Derek Couper

17th June 2011 at 01:00
The Scottish Youth Parliament is living proof that, contrary to popular belief, not all young Scots are apathetic when it comes to public affairs. Here, its outgoing chair discusses what gets his political juices going. Photography Angus Blackburn

What inspired you to get involved in youth politics?

I was involved with school councils and regional youth forums when I was younger. It's been a progression from there. I was a supporter of the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Bill of 2008 because I had worked with people with severe disabilities and knew the kind of difference that scientific developments could make to them.

What would be a typical day for you, as chair of the Scottish Youth Parliament?

It is a voluntary role, so I combine it with my studies. I do a lot of Youth Parliament work during the week, so on a typical day I come into the offices to meet the staff and perhaps discuss a campaign we want to run from our manifesto. I also write articles for newspapers and do keynote speeches at AGMs to raise the profile of the Youth Parliament. It's useful for other organisations to have a younger perspective on some of the issues they deal with.

You've just stepped down as chair. How have you spent your last weeks in office?

Our biggest piece of work has been the manifesto. We consulted more than 42,000 young people - one of the biggest consultations in Scottish history. We've been working up to our main campaign, which will be chosen from five options: marriage equality for same sex couples, banning "Mosquito" devices, no nuclear weapons, a national guarantee of work experience and fairer public transport prices. We'll develop a strategy for that.

What stands out as your greatest achievement, both individually and for the Youth Parliament as a whole?

Individually - meeting the Pope and the Queen. I introduced them to many of the representatives of the other youth groups I'm involved in and briefed them on their work during the Pope's visit to Scotland. From the Youth Parliament's perspective, we now sit on more cross-party groups than before, we have more media coverage and a greater impact on Parliament and local politicians.

There's a lot of apathy among young people in Scotland regarding politics. How have you tried to tackle this?

There's a disenchantment with politics. It seems self-serving to those who are removed from it. Politics is about local and national issues and what we've tried to do in the Youth Parliament is capitalise on the interests that young people already have. We try to make the link between these issues and Parliament; by campaigning on behalf of Scotland's young people and showing them that we can make a difference.

What can schools do to try and encourage young people to get involved with politics?

They should allow students and young people to have a greater voice in their own education process - something Curriculum for Excellence wants to achieve. They could maybe allow them a greater say in their courses and how they are offered. I know schools are having a hard time making sure they have the same number of courses as before, particularly Advanced Highers. One of our campaigns is to have a pupil representative on every local education authority as an expert observer.

What can the Scottish Government do to help young people?

The biggest issue currently is youth unemployment. One in five young people is unemployed. There needs to be more focus on apprenticeships, guaranteed job places and funded college courses, and on making sure university tuition fees aren't introduced in Scotland. Traditionally, for young people who didn't have academic qualifications, there was always the opportunity of apprenticeships or practical college courses, but we're seeing cuts in further education and in funded employment opportunities.

The Youth Parliament is non-party-political. Does this help increase diversity and make it more accessible to young people?

Exactly. It's to encourage young people who aren't interested in the formal process of politics, but care about issues and want to have a say. We also take MSYPs (Member of the Scottish Youth Parliament) from voluntary organisations that provide a voice for them and represent the organisation's specific needs and aims. The Youth Parliament is more diverse than the Scottish Parliament; there are more women - in fact, it's near to a 5050 split, and ethnic minorities are very well represented, as are LGBT young people. They're statistics we're very proud of.

Who's your political hero and why?

I admire people like Jimmy Reid. There was that famous quote when he pointed to a block of council flats and said that in them was a future prime minister, a famous ballet dancer and a footballer, but none of them would ever recognise their potential because of where they came from. That's the type of politics I'd like to be involved with - realising potential, and helping young people to succeed, regardless of their background.

You were recently crowned Top Politician of the Future in the Scottish Sun's Scottish Variety Awards. Can you see yourself with a future in politics?

I would like to go into politics to represent people. Eventually I'd like to stand for my home constituency - Livingston - but local politics is something I wouldn't exclude either. For now, though, I'll focus on studying towards my degree.


Born: Edinburgh, 1991

Education: Deans Community High, Livingston; second-year law student at Edinburgh University

Career: Outgoing chair of the Scottish Youth Parliament; co-convener of Children and Young People Cross-Party group; board member of YoungScot and YouthLink Scotland.

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