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Scotland’s referendum gets a teenage kick

Vote on independence is the first major election in the UK in which 16- and 17-year-olds may participate

GLASGOW, Scotland — What do trainee hairdressers talk about over a cigarette between classes?

At Reid Kerr College in Easterhouse, in the east end of Glasgow, it's not what you might think. The gaggle of young women standing outside the library are discussing politics, not hairstyles.

"You can't believe what you see on the telly. It's all lies," one says to her friend. She is trying to persuade her to vote yes in Thursday's referendum on Scotland's independence from the United Kingdom.

With less than 24 hours to go before the polls open, their conversation is an indication of the way in which the independence debate has helped create the most politically engaged generation in Scottish history.

Rosemary Dickson, chief executive of FARE, an Easterhouse-based charity that works with young people, says it is different from any other election in her lifetime.

"It doesn't matter where you go — the shopping centers behind the counter or the person serving you in the cafe or the person you meet in the street —everybody is engaged in this conversation."

Teenage vote

These conversations are also happening in schools and colleges because this is the first major election in which 16- and 17-year-olds get to vote. It is another way in which this referendum is unique.

Since the last Scottish Parliament elections in 2011, more than 330,000 people have been added to the electoral rolls. The Scottish government estimates about one-third of these are teenagers. In a tight contest, that could be enough to swing the result.

Five of the hairdressers say they are voting yes, and just one is against. It's a similar story among the young trainees at FARE.

Siobhan Callaghan, a 17-year-old apprentice administrator, is voting yes because, she says, "we will never get this opportunity again."

Jack Galbraith, an 18-year-old apprentice youth worker, nods. "I have heard a lot more positives from the yes campaign than I have from the no camp. We will vote in the people that we want instead of London," he says.

Independence receptive

There is a suspicion the Scottish government deliberately extended the franchise to younger voters because it believed they would be more receptive to the idea of independence. Yes campaigners were handing out leaflets to students on Monday afternoon.

The Scottish National Party's Anne McLaughlin says £750 ($1,200) was spent to hire an ice cream truck, which was decked out in yes posters, to help reach voters. "If we win, we are going to take it into the town center to celebrate."

However, polling evidence suggests a more complex picture. People in their 20s appear to be most supportive of independence, while teenagers are much more evenly split.

Martin Boon, director of the polling company ICM, suggests the biggest influence on 16- and 17-year-olds is often their families.

"One thought is that some of the very youngest voters do not feel confident in their ability to ferment their own opinion and thus are seeking guidance from their 40-plus parents, who are evenly split or maybe leaning to no," he says.

Brandon Cairns, 17, is a pupil at Smitheycroft Secondary in nearby Riddrie. He has a "No, thanks" badge pinned to the lapel of his dark blue school blazer.

"I think the currency is a big issue because we don't know if we are going to be able to use the pound," he says. "I believe we won't be able to. I am proud of being Scottish, but I want to be British as well, because I think it is great that these countries have come together and we have done so much."

His friend Alannah Boyle, 16, who is doing a course in emergency services, says she likes the idea of an independent Scotland but is still making up her mind and is worried about what it might mean.

"If we go independent and it doesn't work, our generation is the one that is going to get it worst," she says.

‘Strong together’

Iain and Dylan Cunningham, 16-year-old twins who help out at Soccerworld, a five-a-side football complex, voice similar concerns.

"I am voting no because we are unsure what's coming. I believe we are strong together, and I don't want to change the currency. We are fine with the pound, and we are fine as we are just now, and I don't think we should change it," says Iain.

Dylan says, "It's a massive gamble. Why would we risk what we've got when it’s not bad?"

Perhaps that's the key question for voters of all age groups. As people make up their minds about how to vote, they are making a judgment about whether to stick with what they have or take a chance on something new.

Out on the pitches, 17-year-old Nathan Clarke has just finished playing football with his mates. He has left school, doesn't have a job and is voting yes.

"Why not vote yes?" he asks. "The United Kingdom hasn't been very good, and we need a change. With our own government, we could do more for the Scottish people."

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