Gerry Hassan: Breaking the mould of self-interest

The independence debate affords us the opportunity to define a new set of politics that embraces all citizens – young and old, writes Gerry Hassan

Scotland is to embrace giving 16-17 year olds the vote in next year’s independence referendum. This is a powerful statement of intent of wanting to do something different, and enfranchising young people in the debate on Scotland’s future.

Yet, it leaves important questions unanswered. How different are young people from the rest of society? What political motivations dominate a generation who grew up after Scotland last qualified for an international football tournament – the World Cup of 1998? And, more seriously, who began to make sense of the world to the backdrop of 9/11, Iraq and the “war on terror”?

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To some, these are Thatcher’s and Blair’s children, those who have grown up after the right-wing shift of British politics post-1979. To others they are “Generation Self” or “Generation Y”, the fourth wave after the pre-war group, the “Baby Boomers”, and the “Generation X” of the 1970s and 1980s.

Young people are engaged less in politics than older generations. In the 2010 UK election, 44 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to 76 per cent of those over 65; 18-24 year olds were also divided by gender: 50 per cent of young men voting and 39 per cent of young women, the biggest gap in any age group, splitting equally between the three main parties – 31 per cent Labour, 30 per cent Conservative and 30 per cent Liberal Democrat.

Research by Ipsos MORI released this week explored the attitudes across the generations. It found that young people had been shaped by the legacy of Thatcher and Blair, and attitudes of “Generation Self”. When asked if unemployed people were more unlucky than lazy, 48 per cent of 18-24 year olds disagreed, compared to 25 per cent of those over 65. Similar findings were evident on support for the NHS and welfare state, with the researchers concluding that this was evidence of the decline of solidarity and rise of individualist, consumerist attitudes among the young. In this account, inter-generational inequality and tensions become a defining characteristic of an increasingly fragmented society, where inequality, self-interest and looking after No1 are everything.

This is a public culture, which talks about “the increased burden” of rising life expectancy, free care for the elderly, the problem of pensions and the good fortune of the Baby Boomer generation. Public debate in this analysis has become about how elderly, more affluent voters defend their assets, property and interests, against demographic and political pressures.

Young people, who have less political clout, have less stake and weight in the system, and are seen by politicians – for all the protests of UK Uncut and the Occupy movement – as more pliant. Thus, in recent years, a host of benefits has been withdrawn from young people, from housing benefits to the Educational Maintenance Allowance south of the Border. Things are both different and not that different in Scotland. In a recent poll, 18-24 year olds were 58 per cent in favour of independence, but this group does not vote in large numbers. And the same would be true of 16-17 year olds.

With the absence of tuition fees for students and the belief in a welfare state based on greater solidarity, the Scottish debate has not produced any evidence of a different political dynamic across the generations. Instead, our debate is shaped by many of the same realities as the rest of the UK: a fragmented, disconnected society, cross-generational inequalities and older, affluent voters worried about care costs, inheritance, and passing monies to their children.

Behind much of these concerns are deterministic, fatalistic assumptions about the state of politics and society, of the power and self-interests of winners, and numerous anxieties and worries people have about monies, security and status. Increasingly, British politics has become about a narrow set of discussions, from not alienating elites and vested interests, and those of the engaged, entitled Baby Boomer generation.

There is a problem with this version of events. It is a linear projection of a future that will just continue along the lines of the generational wars of the present. This is the dominant way societies now think of their politics, economics and the future.

This version of future possibilities never turns out to be the way of things, with cracks already appearing. For a start, generational issues are driven by demographics. The Baby Boomers were shaped by their rising numbers, wealth and assets. In the future, the increasing birth rate, population and pressure on public services in the UK and Scotland, will change the terms of much of this debate. Thatcher’s and Blair’s children will not be the last word on generational politics. After the politics of self-interest, new dynamics will emerge about how people weigh up the balance between personal and collective values.

Scotland has a chance, with the independence debate, to alter the terms of the debate. The politics of individualism and inequality over the past few decades have distorted the public life of the UK. Older people feel – as net beneficiaries of public spending and welfare – that they have a stake in the system. For younger people to engage and feel recognised, they have to believe that they have a similar connection – both when they are young and over the course of their lives.

This requires that the Scottish debate explicitly talks about a different welfare system – and relationship between citizen and state – to the parsimonious, punitive attitudes on offer from Westminster. The British welfare state and political system has turned its back on young people and the poor. This has had an impact on Scottish attitudes and beliefs as well, but there is a huge opportunity to recognise this and do things differently. From “Generation Self” to the “Saltire Generation” perhaps. For that to happen, young people have to find their collective voice, and not put up with the bland choices of mainstream politics. They have to make a greater challenge to the status quo, which marginalises and takes them for granted.