Youth Referendums Can Lead The Way

Democracy is the most revolutionary idea that the world has ever known: the popular control of power. This article is a short and simple case for community referendums to enthuse campaigning on Scotland’s future. University of Glasgow students are planning to hold such a referendum in February 2013.

Catalonia, SNP Youth, University of Glasgow

  1. A single council-ward vote on Independence captured the public imagination and sparked mock referendums involving nearly two-hundred thousand people. (Arenys de Munt, Catalonia, 2009) Catalonia continues to hold unofficial votes as a sign of democratic defiance to constitutional legal orders.
  2. Across Scottish Universities in 2011-12, SNP Youth polled over 500 students on Independence in casual public ballots. The Guardian reported on Scotland’s ‘Independence Generation’.
  3. In February 2013 the University of Glasgow students have cross-party backing for a referendum on Independence. This includes representatives from GU Dialectic Society, GU Politics Society, GU Labour Club, GU Scottish Nationalist Association, International Socialist Group (Glasgow) & GU Conservative & Unionist Society. For this, organising begins in September.
Mock-referendums provide a focal point for campaigning and discussion on Scottish Independence. Organising Youth Referendums across Scotland’s colleges and universities would focus the debate on the future and the aspirations of young people. Referendums provide for broad participation with universal application – from workplaces to blocks of flats to retirement homes. It is a dynamic form of democratic decision making. They’re also a bit of fun. The challenge is organisation.

Campaign Births & Political Action

Yes Scotland and Better Together have launched ‘official’ campaigns. Both are drowning in management speak and style: built upon a desire to emphasise continuity and patriotism. Large sections of Scottish society desire neither and face being left uninspired by male, pale, stale politics.

The Radical Independence Conference is attempting to fill this void, with its progressive declaration. I imagine the newly formed coalition ‘Youth & Students for Independence‘ will follow in this vein.

It is to the latter of these groups I make the proposal of campus referendums.

A radical, democratic Scotland requires radical, democratic action. Stalls and leafleting are the bog-standard forms of campaigning. Beyond that, ideas such as organising electoral registration drives among the young and working class – groups often with the lowest turnout – is ambitious, creative and necessary. Organising college and campus referendums next February is a natural supplement to this.

The media love the symbolism of enacting an event. The referendum will become real across colleges and campuses when the first community votes are held, the ballots drop & the results are announced.

Democracy is Scotland must be a process and not a single event in 2014. I hope the first meeting of ‘Youth & Students for Independence’ supports actions which can lead the way.

Logistical Challenges

There are two over-arching challenges to holding successful community referendums: a legitimate process and encouraging broad participation. To do this on a large scale requires bi-partisanship and organisational resources. This is in many ways organic, and has to grow from connections and invitations between interested individuals and groups. It cannot be forced by a small, central clique in favour or against Independence at either a national or a local level. This is the benefit of the broad involvement which has been established the the University of Glasgow.

However, a national series of referendums would gain legitimacy from the support of ‘Youths & Students for Independence’. Those associated may investigate the potential of a 2013 vote with their own institution. YSI could support these events on a case by case basis. The UoG Referendum is at the early stages of creating a logistical framework for voting, campaigning and publicity; & this would be useful across Scotland.

In a perfect world, each campus and college student union would support this proposal, providing impartiality beyond any doubt. However, if all a particular campus can muster is a small passionate group, it is better that a poor referendum is held than not held at all. It is at least an opportunity for debate and to be part of the national collective.

All feedback is welcome; as this idea is far from perfect or certain. It is at least a start for proposing collective action.

Michael Gray
University of Glasgow

A basic account of why this democratic proposal matters

There is a strong argument that the current structure of democracy, especial Westminster’s model, is in crisis. Fewer and fewer people vote in elections. The recent Scottish local election turnout was 37%. Fewer and fewer people hold trust in elected representatives. The recent Scottish social attitude survey placed trust in Westminster at 18%. Trust in the U.S. Congress has fallen below 10%. Although Scotland’s Government has performed reasonably well since devolution, even in Caledonia there is a pervasive cynicism towards political representation.

This severe disconnect between governments and the governed is not the fault of the people. It is the fault of a political structure which entrenches narrow elites with similar interests, views and backgrounds. The problem is elitism. We call it ‘the political class’. Joseph Schumpeter’s influential Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy welcomed democracy by the few. In his view an apathetic and ignorant public must accept ‘procedural democracy’ comprising meaningless elections based upon charisma not policy. That was prophetic for 1942.

David Held’s continuous thesis Models Of Democracy argues that we are undergoing a shift from procedural to deliberative democracy. This relies upon trusting citizens not only to think but to think in each others common interest. It’s democracy with equality, liberty and citizenship; such as the recent series ‘Democracy Max’ announced by Electoral Reform Society Scotland; or this very concept of trusting all young people to engage in and determine local referendums before 2014. Cynical doubts remain – would you trust a stranger on the bus to vote on the laws of the nation? Do you trust a jury’s judgement in a court-room? Doesn’t leadership require ‘efficient’ decision making without the constant drag of democracy? That’s Plato; but I’d like to hope that humanity has evolved and raised its expectations of common education since then.

How does democratic transition relate to the current Scotland debate? Firstly, the ‘ends’ of Independence include a written constitution. This raises the important challenge, perhaps our most important challenge, of how we, the people, would shape a written constitution after Independence. The democratic opportunity is immeasurable. It includes altering a system which has fostered distrust for an alternative with greater civic representation and responsibility. What could Scotland’s democracy look like beyond a single chamber parliament of party politicians? What could this change mean for how we treat our most vulnerable, how we go to war & how we raise our taxes when ordinary people influence the decisions of Government? If we asked citizens to engage in lawmaking – with the same support, time, deliberation and structure we provide jury members analysing evidence – I’d see better government for all. “Nothing less can be ultimately desirable than the admission of all to a share in the sovereign power of the state.” (Mill)

The ‘means’ of the Independence Campaign must embrace this democratic creativity. Passionate advocates on both constitutional sides have everything to gain through engaging the undecided and apathetic who can swing the 2014 result. James Maxwell raises this challenge to Yes Scotland: to take the road less travelled by can make all the difference. To Maxwell this means focusing on the young and working class who are most often excluded from our present day ‘procedural democracy’.

Often the starting gun fires before you notice it. For the Scottish optimists who support egalitarianism, social justice & democracy, the time for action cannot be around the corner. It cannot happen after the meaning of constitutional change has been diluted down to a minimal transition of flags. It cannot happen after the referendum. We must start as we mean to go on by speaking up for radical notions of democratic change.


Dahl, Robert (1989) Democracy & Its Critics

Francis, Kevin Active Citizenship and Effective Political Power Paper, 2009, University of Glasgow

Hassan, Gerry Debating Independence, Avoiding the Issues June 19th 2012 open Democracy

Held, David (2009) Models of Democracy

Maxwell, James & McCormick, Callum Yes Scotland & the Class Question July 20th 2012 Bella Caledonia & The New Statesmen

Mill, John Stuart (1861) Considerations On Representative Government


About Michael Gray

Michael studies politics at the University of Glasgow. He admires creativity, optimism and education. He desires peace, social justice and good parties.