WE as a nation stand on the brink of a different future or on the edge of the precipice, depending on your personal political leanings.
On 18 September we will be asked to make a choice about who holds the decision-making power for us as Scottish citizens. Each of us hold our own personal views on where power should ultimately lie but no matter the outcome, we in Scotland should be very proud of the vibrant and peaceful debate our nation has been involved in.
The debate has often been framed by both sides as a choice between opportunity and the lack of it, but in terms of strengthening our responsibility to our young people I can only see this as an opportunity.
There are those who may question why the majority of the third sector has shied away from taking a definitive constitutional stance on this historic vote but that is to misunderstand the role of voluntary organisations and the people they serve. Our role is not to influence the democratic process on the basis of party political lines, it is to use constitutional and political change to strengthen the very bedrock we all stand firmly on: equality of opportunity.
It is not our role to alienate those we are working to support, it is our role to give a voice to those who are often not heard, to those, who, without the din the third sector makes, would likely fall through the gaps of government spending reviews and policy-making.
However, this is a vote about where the seat of power will be: we’re not voting for a raft of manifesto promises; this is a unique vote as there are no future policy certainties. While no-one can say who will be the first government of an independent Scotland if there is a Yes vote, or who will step over the threshold of No 10 next spring, what we can do is pull together as a powerful third sector and bring influence to bear after the referendum vote, on any suite of new devolved powers being proposed or on shaping government policy in an independent country.
For us in the youth work sector, we want to see equality of access to youth work opportunities for all young people in Scotland, irrespective of age or where they live. At present, there is a huge variation in young people’s ability to access services, depending on where they live, their age and their needs. We believe that universal youth work, available to all, provides the greatest opportunity in terms of preventative spending as it can reduce the need for higher-cost targeted interventions later on in a young adult’s life.
We also need core funding (as opposed to short-term project funding). so that the sector can not only survive but plan and deliver services locally and nationally that meet needs over the long term.
We also need sustained and sustainable capital investment so that youth work’s buildings, equipment, transport and other practical resources are fit to deliver a quality, 21st-century service. Formal education has received considerable capital investment over the past few years, but support for non-formal educational settings needs to be raised to the same standard so that young people and youth workers feel they are valued and supported. We want to ensure our young people are seen as an asset not a burden, the solution not the problem, as active citizens welcomed into our commonwealth of society who are valued as the next authors of our national story.
There is much hope riding on the wave of this referendum, and a need for this national conversation to elicit actual change. If there is no change, Scots will feel disenfranchised, having been seen but not heard, encouraged to talk but not listened to.
Across the political divide we are being offered change but for that to be meaningful, the third sector needs a say in shaping that future, be it more powers or a written constitution should a Yes vote hold sway. Regardless of the result, politicians must listen to the people in order to build a fairer, more equal and caring nation. For here, now, lies a wealth of opportunity. «
• Jim Sweeney is chief executive of YouthLink Scotland, the national agency for youth work