Politics: Representing youth

Malachy Tallack meets Nicole Mouat, Shetland’s Member of the Scottish Youth Parliament.

While the rest of us had the opportunity this month to exercise our right to vote, young folk all over the country had to sit back and watch helplessly as we once again made the wrong decisions. But though the Westminster and Holyrood parliaments will both legislate on behalf of those under 18, and without hearing their views at the ballot box, it is not entirely true to say that young people do not have a voice within the political process.

The Scottish Youth Parliament (SYP) was founded in 1999, and met for the first time on the day before the first meeting of the new Scottish Parliament. It’s “vision”, according to the organisation’s website, is of “a stronger, more inclusive Scotland that empowers young people by truly involving them in the decision making process”.

The parliament is made up of people aged between 14 and 25 from all over Scotland. Some represent constituencies; others come from voluntary groups and organisations. In total there are 200 Members of the Scottish Youth Parliament (MSYPs).

As well as taking part in general meetings of the parliament, which take place three times a year, there are also 10 committees in which individual MSYPs can get involved. These committees focus on subjects such as “Education and Lifelong Learning”, “Culture and Media”, “Justice”, “Social Justice” and “Health and Wellbeing”. The parliament also democratically elects its own convenor and vice-convenor, as well as all committee chairs. Though the organisation does employ some staff, all significant decisions are made by people aged under-25.

Shetland’s current representative at the SYP is 17-year-old Nicole Mouat. She, like all other constituency MSYPs, was elected by her peers after producing a manifesto outlining her priorities for young people in the islands. Among the issues she considered (and still considers) to be of most importance were school closures and the Viking Energy windfarm.

When we met last month, Nicole explained to me that, when she was not attending meetings of the parliament, her work consisted mainly of “campaigning on different issues for young people” and holding surgeries.
“In surgeries I find out what people’s views are, so that I can represent their views [within the parliament].

“I usually have a couple of questionnaires for people and then we just have a discussion: generally, what they feel about their area, what they like about it, what they would want to improve, and anything that they would want me to bring up.”

In addition to this work, “I’m quite involved in Youth Voice, which is almost like a mini-parliament for Shetland. It’s where different representatives from schools and youth clubs can get together and discuss issues they feel are important to them.” Nicole is also on the pupil council at the Anderson High School, so is heavily involved in representing young people’s views within a variety of forums.

At the parliament itself, Nicole explained, MSYPs are expected to discuss a wide range of subjects that are of interest to their constituents.

“There’s a lot of debates and workshops and that kind of thing. I have been at sittings about the media, and how the media views young people; and another focussing mainly on votes. The last one we were at was about money: about the recession and how that’s impacted [people], and how young people can cope with that, and about getting into jobs after further education.”

The SYP also campaigns on numerous issues close to the hearts of the nation’s youth.

“The main campaign at the moment is trying to get votes for 16 year olds, and to try and get rid of the stigma attached to young people. We’re saying: ‘being young is not a crime’.”

The work that is done within the parliament does not, of course, just stay within the parliament. Though MSYPs do not have legislative powers, the results of their discussions are fed onwards to Holyrood and, where relevant, Westminster. Representatives of the SYP occasionally meet with government ministers to lobby on their work, and constituency MSYPs will often hold surgeries together with their counterpart MSPs. In this way MSYPs act as a conduit, ensuring that the views of people not yet eligible to vote do not go unheard by the government.

In a generation characterised by its alienation from the political process, the SYP offers an opportunity for young people to become involved in the issues that affect their lives. But, rather predictably, it is not always easy to convince folk that getting involved is actually worthwhile.

According to Nicole, participation varies, depending on the issue being discussed. Young people become interested “when they understand they can get something done. It’s just getting that across [that is the problem].

“In some areas there’s a view that there’s no point in doing stuff because nothing’s going to get done, but in other aspects they’re keen to say what they want.”

Unfortunately, this reticence extends to issues on which young people’s voices really should be heard: “I found particularly with the new [Anderson] High School coming, there was a lot of folk that felt there was no point in saying anything about it because nothing was going to get done anyway.”

So clearly there is a lot that needs to be done to re-engage the nation’s youth, and the first problem that needs to be tackled, Nicole thinks, is the negative image that politics has struggled to shake off: “I think there’s a bit of a stigma with politics – that it’s not cool and that kind of thing – and that needs to be solved.”

Then there’s the issue of education: “There’s very little information in schools about politics. And the way that it’s shown in school isn’t always positive. At the last sitting [of the SYP] we were discussing whether there should be political education in schools to try and get people more aware. You get modern studies in first and second year [of high school], but it’s so basic, and you don’t learn an awful lot about parliament and how the government works. I think more of that needs to be taught.”

And then there’s politicians themselves, who, for obvious reasons, tend not to make much effort engaging with those under 18.

“I just think generally they don’t aim to try and get the views of young people and understand what they want. Probably because they don’t have to get their vote so they don’t bother. If they were in schools more and gaining views, I think young people would be more interested.”

The Scottish Youth Parliament is a step in the right direction, of course. It offers the opportunity for young people to have their views heard. But the significance and the threat of political alienation should not be underestimated. It would be to the benefit of society as a whole if many others were to follow Nicole’s example and fully engage themselves in the issues that affect them and those around them.

To find out more about the Scottish Youth Parliament visit www.syp.org.uk


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