by George Gunn
The disappointment, sadness and downright anger felt by the 16 to 17 year old, first time voters at the result of last September’s independence referendum was palpable. Those of us of an older vintage, whilst equally disappointed, could at least temper our broken dream on the forge of experience. The rigged devolution referendum of 1979, the election of Margaret Thatcher the same year, the Falklands War, the 84-85 Miners Strike and the introduction of the Poll Tax in Scotland has hardened our political skins and September 2014 was one more scar. For us the past referendum was yet another defeat but it is also another dreaming step closer to the independent Scotland all of us who lived through those tragic social and political episodes of the 1970’s, 80’ and 90’s see as essential.
Imagine then how the 16 and 17 year olds must feel now that Lord Lang of Monkton, ex Tory Scottish Secretary, and chair of the House of Lords Constitution Committee, has given voice to the idea that extending their democratic franchise to the 2016 Scottish election is a bad idea because in his Lordship’s opinion “not enough thought has been given to this impact.”
I would suggest a great deal of thought has already gone into allowing 16 and 17 year olds their democratic right to vote on all the issues which affect their lives. The large turnout at the referendum was due, in part, to the lowering of the voting age. Principally the main operational reason for lowering the voting age being that if an individual is old enough to pay tax then they are old enough to vote. Taxation without direct democratic representation has been the cause of several revolutions.
This negative concern about the inclusive extension of democracy emanating from the un-elected second chamber of a parliament with no written constitution or Bill of Rights is historically typical. Every and any political and societal right and liberty enjoyed by the population of these islands has been wrestled from their grabbing hands, often at the point of a gun or a sword. The aristocrats and appointed “M’lords” in the House of Lords and their butler MP’s on the Tory and Labour benches in the House of Commons have, since the parliaments inception, “granted” ordinary people absolutely nothing. They continue to oppose, resist, distort and sabotage any measure which extends the reaches of political representation, increases economic advantage for the majority and moves us forward as a society and progresses the dynamic of freedom. These very notions are anathema to Lord Lang of Monkton and his committee of the ermine un-dead. The very idea of the House of Lords having a “constitutional committee” I find hilarious. Unfortunately the humour is bad and its substance offends the nose.
However, in Scotland we desperately need the new generation coming through to be actively engaged in the democratic process. We need them to vote on tax, education, health, housing, defence and foreign affairs. We need them to educate themselves on all of these issues and more because my generation – those over 50 – have abjectly failed to do so for ourselves. We, even though we have lived through “interesting times”, have demonstratively learned nothing from them. Every time things have got bad we have allowed them to get worse. The new generation, by their very youth and upon the evidence of the mess of the UK they see before them, have the right – if they so choose – to ignore everything we say and to learn nothing from what we have done except what not to do.
Yet, as Shakespeare has Hamlet tell Horatio
“There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come – the readiness is all.”
The result of the coming general election on May 7th will, I hope, show to the 16 and 17 years olds of Scotland that the time for the independence of their country is approaching: “if it be not now, yet it will come”. And, as in Hamlet’s wise words – “the readiness is all.”
In order to be ready for independence they have to be educated. It suits the ruling UK elite for young people not to vote or not to be interested in politics at all. It also suits them to chastise the broader population for being apathetic and generally disengaged from politics as it does to hector them about being unemployed, anti-social, overweight, foreign, a single parent or just plain poor. The path from the corruption of patronage of the House of Lords to the cash for questions corruption of the House of Commons (Rifkind and Straw being the latest examples) and onwards to the corruption in banks, tax evasion, the arms industry, the police, the press and almost every aspect of civil and industrial life in the UK, is a long and hard consciousness raising hike but it is one any youngster can go on if they have eyes to see and a moral conscience and can stand the stench. Each station of rottenness is connected to the next by the greedy lay lines of a material society that decrees success as wealth and anything else as failure.
