Julia Bennett sat down with the founding members of the very first student branch of national organisation Scotland In Union, to touch-base on all things politics, and its presence in our daily lives.
In 1707 the Union with England Act was passed by the Scottish Parliament, officially uniting England and Scotland under the banner of Great Britain. Both nations would now be governed not just by the same monarch as established with the 1603 Union of the Crowns, but also by the Parliament of Great Britain (G.B.). This deeper political integration was negotiated by both Scottish and English representatives and spearheaded by Queen Anne’s administration.
Over three hundred years later the Union still stands, despite multiple attempts to repeal it, including the most recent call for Scottish independence. In 2014, Scotland had a national referendum to leave the Union. The issue became highly politicized both within Scotland, Great Britain and Europe more widely. The possible ramifications of Scottish independence were far reaching and both the ‘Yes Scotland’ Campaign led by Blair Jenkins and the ‘Better Together’ Campaign headed by Alistair Darling presented pros and cons that impassioned the Scottish electorate. The vote was close with just over two million Scots voting to remain a part of the United Kingdom and over 1.6 million Scottish people voting to become an ndependent country. The voting age was lowered for this historic ballot to allow sixteen and seventeen year olds to take part, and historically high voter turnout was recorded with over 85 percent of the electorate making their voices heard.
More recently, the UK wide ‘Brexit’ referendum reignited the union debate within Scotland. If the UK chose to leave the European Union, as it did, should Scotland again try for independence and attempt to remain within the EU? Many believe the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Nicola Sturgeon are indeed gearing up for another independence vote.
This is where Scotland in Union, a nonpartisan national campaign, comes in. Scotland in Union’s goal is as straightforward as its name suggests; it lobbies to keep Scotland part of the UK and uphold the Union of 1707.
The University of St Andrews has become the first university to create a student branch of this national organisation. The Saint sat down with third years and founding members of the St Andrews chapter, Elen Young and Ellie Hope, to discuss what role this new society will play within the St Andrews Community.
In explaining how St Andrews became the first university to host a student chapter of Scotland in Union both Ms Hope and Ms Young commented on the university’s size and diverse student population as key factors.
“St Andrews is a good place to start a society, it is a small place and easy to promote yourself, word of mouth is quite easier in St Andrews compared to somewhere like Glasgow,” said Ms Young.
“We are lucky because we have every type of political student possible; a diverse student population really helps. Our committee includes Canadian, American, and English students,” added Ms Hope.
Scotland in Union St Andrews wants to make it abundantly clear to the St Andrews community that they are a non-judgmental inclusive society open to individuals of all political persuasions.
“The main message of Scotland in Union St Andrews is that we are a positive pro-Union society and welcome absolutely anyone and that is why we see ourselves as unique in the St Andrews political society spectrum,” said Ms Young.
“We are obviously political, but non-partisan,” added Ms Hope. “Young people specifically can be scared to talk about the issues, and what we’re missing in St Andrews is some place to explore politics without joining a specific party. Especially without an independence referendum, we need a way to keep people excited and enjoying politics.”
Scotland in Union St Andrews enjoys a close relationship with the national campaign, something students eager for a career in politics could benefit from.
“We have had members of the national campaign come and speak at events. We are on the national mailing list and they tell us about local events. Our aim is to meet with them about two to three times per year. They are very supportive and want to get a lot of young people involved. They treat us fantastically as well,” said Ms Young of this relationship.
“They are interested in helping people who want to work in politics and are great at giving advice. They are always around and easy to contact, even hosting a Scotland in Union event for the general St Andrews public last year, which was great for town and gown relations,” said Ms Hope.
Ms Young spoke at this event alongside the regional coordinator for Scotland in Union and a St Andrews professor. Ms Young called the experience “a great example of grassroots politics in action.”
This desire for a political society devoid of party affiliations was a driving factor for both Ms Hope and Ms Young in founding the St Andrews chapter of Scotland in Union. On discussing her motivations behind beginning both national and union affiliation for Scotland in Union, Ms Young explained, “I used to be firmly affiliated with a political party and went along to a meeting for that parties society as a fresher, and it wasn’t what I wanted. I have always been political, and having English parents makes the Union very important to me. I also worked on the Scottish referendum campaign. I wanted a political society I could be apart of and so I started one of my own.” Ms Hope echoed this sentiment, saying: “I am very political but hadn’t found a home in St Andrews.”
The society began to gain traction last September and gained union affiliation in April. Since then, membership has doubled and the mailing list has tripled.
The society has some exciting events coming up this semester. One perk of membership is access to certain member only events, as well as discounted tickets on open events. Students interested in politics, the Union, or community and national affairs should keep their eyes open for Scotland in Unions’ trademark ‘Pints and Politics’ event.
“‘Pints and Politics’ is the first event and is very chill,” explained Ms Hope. “People can just come and have a chat and talk, it is a place for people engaged in UK wide politics to discuss issues. It is good for people on the mailing list that aren’t yet members to test out if they want to become a full fledged member.”
Other events of the semester include a St Andrews Day dinner, where William Rennie, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats since 2011 will speak, as well as other prominent political figures. In addition, Scotland in Union will be co-hosting an event with Students for Independence in late October. The event will take a debate form followed by questions, discussion, and informal conversation.
The fact that Scotland in Union is eager to co-host events with Students for Independence only reiterates their position towards the SNP.
“Politics in Scotland have become divided, or people feel they need to be an expert before joining the conversation, but that’s not necessary,” said Ms Young.
The society hopes to have debates, and get everyone talking in a safe space where they can share their positions.
“We welcome members who are pro-Brexit or pro-EU,” said Ms Hope. “Our biggest thing is the Union. We are promoting Scotland as part of the U.K. As a nonpartisan group it isnot our place to have a position but people with all views are encouraged to talk about it.”
While the committee recognizes that some people might see them as controversial, they refute this claim.
“Because the question of independence has become divisive, if you didn’t know what the society was about, it might seem controversial. But once you have been to an eventyou will see how welcome you are,” said Ms Young. “As a committee wedon’t take ourselves too seriously, we are proud and passionate but if something doesn’t go our way can go home and sleep at night. We welcome people who disagree and like debate,” added Ms Hope.
Another aspect of Scotland in Union that makes it a welcoming and inclusive place for all is their lack of political position on any matter besides the Union. The committee seeks to get away from the notion that they are anti-SNP. Ms Young emphasised the difference between being pro-Union and being anti-SNP. She said, “We see ourselves as a positive political society.” Scotland in Union hopes to have a tangible impact on the political activism of St Andrews students. Ms Young stressed that politics do not just involve lofty issues decided in parliament, but are often most impactful on our daily lives at the local level. Ms Young stated, “We want to place value on talking about local political issues and how they fit into the bigger context.
It is not always massive issues that are the most important, local issues like hospital funding, road quality, and bin collection are important as well.” Speaking to the same theme, Ms Hope explained that the society hopes to help get people involved in politics. For example, many students don’t know that English people can now register to vote in North East Fife. She said: “Because we [students] spend a lot of time here, a lot of people would like a more tangible voice in St Andrews. Students make up a third of the towns population and it is important that people know these options are available to them.”
If you want to learn more, get involved, or have a lively debate, you can find Scotland in Union on Facebook, where the committee posts blog updates.