This is what happens when you let young Scots vote

On September 11, 1997, Scots voted for a devolved parliament with tax-raising powers. If that seems like a long time ago consider that there are tens of thousands of Scots born after the devolution vote who are eligible to vote on independence. These teenagers were also born after Braveheart was released – and how it shows: they seem to be far from the ardent Yes voters that many nationalists hoped for.

When it was announced that 16- and 17-year-olds would be eligible to vote in the referendum on independence, I instinctively thought that this would give a wee boost to the Yes side. Here are voters who have grown up under a devolved parliament. They are another generation removed from those with powerful experiences of British institutions and events such as the second world war. And why would Alex Salmond want them to vote if they were not more likely to be in the Yes camp?

There hasn’t been the repeated detailed polling required to establish a firm view of 16- and 17-year-olds’ intentions. In simple psephological terms, they are fast-moving targets: a 17-year-old on 18 September, 2012 will be 19 by the time of the vote. They are difficult to sample: all pollsters have trouble finding enough young people for their surveys and they haven’t quite figured out how to ask questions via Snapchat.

Nevertheless, research by Dr Jan Eichhorn and his colleagues from the University of Edinburgh suggests that young Scottish voters are sceptical of independence. In two polls, Dr Eichhorn et al asked 14-17-year-olds how they intended to vote in the referendum. (Asking 14- and 15-year-olds meant they would capture those who would be 16 and 17 at the time of the vote.) The researchers found that a majority opposed independence but that the margin had narrowed between the time of the first poll, in 2013, and that of the second, in 2014. I’ve depicted the data below:

One reason for this seeming lack of enthusiasm can be found in a survey question on whether young people think of themselves as Scottish or British or a mixture of both. Fourteen to seventeen year-olds are much less likely to say (15 per cent vs 31 per cent) they are “Scottish, not British” than those aged 18-24, and much more likely to say they feel “equally Scottish and British” (45 per cent vs 30 per cent).

If accurate, these surveys will have negative implications for the Yes campaign. Young Scots may turn out to be yet another example of the ungrateful enfranchised; both Disraeli and Wilson were turfed out by the electorate they expanded. But there are two other interesting implications suggested by the Edinburgh research.

The first is the favourable attitudes of young people towards the EU. I’m not sure how seriously to take this – I was interested in politics as a teenager and yet I can’t remember having informed views on Europe. Maastricht sounded more like a Scottish form of parenting than an EU treaty. Still, the results might further suggest that hyperconnected youngsters worry about being isolated in a small state.

The second issue is that the data seem to confirm what is apparent to anyone who spends time talking to Scots of this age – the independence referendum has politically energised young people. Only one in ten say they normally have a “great interest” in politics but about three-quarters say they will vote in the referendum. They are no less informed than the rest of us, according to Dr Eichhorn’s research. They are actively engaging: large majorities of those surveyed said they are talking about the issue with their parents, with their friends and in their classrooms.

There has been a lot of excellent reporting recently on how young people are more staid and responsible than their forebears. The Scottish referendum experience again suggests that we should revisit our assumptions about an irresponsible yoof. It also shows how events can galvanise interest in politics among young people. Based on the Scottish experience, there is little to be feared to extending the option of voting to those aged 16 and 17. In fact, they might even be smarter than the rest of us.