Why schools should be in for the count

1st October 2004 at 01:00
Citizenship education needs to be more than merely providing information, says Michael Russell

I spent the summer among the older generation. Although I turned 51 during the SNP leadership campaign, I was still usually well below the average age of those attending the 22 hustings for members held the length and breadth of Scotland.

The youngest candidate won, of course - even if he is only 16 months younger than I am. But not even he would lay claim to youthfulness, which is clearly in short supply not just in the Scottish National Party but in every political party, except perhaps the Scotish Socialist Party.

Of the hundreds of questions that the candidates were asked at those hustings, a good proportion dwelt on the current failings of political parties to energise, enthuse and recruit young members. It is a perpetual complaint that, while the work does not get any less, the legs that carry canvassers to the doorsteps are getting older and older. Moreover, if one is a member of an ageing organisation, it is not rocket science to work out that the very future of the body must eventually be in doubt if it is failing to renew itself.

Among the solutions posited from the floor and the platform was the perennial one of shoehorning yet another subject into the overcrowded curriculum in Scotland's schools. Citizenship education already exists as part of other areas of study: many of those involved in politics believe that it should be made a subject in its own right, and given a prominence which - it is argued - will result in massively increased participation by young people both at the ballot box and within the democratic structures.

I am not so sure. Certainly, there is evidence that young people are sketchy about how governance works and that the advent of devolution has confused things even further. Far more people probably can name the current number one single than can name the Prime Minister but, now that politicians and their positions are breeding like rabbits in season, it is little wonder that the various tiers and those occupying them confuse rather than compel attention.

Of more importance, however, may be the public perception of those who govern, a perception poor enough among the population at large, but particularly poor among younger people. It is not surprising, if politicians spend most of their time loudly and publicly decrying the honesty, integrity and competence of other politicians, but fail themselves to deliver any clear tangible results in public services or any inspirational vision, that young people look elsewhere for hope.

In those circumstances, the message of "anti-politics", as espoused by the radical fringes, is bound to be more and more attractive and much more understandable: so is the single-issue campaign. "Don't vote, it only encourages them" is perhaps the most popular message of all.

Some contend that the way to solve this problem is to lower the voting age to 16. But is there any sense in offering the opportunity to take part when the thing doesn't look worth taking part in? In fact it may simply decrease proportional turnout. The statistics show very clearly that young people are least likely to cast their ballot, and merely creating a larger group of young people who are likely to abstain is not a sensible solution unless a hunger to take part has already been deliberately established.

Can schools and formal education establish that hunger, by means of compulsory citizenship education? Again, it seems unlikely to work on its own.

The current obsession with seeking alternative voting methods - by post, on different days, in shops and by means of the internet are some ways - is already beginning to seem like chasing rainbows, much as many of our democratic institutions and systems desperately need modernisation. The recent experiment with postal voting in the European elections in England appears to have been open to abuse, difficult to organise and still to have produced no greatly increased turnout. If making voting easier does not work, then just giving young people more information may not work either.

There are perhaps two solutions that might succeed. The first is to introduce compulsory voting, as in Australia and elsewhere. The opportunity will still exist to abstain - to spoil your paper by leaving it blank, for example, though some go much further and write exactly what they think of the candidates, as I have frequently seen at election counts in this country. But at least everyone will share the responsibility of choosing who governs them.

Compulsory voting only makes sense, however, if there is something worth voting for. This is where politicians usually fall down in their logic. For it is blindingly obvious that, if any party or individual can create a really inspirational vision for the future, can command the confidence of the electorate of all ages and deliver what they promise, then they will draw people to them and into the polling stations.

Blair did so in 1997, partly in reaction to public disgust at what had gone before, and there will be future landslides in similar circumstances. Such landslides would be even more likely if any party had the courage to talk not just about tinkering with what exists, but profoundly changing the whole nature of how we are governed, letting the people in to what increasingly seems a closed magic circle of power by welcoming their views and seeking to achieve their aspirations.

The politicians and parties should therefore look to themselves for answers, not - once again - just to our teachers and schools. There is no harm in arming our young people with the tools by which they can participate in our democracy: indeed, most already are so armed. To up the training, but still give them no reason to use those tools, would be to look in the wrong direction for a solution - something, of course, that politicians are particularly adept at doing.

Michael Russell is a writer and commentator.

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