Andrew Bowie is Member of Parliament for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, and a Vice-Chair of the Conservative Party.
My political life has been dominated by referendums.
By arguments over national identity.
First the 2014 referendum on Scottish Independence. Then the 2016 referendum on our membership of the European Union. It has been exhausting.
And it is not why I got into politics. I joined the Conservative and Unionist party, not because I was a unionist, although I am, but because I am a Conservative. Because I want to make this country a better place.
But I would never have joined had it not been for one man, David Cameron. I joined the Conservative Party because I believed in the modernising agenda that Cameron, George Osborne and our now Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, brought to our party.
Because I thought you could believe in free markets, private enterprise, personal responsibility, aspiration, fiscal responsibility and low taxes, whilst also believing that we have a responsibility to act on man-made climate change; that two people in love, whatever their gender, should be able to marry; that the NHS is an institution to be as proud of as the British Army and that our response to mental health could be better than simply asking people to keep a stiff upper lip.
Cameron represented a modernising force that redefined centrist politics and left Labour – and the SNP at the start of its dynastic crumble – struggling to find relevance.
I was three weeks too young to vote in the 2005 General Election. Thank goodness, because I had absolutely no idea who I would have voted for! For me, I’m afraid, the Tories were a bit too pale and stale; speaking about issues in a language that my mates and I just were not interested in nor could understand. And yet, I knew was a conservative.
It was just after this, whilst waiting to join the Royal Navy, I found myself working at my local Morrison’s Supermarket. I loved it. I still miss it.
And one day, whilst waiting to start my shift, sitting in my dad’s car outside the store, I listened, in awful quality Medium Wave, to Radio 5 Live’s coverage of Cameron winning the leadership election (DAB in a car was a dream back then). And I knew then, that the Conservative Party was my party.
Because for me, Cameron spoke to my generation.
My generation. A generation that doesn’t remember Thatcher, but was born when she was in Downing Street. That grew up through the Blair years, entered the world of work through the Brown years and suffered as we did, the financial crisis.
One that is old enough, just, to remember a pre-internet age but that were the first users of Facebook and YouTube; to remember when going for a night out meant waking up the next day reeking of the stale smoke of the club the night before. That thought playing snake on a Nokia **** or owning a tamagotchi were the limits of technological achievement. That had the terrifying experience of actually speaking to a girl, or a guy, in person, before going on a date.
We did grow up in a different age. All of this is ancient history to the 18-25s of today.
My point? We, the “Cameroons”, are about as far removed from the lived experiences of young people today as the Tory Party and its leaders were from my generation and our values, concerns and dreams in the mid 2000s.
And, to go back to the start of this piece, I wonder if our focus, particularly in Scotland, on the constitution or referendums, has gotten in the way of our recognising that, as we in the political and commentariat class re fight, ad nauseam, the battles of 2014 and 2016, there is a whole new generation out there in the country we are not speaking to. A generation who voted in neither referendum but will vote in the next General Election.
A generation who have never known a world without social media, on whom the demands to look, speak or act a certain way have never been more demanding. Who are being asked to define themselves in ways I don’t even fully understand.
A generation who, just as friends of mine fought the battle for equal marriage, now fight for more equality. A more in touch, connected, informed, campaigning generation than ever before. A generation for many of whom owning a house is simply unimaginable and for many, owning a car, undesirable. And a generation who have had their whole lives turned upside down, put on hold, due to our actions in locking down the country last year to combat the pandemic.
I have been saying for a while now that the current generation of 18-25s have been more affected, not physically or medically obviously, but mentally and socially by the pandemic than any other. School life put on hold. Travel banned. The workplace closed down. University of college experience changed beyond recognition. The simple pleasures of going out and, shock, dating, banned.
I challenge anyone who hasn’t lived it to fully understand the sheer enormity of the impact of these decisions on the youngest in society.
At Party Conference, I had the huge privilege of speaking on a panel – organised by Onward and Speakers for Schools – alongside a 17-year-old young woman who *should* have sat her GCSEs last year, but whose entire academic career, everything she had worked so hard for, was upended, brought to an abrupt halt, by the tough but necessary measures taken in March last year.
The words she used to describe her experience – likening it to being in prison, feeling hopeless, despairing, trapped and abandoned – to describe being in education over the past year and half was so powerful it brought some in the room to tears. It was the best speech at Conference by far. And it gave me pause for thought. There is no doubt that she will go very far indeed.
But not all will. And we have an obligation, a responsibility to those young people. We, who took the decisions that put their lives on hold, must reach out, must listen, must start engaging and talking about the issues that affect them. We cannot assume we have the answers if we do not even know the questions to ask.
We cannot, for example, blithely talk about changing the student finance model without understanding the fear and worry this causes for students aspiring to a university education but who know their parents can’t afford it or don’t understand the process. Or dismiss new housing developments as undesirable whilst they look to a life at home with their parents because there is simply nothing affordable to buy for themselves.
So that is the challenge I lay at the feet of every one of my colleagues in the Conservative Party. Talk to this generation in the way that Cameron spoke to mine. Engage, challenge and be challenged. If we do we reap the rewards and change this country. If we don’t, others will. And we, as a party and as a country, cannot afford that.