POLITICIANS are usually listed along with estate agents, bankers and journalists among society’s least respected people. They are an easy target for attack. Their long hours dealing with constituents’ problems go largely unrecognised. And they can suddenly find themselves at the centre of some unexpected scandal, their personal lives under a very public microscope.
It might be difficult to imagine, then, exactly what would make a young person decide to get involved in such a world. Yet over the next two weeks, around 270 people aged 14-25 will be standing as candidates across the country for election to the Scottish Youth Parliament (SYP).
They are asking other people of their own age to vote for them, based on personal manifestos they have drawn up, highlighting the issues they are most concerned about.
Those elected will serve for two years, not only speaking in debates, but also meeting young people in their local areas to hear their views and taking part in campaigns on hot issues – recent ones have focused on same-sex marriage, votes at 16 and the living wage.
But would most people in their teens and early twenties not prefer to hang out with their mates, go to a football match or (if they are old enough) spend an evening in the pub rather than debate the rights and wrongs of welfare cuts or pound the pavements to spread the word about same-sex marriage?
One sitting MSYP, Paul Sloan, 20, says young people are wrongly stereotyped as being lethargic and inactive. “They may say they are not interested in politics, but when they realise that what they eat for school dinners is politics, and what price they pay for their bus ticket is politics, then it’s a different matter.”
Candidate Assad Khan, 15, says: “I’m probably the only person in my group of friends who is interested in politics. They sometimes think I go on about it too much. But they all say they’ll vote for me. I think you either enjoy it or you don’t. I like to know what’s happening in the community and in other countries and what people’s views are.”
The SYP, which holds three two-day sessions each year, was set up at the same time as the Scottish Parliament, back in 1999, to give young people a collective voice. Unlike Holyrood, however, members of the youth parliament (MSYPs) do not stand under party labels and do not promote party policies in debates.
SYP official Ewan MacDonald-Russell says people from all parties are involved in the youth parliament, but the way it operates is strictly non-partisan. “We try to run campaigns for which there is broad cross-party support and we are careful to run them in a non-contentious way because that’s not our game. There are plenty other people can do that. Of course we have people who want to go into politics and see the SYP as a good opportunity, and some of them will be brilliant politicians, but lots of our MSYPs just want to work with other young people in their area.”
Recent research found the most popular career after being in the SYP was youth work rather than politics. Voting gets under way in schools and colleges across Edinburgh tomorrow. Two MSYPs are elected for each Holyrood constituency.
TERRI MILLER, 18
Terri has been an MSYP for the past four years and is on a shortlist to be named Scotland’s Best Up and Coming Politician.
She has been heavily involved in the SYP’s national campaigns in favour of a living wage, same-sex marriage and votes at 16. “I have strong views in support of same-sex marriage and I was heavily involved in choosing the name of the campaign - Love Equally – and I collected more public responses to the Scottish Government’s consultation than any other MSYP.”
She is also convener of the youth parliament’s justice committee, which is currently looking into families affected by imprisonment.
But she says: “I really want to be elected to focus more on local stufF, like youth crime and youth unemployment,
“I’m hoping a youth group will be set up locally to deal with young people who are involved in petty crime before the situation gets worse,
“My view on unemployment is we need to make work more attractive than sitting claiming Jobseekers’ Allowance. I believe there are jobs out there, you just need to look hard enough.”
Terri is studying social sciences at Edinburgh College and says she does want to go into politics
“I think to make changes you need to be involved. The youth parliament is about young people making the changes they want to see.”
SOFIA DELLA SALA, 14
Sofia, who lives in Bruntsfield, is a pupil at Boroughmuir High and the youngest Edinburgh candidate to stand for the SYP in Edinburgh.
She says: “It’s not often you hear of an opportunity where young people can express their views and since I have quite a few views to express, it sounded like a good idea.
“My main concern is about equality. As a young woman in Scotland, I don’t feel there are equal opportunities for women in Scotland – but it’s not just women; I want equal opportunities for immigrants, disabled people and the less fortunate too.
“Employers offering a two-year research contract would be less inclined to hire a woman in case she gets pregnant and I don’t think that’s fair.”
Then there’s education: “With the new Curriculum for Excellence, there is not enough information given. At the start, even the teachers didn’t know what was going on. Most pupils are still pretty clueless.”
Sofia’s parents are both neuroscientists and interested in politics. “My family is Italian and they follow not just Scottish politics, but Italian politics, which are a bit messed up just now.
“I read the newspaper and I hear things from my parents but I don’t really want to follow a party. I hear about Scottish independence, but I don’t have particular views on that.”
ASSAD KHAN, 15
Assad is a pupil at Portobello High – and perhaps not surprisingly, the controversy over the new school is one of the issues on which he focuses.
“I think 1400 pupils deserve a more suitable place to be educated,” he said. “The current building is terrible. It stinks,
“It’s a shame I won’t be able to go to the new school, but I have a little brother who’s five and I want him to be educated in a better place.
“The park is the best site because the 44 bus goes there. A lot of the pupils live at Jock’s Lodge and Meadowbank and it’s the easiest place to get to from there.”
Assad’s family is interested in politics. His father is development manager for the Muslim Council of Scotland, his mother a part-time teacher.
“I have grown up going to protests and demonstrations,” he said. His most recent was a march in November against Israel’s attacks on Gaza.
He would also like to see more multicultural events like the Mela. “It helps avoid racism and prejudice and encourages good citizenship by bringing the community together.”
“I’ve spoken to quite a lot of young people in school and the vast majority said they would like a club or cafe for under-18s, so I’m hoping we can do something like that.”
He says he’s not in a political party, but does support independence.
PAUL SLOAN, 20
Paul was elected MSYP for Pentlands in 2009 and although he failed to get re-elected in 2011, he was later drafted in to represent Edinburgh Eastern – where he now lives – after the MSYP there stood down. He works as an administrative officer in the litigation division of the Scottish Government . As a wheelchair user, he says accessibility is one of his key themes.
“When I first stood, I was standing for disabled access,” he said. “Edinburgh sucks when it comes to disabled access, with all the listed buildings. And trying to get through the Old Town in a wheelchair with all the cobbles is not great.
“I had only just started using a wheelchair and I was noticing every little obstacle. But once I got elected, I began to realise accessibility is not just about physical access, it’s also about having information and knowing what you are entitled to.
“The most famous thing young people say is there is nothing for them to do in an area. Sometimes that’s true, but other times it’s just because they don’t know what’s available.”
Paul’s dad was in the military for 22 years and his mum is a carer. “We’ve never been a political family,” he said.
Hague started younger than most
FORMER Tory leader William Hague famously made an early start to his political career by addressing the Conservative party conference in 1977 at the age of 16.
But not all of today’s politicians had what might be classed as such a mis-spent youth. Tony Blair showed no interest in politics while at Fettes, and when he was studying at Oxford, he played guitar and sang in a rock band, Ugly Rumours, rather than take up debating like many aspiring politicos.
First Minister Alex Salmond’s youthful interests included impressing audiences in his native Linlithgow with his singing as a boy soprano. It was only later, at St Andrews University, that he turned to politics.
Of course, other big political names did start young. Former Premier Gordon Brown was an enthusiastic political activist while a student at Edinburgh, ending up as rector.
Prime Minister David Cameron, after leaving Eton in 1984, spent a gap year before university working as a researcher for his godfather, a Tory MP.
Meanwhile, former Scottish Youth Parliament chairman John Loughton, from Pilton, found fame when he won reality show Big Brother: Celebrity Hijack in 2008.