The Voices of Tomorrow’s Scotland: A Challenge to All Our Politicians

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, June 15th 2013

For once young people have become central to the Scottish political debate due to the Scottish Government’ giving 16-17 year olds the vote in the September 2014 independence poll.

Rarely do we hear directly and in detail from young people which is why I was enthusiastic to participate this week in the National Museums Scotland conference in Edinburgh bringing together over 300 pupils from more than 20 state schools from Glasgow and Coatbridge to Biggar and Inverkeithing and further afield, to discuss in a non-partisan way the future of Scotland.

These young people were aged 14-17. Most will have a vote next year, though not all will with some missing the eligibility cut-off by a couple of days. Most are positive about having a vote and plan to use it. And it was a fascinating, revealing day which challenged many of the ingrained assumptions we all have about Scotland.

The young people had informed and complex views across a range of issues which defy simple categorisation. Over the whole day those symbols of modern Scotland, Thatcher and Blair, were not mentioned once; the Iraq war had one reference and the poll tax a couple more. These totems are in the midst of ancient history to most young people.

What hasn’t motivated them so far has been the independence debate. There was across most of the young people a lack of comprehension that Scotland was having this debate and the way it was having it.

There were many proud Scots voices, talk of identity and history, but also a concern about obsessing with national identity. And when people talked of their Scottishness many wanted to talk as well of their Britishness.

There was a small strand who emphasised their exclusive Britishness with talk of pride in their grandparents achievements in past conflicts protecting ‘British freedom’. There was a small strand which articulated an exclusive Scottishness, and even smaller one which interpreted Britishness primarily as about Empire, conquest and wars.

There were many references, nearly all positive, about the Scottish Parliament and an expectation that it would gain more powers, influence and status. And interestingly, Westminster was practically entirely absent, forgotten about and viewed as irrelevant to the concerns of young Scotland.

A mosaic of concerns motivated the young people. These included getting a job after school or university, the nature of education and its relevance to real life, and practical things such as work experience in school. Fife Council came in for major criticism for its cutting back and in places abolition of work placement from a range of pupils and one teacher.

Creating employment and business was another strand. This ranged from how to encourage and create entrepreneurs, to widespread interest from pupils in setting up their own small businesses.

There were anxieties about the scale of inequality, poverty and how welfare works. One pupil pointed out that ‘why should the person on £10k and £100k get the same benefits?’, echoing some of the contemporary political debate but in a very different tone. Another asked pointedly to their fellow pupils, ‘where are the poor people at this day?’, asserting that all across Scotland, polite society talked of ‘poor people’ and never listened or noted their exclusion.

In this nuanced mix of views there was a sense of a different Scotland emerging compared to previous generations. The language was pro-business, pro-entrepreneur and attracted to the autonomy and freedom of running your own business.

What does this tell us about young Scotland? It indicates that for many young people the terms left v. right, unionist and nationalist, are irrelevant. They don’t have the built-in animosity towards the SNP or Alex Salmond of some older voters, but nor do they buy into their vision. But then they don’t identify with any of the political parties or their politicians.

Importantly and with relevance to the wider debate they don’t buy into the dominant interpretation of modern Scotland – which is centred on the rise of Scottish identity and difference, and the slow decline of Britishness to near-irrelevance.

This seems to reflect that the tide of identity isn’t completely linear but could in part be cyclical. It isn’t an accident that the most pro-independence part of the electorate are Thatcher’s children, who grew up and whose reference points are the 1980s. Blair’s children and the generation of devolution Scotland look like they might be developing in a different direction.

Young Scotland then poses a challenge to all Scotland’s political traditions. No one across the whole day used the worn out rhetoric of past politics that have defined many of us: left, right, social democrat, conservative. One person mentioned the word ‘socialism’ but that was when they were satirising the appeal of 1970s retro-culture!

Some may clearly bemoan the lack of clear-cut answers and solutions from young people, but in their avoiding of simple slogans and clichés they are surely an example of a hopeful future. The partisan bunker mentalities of parts of Scotland hold little appeal it seems for most young people.

This then raises the question of how this kind of Scotland finds expression in our politics and public life: more individualist, pro-autonomy and responsibility, while finding ways to express how we are a community and nurture social justice.

Congratulations to National Museums Scotland for treating young people with respect and giving space and time to hear different, diverse voices. Unlike BBC ‘Question Time’ who on their Thursday night programme with an audience of 16-17 year olds in Edinburgh gave us the combined talents of George Galloway and Nigel Farage, neither of whose parties have any Scottish representatives.

This poses a massive challenge to our media and institutions like ‘Question Time’ so that they don’t patronise young people and raises questions for how they cover politics and contribute to our wider civic culture.

Changing Scotland to some is synonymous with constitutional change and the independence debate. From the range of young people I met and listened to they have a very different and more nuanced sense of how our nation and society changes which at the moment they don’t see in most of our current debates. They are looking for a picture of a different Scotland: one which is idealistic, practical, fairer, more supportive of setting up a business and with a deep social compassion. Who then will speak and give voice to tomorrow’s Scotland?