal – futures to look like. Sabina, Sean and Amina all voice a desire to continue being active in politics and the media: with ambitions of political and journalistic careers. In fact – despite their differences on polling day – all three of these bright, informed and enthusiastic young people seem to share a common vision for what the legacy of this referendum should be: continued youth engagement with politics.
I sincerely hope that, outside the huge prospective changes passed up by fellow Scots last Thursday – or the proposed changes decided for us in Westminster in the coming months – that the real transformation to Scotland will be in the attitude of its youngest generations: towards politics and their part to play within it.
Written by Rachel Barr
Image: BBC images, Generation 2014