It is difficult for anyone born around the middle of the 20th century to grasp fully the kind of world the 16 and 17 year olds are going to inherit or pass on to their children. Technology, for example, is the exterior wrapping of a type of human life no previous generation of Scottish person has ever known and that same technology, which was meant to liberate us, now keeps us under surveillance and how it will be used in the future can only be guessed at. The education I talk of is an education of a different kind than is prescribed by the state. In Scotland we have no need for the destructive weapons of the world. We cannot gain respect through constantly stating how wealthy a country we could be if we were independent. There are only an estimated 5,327,700 of us since the last census in 2011, so we are in fact small in world terms. The only thing we have which no-one else has but with which we are willing to share with the world is the culture of our nation. If our young ones are culturally educated then they will be ready: “it will be now.”
The energy that the young ones brought to the referendum debate was generated from the fact that they, probably for the first time, realised there was a different path they could take and that they did have influence and power and could use it in a positive way. Many, also for the first time, discovered that Scotland was in fact a different place to England and that Britain was an artificial construction and this difference, of itself, was not a bad thing and that the construction was a real obstruction to their ambition. This discovery excited them as it was both extra-curricular and central to their lives and I found this deeply moving because it arose despite the best efforts of many schools in the Highlands, for example, to suppress debate about the issues surrounding the referendum in the hope that it was a fad, that it would go away and that the “kids would forget all about it next week”, as one teacher in Thurso told me.
They have not forgotten but they are growing increasingly frustrated because, as is the confusing reality: they cannot participate in the coming General Election when they could in the referendum. How pitiful it is that the British political system and educational establishment are so determined to deny young people the opportunity to develop a political and cultural consciousness and how obvious it is that the education system must be turned upside down to counter this denial. To continually test children until the subject of the study becomes meaningless other than as a means to a pass mark is to ensure that when they leave school they will remember nothing.
It is never better to forget than to remember. The UK state not only wants us to forget and not remember, it does not want us to know in the first place. Education should be about discovery. So, the questions asked should be: what is this literature I am supposed to be reading? Who wrote it and why? Why is so little of it, or any of it, Scottish? Where is my own culture not reflected in this curriculum? What is history? Why do some writers, the rememberers, choose some specific bits of historical narrative to explain to us the necessity of signing up to a particular current opportunity which is going to oppress us next year or fleece us tomorrow?
Only through an education free of cynicism and manipulation can we construct a society which is both a receiver and a generator of light so that we can say with an open heart that life is possible. The education the state offers our young people at present is an unreliable mechanism by which to introduce the joy of learning into a child’s life. What it does is place the child inside the prison of official choices in which everything is denied. No child will sing in such a prison cell. The only aspiration offered is to move to a bigger cell. The only language learned within this incarceration is a stream of tears. So the child becomes silent, internal and easily manipulated. Success like this is a savage articulation of anguish which itself is the terrible noise of division. The child is separated from itself. They are denied their culture and as a result deny they have one.
I believe that human sympathy is the origin of poetry. Without sympathy poetry has no function. Empathy comes from understanding who you are and where you come from and until children are introduced to Scottish culture as a normal and everyday component of their learning experience their own country will be a stranger to them. Those who are born into the computer age are termed “digital natives”. Those, like me, who have learned to cope with it through necessity, are “digital migrants”. Do we want our young people to be “cultural migrants”?
Poetry is the language of learning and empathy ensures that we do not kill each other. At this point in Scotland’s story, when we are on the crest of real lasting change, when each day shows us that the ties that bind us to the UK are rotten to the core, this then is the time to empower our young ones, to engage them in the politics of the fair and honest society we all strive for. A society where disappointment, sadness and anger have no constructive place, so that our 16 and 17 year olds can tell the likes of Lord Lang, Rifkind and Straw to slouch off to the kingdom of dust which is the history they have made for themselves, that we have better and more fitting work to do.
Yes, “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow”, and doubly yes, “the readiness is all”.
© George Gunn 2015.