Devolution generation: The young people who grew up with the Scottish Parliament

Written by Tom Freeman on 29 January 2019 in Inside Politics

With the Scottish Parliament turning 20 this year, Holyrood speaks to the young people who have only ever known devolution

Image credit: Holyrood

For those who share a birthday with our devolved parliament, it has been an unprecedented journey through life.

Developments in technology mean they have grown up knowing only immediate access to the world through the internet and mobile devices.

The smoking ban meant they will have lived a childhood relatively smoke-free compared to those who came before. As they entered secondary school, Scotland introduced a whole new holistic curriculum aimed at broadening education and developing confident individuals and responsible citizens.

As they turned 15, they watched the year group above them gain the right to vote and exercise that vote in a national referendum on the country’s future.

Last year was the Scottish Government’s ‘Year of Young People’, showcasing the contribution and ambitions of this generation.

And 2019 could be even more significant for the nation’s youth, as the 30th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) will mark its principles being enshrined in Scots law.

But have these 19-year-olds fulfilled the aims of Curriculum for Excellence? Do they know how unprecedented their experience has been?

Holyrood spoke to a number of people born in the same year as the Scottish Parliament, and whether fully engaged as a member of the Scottish Youth Parliament or disillusioned with the political process, we found them full of insight and perspective on the last 20 years and what it has been like growing up in Scotland in the devolution era.

Most of them first became aware of the Scottish Parliament between 2007 and 2009, whether through conversations at home around the 2007 Holyrood election or through school modules in primary six and seven.

Jack Norquoy did a project on the parliament in primary six at his school in Orkney, which resulted in him being ‘elected’ in a mock election. It sparked an interest which has gone on to see him represent the islands at the Scottish Youth Parliament.

“I’ve lived my whole life with a parliament in Edinburgh. I kind of knew it as an important institution, along the lines of importance as institutions like the NHS,” he tells Holyrood.

“Like the NHS, you can’t really imagine life without it. It has delivered many positive changes to the life of this nation, but having been born in 1999, you kind of forget it was something that had to be fought for, something that was secured after decades of campaigning. But I take immense pride in the fact I was born in a time and have lived in a time in Scotland when there were these new ideas.”

Orkney is a place which has benefitted from democracy being brought “closer to home”, he suggests, a momentum which has continued through more powers being given to the islands.

And even if such a keen interest in politics was not sparked in his P6 peers, Norquoy believes an early political education gave them a confidence to speak out on individual issues.

John Walker from West Lothian, who has just started an apprenticeship with the civil service, was the same age when his school was visited by a local councillor who gave a first introduction to politics. That councillor was Neil Findlay, who would go on to become a prominent voice at Holyrood.

“It was good that the school was introducing us to decision makers early on,” Walker suggests.

“Obviously, I’ve never known anything but devolution, so I don’t really have anything to compare it to, but my personal experience of growing up with devolution in place, it’s been absolutely fantastic. To have a body in Edinburgh that’s more local, that can understand the issues that really matter to the people of Scotland.”

Another MSYP, Catherine Mackie, was also in primary six when her local MSP, Nicola Sturgeon, visited her house on constituency business.

“I don’t know exactly what was going on or what she did to resolve it, but I met her,” she remembers. “She actually came to the house. She was health secretary at that point. I saw her on telly and I thought, ‘Oh my God’.

“I didn’t care about political parties, I just thought, that’s so cool.”

Lauren Baigrie remembers thinking the parliament building was “pretty” when she visited on a primary school outing, little knowing that she would go on to represent young carers there at a committee before she would turn 20.

For Baigrie and many others, the lowering of the voting age to 16 ahead of the independence referendum had a profound impact on their lives.

Baigrie suggests it has fostered them as a “free-thinking generation” that are “finding out for ourselves”.

“I’ve been part of a generation that strives for change,” she says.

“I’ve been part of a generation who wants to be involved in politics from a young age, who has seen the importance of having a Scottish Government.

“It’s all we’ve ever known, but we also hear about what it was like without it, the issues faced when different governments were in power. I love the fact our Scottish Government allows us to have a political voice from a young age.

“We’ve been part of votes at 16. I’ve been able to vote in several elections and I’m not even 20 yet. I’ve got friends down south who have only voted in one. That’s a big thing for me.”

Baigrie has been active in campaigning for more support for young carers, and now represents carers at a national level.

“I learned from speaking to politicians not to be afraid of them but to speak to them as an equal if you want to bring about change,” she says.

“As a young woman, having a voice in politics has always been an option for me. Having a voice in politics under the age of 18 is something I’m really proud of Scotland for putting in place.”

But no one in this generation could actually vote in 2014.

