How can independence benefit young people in Scotland?

Too often in the debates on Scottish independence, the voice of one group is overlooked. The 16 and 17 year olds who voted in the 2014 referendum almost 10 years ago are now in their mid-20s. Many of them, like myself, will remember the referendum as the first point in their life in which they were politically active. Can we still say in Scotland that the current political situation both here and in Westminster has anything to offer young people today?

Improving quality of life for future generations should be the guiding principle of most, if not all, political campaigns and decision making. Among the most dedicated independence activists, there is a strong belief that while achieving independence will bring significant change to their own lives, it is ultimately the lives of those younger than them who will benefit the most. It is vital that we ensure that improving the lives of young people, both now and for future generations, remains at the heart of the independence movement. Here are five reasons that show why independence is vital for young people’s future. 

 

Independence strengthens the democratic voice of young people

Young people in Scotland are already kept at a disadvantage due to the ‘democratic deficit’ of the Westminster system. The UK Government is elected often by small majorities of English constituencies, which do not proportionally represent the support received. The needs of those represented by the 59 Scottish MPs cannot and will not ever be prioritised over the 533 English constituencies. Brexit, strict immigration policy, lack of investment in renewable energy and punitive benefits systems are all consequences of this deficit. 

Youth civic engagement and political participation is a problem plaguing most democracies that has yet to be solved. In the 2019 General Election, turnout ranged from 47% for 18 to 24-year olds to 74% among those in the 65+ age group. An unequal turnout has several knock-on effects. Those in government may be less likely to pursue policies which affect those groups, which may lead to further dissatisfaction with politicians, leading to lower turnout. This vicious cycle leads to young people feeling like the voice does not matter and politicians responding in kind. 

Lowering the voting age has attempted to remedy this. In Scotland, the minimum age for voting is 16 years old, rather than 18. A study conducted by the University of Edinburgh of young people in Scotland found that those who vote for the first time when they are 16 or 17 were more likely to continue voting in future elections. 

But Westminster still holds control over several issues that young people in Scotland care about. Only around 20% of young people across the UK report a high level of trust in the UK Government, civil service and elected politicians. Regardless of their own political preferences and how they might vote in devolved elections, Scottish young people are still at the mercy of the whims of the older, more conservative, Westminster electorate. 

Independence gives young people the chance to make their voices heard at all levels of political decision making. It would make it easier to hold politicians to account and decisions will have to be made with the interests of Scotland in mind. 

 

An independent Scotland would protect human rights

UK legislation has also attempted to restrict human rights legislation passed in Scotland – even those of children. In 2021, the Scottish Government passed a bill to incorporate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots law. However, Scottish Secretary Alistair Jack interfered to block the legislation, saying that it clashed with matters reserved to the UK Parliament. While the legislation may still be able to be incorporated into law, it will have significant gaps. Jack’s blocking of the bill foreshadowed his future interference with Scotland’s devolved authority – whether it be gender recognition legislation, bottle deposits or a new independence referendum.

The UK Government’s disregard for human rights ranges further than just interfering with devolved legislation. The UK is threatening to remove itself from the European Commission on Human Rights, due to its stance on refugees fleeing persecution and war. In June 2023, the Court of Appeal ruled that the UK Government’s much-criticised policy of sending refugees and asylum seekers to Rwanda was unlawful under the terms of the ECHR.  

The Scottish Government recently published a report about the development of the constitution of an independent Scotland. It argues that once it becomes independent, Scotland can incorporate human rights into its constitution, thus making it a central part of Scotland’s future. Independence gives Scotland the chance to protect the rights of people who live there, including children and young people. 

 

Young people want more powers to protect the environment

An independent Scotland could also prioritise issues that are important to young people, such as the environment and transitioning to a renewable energy system. Surveys of young people frequently show that the environment comes high in their priority list, with one study conducted by Channel 4 finding that 79% of young people are concerned about environmental issues. 

This has had a knock on effect on their wellbeing – with a different study by the University of Bath finding that 60% of 16 to 25-year olds surveyed felt very or extremely worried about climate change and two thirds feeling sad, afraid or anxious about the future. The climate crisis does not just present a physical threat to the livelihoods of young people, it also has caused a huge psychological threat to their wellbeing. 

Scotland has massive potential to be a future renewables powerhouse and could become a global leader in the transition to net zero. While energy policy is currently reserved to Westminster, the Scottish Government’s control over planning has allowed Scotland to take advantage of its natural resources and invest in renewables. In 2021, the equivalent of 85.2% of gross electricity consumption in Scotland came from renewable sources while in the same year, it accounted for 22.3% of the UK’s renewable energy generation. 

With independence, Scotland could take full control over energy policy and complete its transition from a country which has benefitted from extracting oil and gas to one that benefits from its vast renewable energy resources, ensuring the future of its young people is a bright one. 

 

Let’s build on policies that put young people first

Using the powers it currently has at its disposal, Scotland has been able to wield devolved powers as a way to improve the wellbeing of young people and tackle the issue of child poverty. A number of solutions which attempt to subvert UK ruling on child benefits include the introduction of the Scottish Child Payment, a removal of caps and limits and the introduction of universal free school meals for Primary 1 to 5 pupils in all schools. While the fact that 24% of children in Scotland live in poverty is an unacceptable statistic, this is still 5% lower than the UK average of 29%. 

Steps have clearly been taken to improve the wellbeing of children and young people across Scotland. However, with independence, we could do so much more. The UK government still has control over much of the benefits system, including Child Benefit. It is a harsh system, which reduces payments based on the number of children you have and is even removed if your child is in hospital for an extended period of time.

Independence gives Scotland control of all policies – with it, we could eradicate child poverty and improve the wellbeing of all young people who live here for generations to come. 

 

Independence can open up new opportunities

Independence also gives children and young people access to opportunities that they would otherwise not have had under the current Westminster system. Greater autonomy over education policy would also allow Scotland to make further improvements to the steps it has taken in education and training. Per pupil spending is currently the highest across the four nations that make up the UK and in 2022, 97.8% of Scotland's school leavers moved on to positive destinations (further education, work or training). Scottish graduates also leave university with three times less student debt compared to their English counterparts, in part due to tuition fees policy. 

When Scotland was forced out of the European Union, despite not voting to leave, universities were removed from the Erasmus Programme, which allowed students to study in other European countries with financial support and no additional tuition fees. EU membership allowed Scottish young people to travel, work and study in places that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to, as well as letting young Europeans do the same here. The number of EU students applying to Scottish universities more than halved in 2021. There is particular concern that the loss of this financial support limits this experience solely to the realm of wealthier young people. 

Independence would allow Scotland to reshape its relationship with Europe and the rest of the world. It would be free to pursue European integration if it wishes to do so, as well as adopting a more open foreign and immigration policy, which can provide the young people who live here better opportunities for their future.