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Letting the future vote

With but three months to go before a national referendum on independence, Scotland is turning to its youth for leadership.

Residents as young as 16 can vote in the Sept. 18 national referendum on whether Scotland should become an independent nation. At present, polls suggest the No side has the lead, but both sides are claiming a strong turnout by voters 16 to 24 years old could seal them a victory.

That age range represents 12 per cent of the country’s population, so a decided swing in the vote among that group could swing the referendum outcome as a whole. If they actually decide to vote.

It will also be the first time people that young will have voting rights in the United Kingdom.

That aspect of this race makes the Scots’ referendum worth watching, never mind the prospect of seeing the world peacefully create a new country.

Convincing young people that exercising their democratic right is worth the effort has gotten more difficult in recent years. Even with the rise in popularity of social media and its use by political parties in campaigns, young people seem to get turned off when the discussion moves from celebrity gossip to current events.

But when relevance rises, so does participation.

Student protests over tuition fees in Quebec drove young adult participation in Quebec’s 2012 election to 62 per cent (it was 36 per cent in the previous election in 2008).

Organizers are hoping that a similar connection can be made for youth in Scotland in September.

The clincher, it seems, is to convince people that they have a personal stake in the outcome of a vote, and that their input matters. But shouldn’t that be the case for all people, in all campaigns?

It shouldn’t take much effort to convince people that one’s national identity is important — especially at those moments in history when you get to choose what it will be.

But surveys of young people show that in Scotland, people aged 15 to 17 are quite able to imagine the consequences of the vote, and that rhetoric alone will not be enough to gain their support.

Carrington-Dean is a Glasgow-based financial group that provides advice to personal and corporate clients. They’re the largest independent group in Scotland that people turn to when they get into debt trouble, for instance.

Their poll, taken in May, shows that young people are quite capable of looking into their own futures and questioning the outcomes of large questions.

Almost two-thirds of more than 1,000 15-to-17-year-olds said they worried about their country’s economic outlook. An equal portion also worried about their families falling into debt. Just over half worried they themselves might fall into debt.

When the questions were taken a step deeper, the results got more complex, indicating the people taking the survey are quite able to connect the dots between Scotland’s independence and their own futures.

The answers suggest they’re not sure and are questioning what they’re being told.

About 41 per cent said they believed their families would be worse off in an independent Scotland, versus 21 per cent who believed they’d be better off. A smaller minority — 39 per cent — thought they themselves would be worse off, versus 25 per cent who thought they as individuals would prosper better in an independent country. Being unsure is a good response, if it means one is looking to become more sure.

That should have lessons for the rest of the world.

Perhaps today’s youth are not the entirely self-absorbed and personally entitled group they are often characterized to be. Maybe the superior educations and opportunities we’ve given them have indeed led them to a maturity that we’ve hoped they would grow into.

If youth as young as 16 can be trusted with helping to decide a national future in a referendum, maybe we can trust them with referenda on other long-future topics as well.

Should British Columbia call for a referendum on allowing the Northern Gateway pipeline to cross the province — and don’t believe that question isn’t likely — perhaps 16 year-olds should have a say in the outcome.

That’s only one question that pops into mind.

A city council like Red Deer’s, interested as it is in public consultation, could easily think of several others.

We’ve invested a lot in our youth. If they — like anyone else — can be convinced they have a stake in the outcome of questions, and that their input matters, why not trust them with a share of power over the answers to questions of the day?

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at or email

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