Shaming of a leader

Jack McConnell's failure to protect young asylum-seekers has caused further disillusionment with politicians , says Henry Maitles

We are often told that young people are apathetic, alienated and disinterested in politics. Nothing new about this: recent electoral turnouts for Westminster and Holyrood suggest that young people are not alone here.

Now, I use "Politics" with a capital P deliberately as there is plenty of evidence that, while disinterested in the workings of parliaments, the spin of the politicians or disgusted by the corruption of our MPs and MSPs, young people are very interested in political (with a small p) issues relating to animal welfare, poverty, fair trade, war and inequalities, among others.

Examples abound, from the young people on the Make Poverty History march, to those pupils who were involved in activity around the protests as the Iraq war started, to the sale and wearing of various wristbands in schools, to the young people who populate the animal welfare and fair trade stalls on a Saturday in many of our towns and cities.

When school pupils do take an interest in the workings of our elected representatives, they are usually encouraged to do so by adults suggesting to them that this is the democratic way to get perceived wrongs put right.

Indeed, this type of responsible behaviour is central to the whole citizenship agenda.

Two months ago, shocked by dawn raids that handcuffed, detained and then deported the Vucaj family, including two of their schoolmates, and believing the words of the First Minister that Scotland needed to encourage young intelligent people (such as our asylum-seekers) to settle in Scotland, delegations of pupils from Drumchapel High School in Glasgow contacted their MSPs and Jack McConnell to do something about the scandalous and cruel arrests and deportations involved in the dawn raids.

Such was the general outcry over the dawn asylum raids and deportations, that Mr McConnell met with six of the pupils from the school and, according to them, said that dawn raids were "unacceptable" and that he would approach the Home Office to change the way removals involving children were to be handled in Scotland.

Naturally, these young people expected the First Minister to do more than "convey to the Home Office our widespread concerns", as he said to MSPs on November 25, and then just accept the Home Office ruling out special treatment for failed asylum-seekers in Scotland and maintaining that dawn raids, armed police and handcuffing would continue. They might have expected it, but they didn't get it.

The caving in of our First Minister to the policy of continuing dawn raids had one of the pupils who met him saying: "He gave us so much hope . . . We thought he had so much power as he's the First Minister of Scotland but now we know he's got no power. I'm ashamed of him."

What lessons might young people take from this? Is it unreasonable to suspect that they might become even more disillusioned about politics? Would it be fair to suggest that pupils, who had believed that the First Minister would do something about this, might become cynical towards the political process? Is it not reasonable to believe that this cynicism is indeed a function of the political system in this case, rather than something inherent?

Clearly, it is not helpful for us to suggest to young people that they can get whatever they want. It is obviously unrealistic and life cannot always be so: the vast bulk of school students understand that.

But, on an issue such as this, where there is widespread popular worry and outcry yet no action from our elected representatives on a manifest and open injustice, we should not be surprised when young people declare themselves disillusioned and critical of the political process. This is especially so when there is thought to be support from the First Minister of a new parliament which claims to be listening and open to participation by the public.

Let's leave the last word with one of the 15-year-old pupils: "I'm disappointed in him because I really had faith in him."

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

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