Young Scots rally to independence banner for 2021 elections

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose/The Observer

When Scotland voted to remain in the United Kingdom in the 2014 referendum, Valentina Servera Clavell was 14 and living in Barcelona amid a burgeoning movement for Catalan independence. “We were looking to Scotland for an example that we could use to justify asking for our own referendum,” she said. “When the results came in, we were deeply sad because [the pro-independence side] were not only fighting for Scotland but for all the other independence movements across the world.”

Now 21 and a student at Glasgow Caledonian University, Servera Clavell is hoping to be selected as the SNP candidate for the city’s Shettleston constituency in next year’s Scottish parliament elections. Her candidacy comes as new polling shows huge support for independence among young voters, with 79% of 16- to 24-year-olds and 68% of 25- to 34-year-olds saying they would support leaving the union. Overall, the Ipsos Mori poll suggested 58% of voters in Scotland now backed independence.

“These are going to be the elections of independence,” she said of the 2021 contest. “There were people who were undecided in 2014, or who voted for a stable union in the UK. Brexit and Covid-19 and the disaster of Boris Johnson’s administration have made people realise they can’t offer Scotland anything.”

Servera Clavell is one of a new generation of candidates hoping to secure another pro-independence majority in the Scottish parliament and make the case for a second referendum. While the SNP does not currently have a majority, the Scottish Greens’ pro-independence stance means a majority of MSPs already support the move. Were the pro-independence parties to win a fresh majority, the SNP is likely to call for a new referendum.

Also vying to become an MSP next year is 31-year-old Roza Salih, prospective SNP candidate in Clydebank and Milngavie in the west of Scotland. One of the “Glasgow Girls”, a group of activist schoolgirls who fought the Home Office over the detention of an asylum-seeker friend in 2005, Salih hopes to be the first refugee elected to the Scottish parliament.

“I grew up in Kurdistan, where members of my family were executed for their support of independence,” she said. “The idea that Scotland could become independent through democratic and peaceful means was a really radical concept to me.”

Salih’s support for Scottish independence comes from a belief that “decisions taken in Westminster just do not benefit the Scottish people. We didn’t want austerity; we didn’t want a Conservative government; we didn’t want to leave the EU. I want a radical country that takes a different approach to things like jobs and social justice and the climate crisis.”

The 2014 referendum has often been credited with politicising a new generation of young Scots. Leòdhas Massie left school just months before the vote and joined the yes campaign as his first foray into politics. Now 25, Massie is a candidate for the Scottish Greens in the north-east region.

“I remember talking about it in school and I began to form these ideas of what I wanted Scotland to be. I wanted a republic, reformed land ownership, more representative parliamentary democracy,” he recalled. “And then I started to realise none of that was possible in the UK.”

Since the 2014 referendum, Massie has moved from the SNP to the Greens and evolved his thinking on independence. “I used to think we needed independence and we’d be able to do all this stuff overnight,” he said. “Now I see it more as the beginning of a process and not the endpoint in itself. We have to achieve it and then harness all the opportunities that presents.”

The Scottish Conservatives and Liberal Democrats remain firmly opposed to independence, as does the Scottish Labour leadership. But at the Labour party’s grassroots, a number of young activists are pushing for the party to rethink its position.

Roza Salih, who hopes to stand in Clydebank and Milngavie for the SNP.
Roza Salih, who hopes to stand in Clydebank and Milngavie for the SNP. Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose/The Observer

“So many young people support independence, and if you want a left-leaning Labour party then you’re not going to get it by chasing an ageing cohort of more socially conservative unionists,” said Patricia Johnston, 24, who is standing to be a candidate for Labour in the Lothian region. “If voters keep returning pro-independence majorities, I think it’s pretty clear what they’re saying to us.”

Having voted no in 2014, it was the 2019 general election result which changed Johnston’s mind on independence. “Most young members I know are agnostic or pro-independence,” she said, pointing particularly to the influx of members under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. “But people definitely feel there’s a disincentive to talking about it within the party.”

Dr Iain MacLeod, lecturer in politics and strategy at Robert Gordon University, urges caution over reading too much into polling due to small sample sizes and generally lower turnout among young people. However, he said, “the overall findings of the poll across all age-groups certainly seem consistent with other recent polls, all of which have shown that support for independence is moving upwards.”

For Struan Mackie, 27, a Conservative councillor in the Highlands, the arguments of 2014 still stand. “We have a shared history, culture and identity that needs to come to the fore,” he said. “Young people will not forgive us for taking our eye off the ball on the issues that matter to them because of a fixation on the constitution and dividing our country further.”

But, for 2021’s young pro-independence candidates, the time has come for change.

“We’re bold, we’re not afraid of speaking our minds, we’re more radical,” said Salih. “That’s the change we need in politics.”

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