Young Scots deliver latest rebuke to the narrative of nationalist (and devolutionary) destiny
There’s been a lot of talk recently about how my generation of young people are defying the expectations of their elders. Radio 4 have run a show, ‘Generation Right’, about the increasingly liberal, centre-right orientation of today’s youth (only a year after the Economist made the same point).
In being the first ‘progressive’ to extend them the franchise, on the lazy assumption that they were in his corner, Alex Salmond has inadvertently empowered and energised a vital unionist constituency – research by British Future shows that young people in Scotland are not only more likely to vote than their peers elsewhere in the UK, but even more than the national average for all generations. Hundreds of mock referendums have engaged them with the referendum process, and both schools and universities have overwhelmingly ‘No’.
Yet young Scots have not just confined their tendency to confound their elders’ expectations to the nationalists, at least not if Gordon Brown has his facts right. The former Prime Minister has cited “astonishing new surveys” in which more than 50 per cent of Scottish 14-17 year-olds support “a UK-wide education system with common UK exams and qualifications”.
And why shouldn’t they? Common exams and points of reference make it easier for employers to compare candidates from all corners of the kingdom – and thus make it easier to find work. You only need to look at Wales to see that devolution is by no means an inherently good thing for education. And it would be an insult to Scottish students to assume the majority of them support the SNP’s policy of charging English, Welsh and Northern Irish students to study in Scotland, but not EU students.
The SNP have leapt on it, arguing that Brown is undermining the Better Together campaign and giving lie to the unionist parties’ promise of ‘more powers’, which is not the case. The unionist campaign is aimed four-square at appeasing the ‘middle generation’ whose belief in Scottish separateness is strongest, and led by politicians of a similar cut.
Whilst any rational constitutional debate would be open to the notion that powers could travel back to Westminster, post-1998 the suggestion of it has been verboten from constitutional discourse – a sad dream for elderly Conservatives, of no relevance to the debate. Yet Scottish teenagers, despite growing up in a political environment where nobody talks about integration, have reached the same conclusion for themselves. The long-term impact on the Scottish debate could be .
I don’t want to make the progressive mistake and take the support of the young for granted, but the trend appears to suggest the Union may be on a firmer footing than pessimists might have supposed. If there is a second referendum and it is, as Salmond says, a generation hence, the Union’s bastion amongst over-65s will have thinned. Assuming the ‘Braveheart generation’ remain as they are, the future of the UK will hang on the ‘mature teenagers’ of today – and it looks like, for now at least, it can depend on them.
NI21 call off probe into leader’s misconduct, turn fire on deputy
An investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct by Basil McCrea, former Ulster Unionist and leader of new party NI21, has been called off after Carecall, the external agency overseeing it, was allegedly blocked by the party chair Jane Howson.
Deputy leader and fellow ex-UUP man John McCallister, who has taken up the cudgels for those party members levelling accusations at McCrea, has publicly criticised Ms Howson – who, he points out, is a McCrea appointee. Meanwhile the complainants are now taking their complaints to Douglas Bain, the Assembly Standards Commissioner.
Yet the party executive has hit back at McCallister, claiming that since it was he who initiated the investigation they had no power to call it off. They have also spoken publicly of bringing disciplinary action against him, in what would be the latest twist of the knife in a fratricidal saga which has already demolished the party’s hopes of a breakthrough in the recent elections.
Tellingly, the party line attacked McCallister for the original leaking of the allegations/rumours (take your pick) to the media. According to some people I’ve spoken to, McCallister’s decision to take the allegations against McCrea seriously is at the heart of NI21’s earlier crisis – its baffling decision to redesignate from ‘Unionist’ to ‘Other’ in the NI Assembly. The idea was to force McCallister – a staunch unionist in tight fight for his South Down Assembly seat (perhaps against UKIP’s hard-line Henry Reilly) to withdraw from the party.
Whatever the truth of that, it seems apparent that rather than stepping back and attempting to rally their demoralised troops, NI21’s leaders are intent on a long march through the vale of tears.
Despite it all, activist complains of the ‘death of Welsh’
It’s been a nationalist shibboleth since before the creation of the Welsh Assembly. It has been maintained as a priority through a period of austerity. It is a compulsory part of the education of Welsh children. And yet, according to activist Heini Gruffudd, fifty years of ‘easy victories’ have led Welsh language advocacy up a dead end, and there is a real prospect of the ‘death’ of the language.
His solution is to create a new Welsh Language Authority, whose remit would span not just spheres like culture and education but also housing and the economy. The aim would be to fight localised ‘language death’ – “a reality in so many communities” – as well as “increasing the numbers of Welsh speakers, encouraging more Welsh-speaking homes and expanding the domains where Welsh can be used.”
The Welsh Assembly is not currently responsible for raising its own funds, so First Minister Carwyn Jones is free to describe the Welsh language as a top priority even in the face of severe crises in education and healthcare. Yet he should recognise that, whilst increasing voluntary access is all well and good, there is no merit to the nationalist notion that there’s something wrong with a Welsh individual or community which only speaks English, or that they’re any less Welsh than their Welsh-speaking compatriots.
Is Tory wooing of the DUP costing the NI Conservatives?
With it looking likely that the Conservatives will fall short of an overall majority, thoughts are turning to how we might form a government after 2015. Paul Goodman has outlined the options: a second Lib-Con coalition; a minority government… or some sort of arrangement with the Democratic Unionists.
With eight seats they’re already the largest of the ‘Others’ – and they could go up to ten if they were to take East Belfast and North Down next time round. Mel Stride has publicly called on the Prime Minister to woo the DUP ahead of 2015, not least to ensure a pact can be won on workable terms – in 2010 the DUP’s price was the cancellation of £200m of public sector cuts in Ulster, which was impossible. Stride also points out that the DUP are the only other Westminster party which backs the Conservative stance on an EU referendum.
I bring this up now because since I published my column on the NI Conservatives, I have been getting in touch with some prominent Northern Irish political commentators to get their views. I shall be publishing them on ConHome shortly, but amidst the condemnation of local mistakes was the interesting suggestion that the party at large is neglecting or even hobbling the NI Tories to avoid vexing relations with the Democratic Unionists.
Taken with the fact that we attended ‘unionist unity’ talks at the last election – and even backed such a candidate in Fermanagh & South Tyrone – it’s clear we risk undermining Cameron’s admirable claim to want to provide a principle-driven, non-sectarian alternative to the people of Northern Ireland.