The independence referendum inspired me to get into politics

Ryan McCuaig came to the SNP as a former Labour voter and is now President of SNP Strathclyde. Here’s his story. 

Prior to 2014 I had never given a moment’s consideration to actually joining a political party or even attending a debate. My parents were not politically engaged, in fact if anything they were non-voters. Anyone I knew who did vote, voted Labour – because that’s just how people in the east end of Glasgow voted back then. 

Growing up in Easterhouse, most people around me were understandably interested only in making ends meet, one day, one week, one month to the next. Young people generally had no interest in politics at all and I’d say most felt that politics and voting were for other people, not us. 

The independence campaign changed all of that for me and for many young people across the country. Suddenly, I felt that I had the power to affect real change with my vote. The Yes campaign inspired me, with its message of hope; that we could create a fairer and more prosperous country; and democracy, that Scotland could finally get the government for which it voted. 

I remember clearly Alex Salmond’s launch of the Yes campaign in 2012. I was struck by the aims of a ‘greener, fairer and more prosperous’ Scotland, with an independent Parliament given full powers by the Scottish people. The only time I had voted prior to this was at the Westminster General Election in 2010; I voted Labour.

It was horrifying to see the Liberal Democrats go into coalition with the Tories, renege on campaign promises such as those made to students, then prop up a Tory government with no mandate in Scotland. 

I was shocked when the Labour party campaigned alongside the Tories for the No campaign. For me, the natural position for a left of centre party would have been Yes. At the very minimum, a Yes vote would have given Scotland a chance at electing a left of centre government with full economic powers, and escape decades of right-wing Tory rule. 

I began to see Labour’s choice to campaign for Better Together as a party-political decision, dictated from their headquarters in London, rather than a decision genuinely in the best interests of Scottish voters. I started to question why cities like Glasgow continually returned Labour candidates, when my community in Easterhouse and so many others were ravaged by Tory cuts and neglected by Labour governments and councils. 

By mid-2014, I was hooked. I watched every debate, listened to every radio broadcast and read every article about the referendum that I could get my hands on. For the first time, my family sat around the table and discussed politics, the future of our country, and the pros and cons of independence. 

Rather than cause division, I watched as the referendum engaged people from all ages and backgrounds who previously did not feel that their vote counted. Now they knew they could change the course of their country forever. It saddens me when Unionist politicians claim that the country is ‘divided’ over the question of Independence. I am always suspicious of those who dislike an engaged electorate. The referendum did not divide the country, it invigorated the country politically as never before and we now have a more informed and engaged electorate post-referendum.  

During the independence campaign, I spoke to everyone I knew about the positive message of the Yes movement, and for the first time in my life, I stayed up all night to watch the results unfold on TV. That night, like many Yes voters, I was devastated as the result of the referendum became clear.

The pictures of Labour and Tories celebrating together as the No votes were announced are images many people will never forget. I accept that the Yes campaign did not convince voters on every question and ultimately, that together with a hostile broadcast and print media, cost us Independence.

But I wasn’t done fighting for Scotland. A few weeks later I joined the SNP and attended my first meeting of Motherwell and Wishaw branch in Wishaw Library. I had no idea what happened at political meetings, but was shocked to see the room literally queued out the door! There wasn’t even room for standing as hundreds, like me, had experienced a newfound engagement for politics. 

Motherwell and Wishaw branch decided to hold a food bank collection prior to Christmas. I decided to tag along and enjoyed meeting and engaging with members of my local community. The kindness of those in even our most deprived areas was extremely moving. 

I campaigned hard in the 2015 General Election campaign, where Marion Fellows overturned the incumbent Labour MP with a resounding 38.4 per cent swing. In 2016, I campaigned for Clare Adamson, who defeated the local Labour MSP, taking 52.5 per cent of the vote. I met so many amazing people at National Conference, at social events and on the doors that I had to stay involved. 

In 2016, I successfully applied for a summer internship with my local MSP, Clare Adamson. At the end of the summer I was delighted when Clare asked me to stay on permanently and I still work with her on a part-time basis, alongside my studies. 

Working at Holyrood is a privilege and I am extremely fortunate to work for such a supportive parliamentarian. Clare has been an incredible mentor and I love going to work knowing we are doing our best for the people of my local community every day.

Recently I re-launched the SNP Society at the University of Strathclyde and was honoured to be elected its President. This dedicated team of students makes me confident that SNP Strathclyde will go from strength to strength as we work towards another referendum.

I was also fortunate to be asked to manage the council campaign for two young and exciting candidates in North Lanarkshire. Anum Qaisar and Cameron McManus typify for me the dynamic and diverse breadth of talent that the SNP has gained since 2014. Cameron is 19 years old and Anum is 24. With me as their election agent we made up one of the youngest campaign teams in the country. 

Working alongside these two has been a real privilege and I know that they will go far in the Party.  

As I approach the final year of my law degree and reflect on the past few years, it’s amazing just how much the referendum impacted me. Five years ago, I had only a passing interest in politics. Now I am an election agent, activist, staff member to an MSP and President of SNP Strathclyde!

Through the SNP I’ve met so many dedicated, amazing people I now call my friends. I know that the referendum invigorated the country and there are many, like me, who are now actively involved in politics when previously they felt disengaged. 

Their energy and enthusiasm is why I got involved in politics, and that determination and belief will inspire other young people across Scotland to join the national movement and to help build a strong, independent nation for the future. 

Ryan works for Motherwell and Wishaw MSP Clare Adamson and is President of SNP Strathclyde.

This article originally appeared in Independence – the SNP Magazine. To subscribe to the magazine, call the SNP on 0131 525 8904.