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Politics of cynicism

Young people continue to be turned off by a democratic process which ignores issues that harness their idealism, says Henry Maitles.

Occasionally, you pick up a paper and read something that astonishes you in its lack of foresight, honesty and humility. Jack McConnell's recent statements that media criticism of his supposed gifts and holidays and the publicity over Cathy Jamieson's nephew will "have an impact on the next generation of young people and whether they choose to go into public life" (Sunday Herald, February 27) is staggering in its lack of vision and shows no understanding of the cynicism in young people.

Truly, there is significant disaffection by young (and indeed the not so young) people with formal Politics (with a capital P) and politicians.

Voting figures for Westminster, Holyrood and Brussels show this; we continually seem to be getting lower and lower voting turnout.

Even the Scottish Parliament, designed to increase participation and to bring politics closer to the people, achieved a sub-50 per cent turnout in 2003. When we turn our attention to 18-24s, the voting percentages are particularly low and dropping. And, indeed, looking at the next generation of voters still at school, surveys suggest that disaffection is very high there too.

However, it is not the supposed media hounding of important and powerful politicians that turns these young people off; rather, it is the fact that Politics doesn't seem to get anything done, is cynical in terms of representing ordinary people and, for at least some politicians of the major parties, seems to be a jolly well-paid part-time job, with the additional benefit of free holidays thrown in. For young people, Ken Livingston's words ring true: "If voting changed anything, they'd abolish it."

Arguably this is what made one pupil remark in a piece of research about involvement in the political process: "Only if you haven't got a life."

Establishment politicians regard these kinds of views as examples of cynicism towards Politics in general and apathy among children in particular.

Yet the same surveys of children (including primary pupils) suggest that they are concerned about pollution, poverty, world hunger, war, animal welfare, fair trade; and they involve themselves in campaigns which try to do something about it. For most, this means involvement in single-issue campaigns. Go down the high streets in our towns and there are stalls on these issues overwhelmingly staffed by young people, many of them still at school.

Fair trade campaigns have been initiated by pupils and money raised to challenge inequalities in the developing world such as helping to build schools. If pupils take the related step of arguing that the Government should do more, surely this is a positive step. The anti-war demonstrations and globalised resistance campaigns have large numbers of children active in them.

Paradoxically, politicians were opposed to pupils taking part in anti-war protests; but what could be more political than campaigning against a war if it is thought to be wrong? I have been in many schools over the past few weeks visiting student teachers and the number of pupils wearing "Make Poverty History" wristbands is staggering. This is not cynicism or apathy; it is politics, but this time with a small p. We need as adults not just to tolerate these types of activities in a patronising way but actively to encourage them.

Our politicians would do better to reflect on the reasons why young people in schools are uninterested in and cynical towards what they do. They might then pause and think of their inability to tackle the big issues affecting the planet, or indeed poverty and growing inequality in Scotland or large class sizes, rather than some supposed media campaign turning schoolkids off.

As the environment seems to get more dangerous and poverty round the world increases, the Government's own figures suggest that the gap between rich and poor has grown dramatically under new Labour and class sizes in Scotland remain unacceptably high.

It is the cynicism of politicians that is the problem, not that of young people.

Henry Maitles is head of the department of curricular studies in Strathclyde University's education faculty.

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