Arguments articulated by the establishment and the political Old Guard fail to resonate with a new generation of voters, writes Gerry Hassan
For once young people have become central to the Scottish political debate due to the Scottish Government allowing 16-17-year-olds to 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. 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 realm of ancient history to most young people.
There were many proud Scots voices, talk of identity and history, but also a concern about obsessing over national identity. And while some talked of their Scottishness, many wanted to talk of their Britishness as well.
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 almost 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. Creating employment and business was another strand. There were anxieties about the scale of inequality, poverty and how welfare works. One pupil asked, “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 polite society talked of “poor people” and never 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 owning and running a 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 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” to satirise 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.
This 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, which, on Thursday night, 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 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?