It is not my habit to dwell upon the Guardian‘s inexplicable and unacknowledged anti-unionist editorial stance. However, occasionally the odd article crops up that warrants the attention, and this piece, by Clyn Gallagher, is such an article.
The article is a response to the poll, published in the Mail on Sunday, that showed strong support for the Union amongst school pupils who would be old enough to vote if Alex Salmond were to succeed in getting the voting age for the referendum reduced to 16.
Now, one should never read too much from a single poll, however pleasing its findings, but nonetheless this revelation is quite extraordinarily inconvenient to the peddlers of one of the great pieces of received wisdom surrounding the psephology of independence: young Scots are Salmond’s people.
Ms. Gallagher doesn’t so much attempt to rebut the findings as offer an unsupportive “take no comfort, unionists!” line to reassure those who don’t want to hear bad news for the Nats (a group that appears to include Guardian readers).
The article’s argument is a sort of bait-and-switch. The author spends most of her time laying out the SNP’s strengths in new and social media and explaining, with the aid of similes backed by a “quick poll of young SNP supporters”, the positive reasons that the SNP should be attractive to young people. Then at the end, for reasons which I hope I make clear below (in short, they aren’t), she changes tack and offers a totally different justification for her ‘just you wait’-style title which is entirely unrelated to the internet and new media.
First, Ms Gallagher explains the SNP’s unmatched strength in the online arena:
“Anyone who’s had any kind of surface interaction with Scottish politics knows that the SNP has a huge online presence. The SNP Facebook page has 22,054 Likes at the time of writing, compared to Scottish Labour’s 272 and Scottish Lib Dems’ paltry 92. Never mind about the Tories – we don’t talk about them up here. Start any debate about anything to do with Scotland – snow, school dinners, ScotRail – and the cyberNats will loom up out of the mist, turning any discussion into an issue about independence.”
OK, I think that any fair-minded observer can concede that the nationalist web presence is substantially more activist than the unionist one. It isn’t entirely clear that the infamous ‘cybergnats’ are much of a boon to the cause of independence, fronted as it is by soft-salesman extraordinaire Salmond, but that’s by the by.
Moreover, it is worth remembering that status-quo supporters are usually less vocal than their pro-change opponents unless an active defence of the status quo is required. Hence British pro-Europeans are largely silent while the Eurosceptics are vocal, and hence the absence, by and large, of unionist solidarity or even active identification in Scottish politics until the looming referendum started to sharpen minds.
Next, she spells out the received wisdom that online strength translates into the youth vote, and introduces the troublesome poll.
With the referendum set for 2014, the yes campaign has swung into action. First minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond has revealed plans to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in the single most important decision in Scotland’s history. It makes sense. SNP members are the undisputed kings of social networking, young people use social networking sites, and if the former can target the latter with specific policies, then it’s tata, Sassenachs, hello independent Caledonia. So while Ipsos Mori found that independence was favoured by 50% of Scots aged 25-34, the Mail poll implies that, contrary to expectations, lowering the voting age just might backfire.
So far, so good… but then we come to the “Let’s see how long that lasts” bit of the title. This latter section consists of precisely the unsupported assumptions that the Mail poll challenged in the first place.There’s a lot about how “Salmond and his gang are the cool kids smoking round the back of the bike sheds”, or how the SNP’s combination of “combination of leftwing policies and barnstorming hyperbole” wins it youth friends because one can easily see “how appealing this kind of rhetoric is to newbie voters looking for a clear good guy/bad guy approach to politics”.
Except… it hasn’t. That’s the whole point of the poll’s significance. All of this stuff about how the SNP should be more popular with the young misses the point. The notion that Salmond would derive an advantage from lowering the voting age is/was an article of faith for most of those on both sides of the constitutional debate, and that notion has been challenged.
To sustain the conceit of her title, Ms Gallagher had to try to explain why the SNP aren’t storming ahead amongst young people the way her suppositions and similes suggest they should, which she doesn’t, and explain how this might change in the lead-up to 2014, a task to which she devotes a single desultory sentence right at the end of the article. Instead, she lists reasons why young SNP supporters like their party in order to try to sustain the notion that the SNP is generally down with the kids.
The thing is, the various factors she lists to the SNP’s supposed advantage with young people – a ‘Scotland First’ mentality, ‘cool-kid’ factor, social media strength, cybergnats (!) and so on – are already facts of life, and the Mail poll was conducted in light of all of them. Whilst the ‘Yes’ campaign is technically cranking into action, in terms of campaign machinery it amounts to little more than the SNP with a few left-wing foederati lending it the aura of a broader movement. There is little reason to expect a radical expansion in the separatist online presence.
By contrast, it is the pro-Union ‘No’ campaign that is building itself up from scratch and thus has much greater room for potential growth, both in terms of official campaign presence and unofficial unionist efforts like British Unity’s page. With the creation of Better Together, Scotland has for the first time a united, concerted unionist organ to counter the SNP’s message, whereas the SNP has been campaigning for the other side for years.
Unless Alex Salmond has another game-changer up his sleeve (and I give him sufficient credit not to discount that possibility) then it seems probable that any transformation of Scottish political debate in the next couple of years will stem from the formation of a coherent unionist opposition to the well-established separatist campaign, which does not seem conducive to young people flocking to Salmond’s banner.
Ms Gallagher seems to realise this, for the one reason she gives that might lead to young people switching to the SNP has nothing to do with new media at all. To quote:
“As young people see their parents’ wages and benefits have to stretch further and further while hospitals close and every news bulletin brings tales of fresh misery, we might not want to cut you off completely, but we’d certainly prefer a bit of distance.”
Thus the article fizzles out to an anti-climactic and slightly bizarre conclusion. A whole piece purportedly about the impact of the SNP’s social media dominance on the youth vote, and in the end the only hope the author can offer for a reversal of the Mail’s findings is “young people don’t like cuts”, a fact which long pre-dates the internet and any nationalist mastery thereof.Share on Facebook