Mackie says: “I was a bit gutted, to be honest, because I was already quite a politically aware person.”

Walker says: “I was 15. It was a bit annoying that I couldn’t vote, but it was good in that I knew the next year I would be able to vote.”

Not having that vote doesn’t appear to have stopped this generation getting involved, however. Mackie says her peers were “buzzed” about it, taking part in debates and campaigning events.

Jack Dudgeon, MSYP for Eastwood, describes the time as a personal “origin point”.

“I remember it being a really exciting time, above everything else,” he says. “At school, you’d be hanging out at lunch and it would dominate the conversation. Debates, questions. Even with teachers. You’d go into classes and chat with teachers. Modern studies and stuff.

“It was an exciting time, I have very fond memories of it, and in some ways, I wish we could go back to that.”

However, the 2014 referendum was not a positive experience for all the young people we spoke to.

Esme Leitch, now Highland Council’s youth convener, moved to Lochaber when she was ten from Brighton. There was only one other person in her year at school in Duror.

Her “strong southern accent” made her feel  like an outsider at times, she says.

“The fact the village I moved to was so small probably didn’t help that. Everyone knew each other. I think it’s much harder to come into communities that are closer. I don’t think Highland culture is that naturally welcoming.”

2014 would prove to be particularly hard.

“For me, the hardest time to be English was during the referendum. I remember that to be rough,” she remembers.

“Nothing horrific, I wasn’t beaten up or anything, but that’s when I felt the most outside. I was in very much a ‘Yes’ place, and people were very open about that and it encouraged more open patriotism. I struggled with that.”

She did think the unprecedented engagement had a positive aspect, however, opening up “a more sensible dialogue” than “‘we hate the English’, which I got from some people, definitely”.

Ben McLeary is studying at Strathclyde University to become a maths teacher. For him, the “constant conflict” of the 2014 referendum put him off politics entirely.

“It seemed like there was a lot of conflict going on, and it was something I didn’t want to get involved in,” he tells Holyrood.

“Especially with the independence referendum. That was what sealed the deal for me, in terms of staying away from politics. These were people my age, or a little bit older, who didn’t even have all of the right information about what was going on and didn’t fully understand it, getting into full-blown arguments about whether we should be an independent country.”

McLeary remembers taking part in a school debate, arguing that the voting age shouldn’t have been lowered.

“I definitely was of the personal opinion that at that point, 16-year-olds weren’t as clued in on politics, myself included, as maybe those who were 18 and so the decisions we made wouldn’t be as politically charged and would have been influenced by the adults around us.

“In a way, it wouldn’t be our own vote, our own opinion, we were really being unintentionally manipulated by the views of those we lived with.”

McLeary says the perspective of adulthood and leaving his home town of Glenrothes to study has given him perspective on his childhood.

“Upon reflection, looking back, I feel like things were maybe rougher than I thought they were,” he says.

Places like Glenrothes, with its struggling town centre, are “quickly becoming derelict”, he says.

“It was a lot harder to get by compared to other places. I mean, it could just be personal circumstances, but a lot of people I knew in Glenrothes, a new town, so to speak, were very working class. People were pay cheque to pa cheque, and a lot of the friends I had were in similar situations.”

Shaun Cairns from Clydebank says he has seen Glasgow grow and change as a city in his life, but it was when he reached 13 or 14 and was allowed a little more personal independence that he noticed the social makeup of the city.

“I started being able to go to the city centre and stuff on my own, so that was when I was really able to see things for myself and form opinions about it.

“When you’re 14, you don’t think of things as being part of inequality, but you could definitely see something wasn’t right. It wasn’t working. Now it’s clear that what I was seeing was health inequalities, within a ten or 15-mile bubble.”

Cairns believes the Scottish Parliament has had a big impact on his generation, however.

“The smoking ban in the early 2000s, free prescriptions and free higher education in Scotland have shaped and defined this generation, I think,” he says.

“It means a lot of us can go to uni and get an education. I don’t think I would have been able to be at Glasgow uni right now if it wasn’t for the free higher education.”

While a number of the young people we spoke to mention free tuition, their experience of school education is more varied.

Most of them experienced the second year of National Four and Five courses, but Leitch was in the first year of the new Curriculum for Excellence assessments.

“It was totally nuts,” she remembers. “None of the teachers knew. We were the pilot year. They didn’t know what they were doing.”

McLeary is even less positive in his assessment of his schooling. “The education wasn’t fantastic, in my opinion,” he says.

“There are a lot of flaws, in the staffing, in the curriculum. It stunted education for a lot of people. There are people who left high school and didn’t know what to do with themselves, people who ended up in horrific dead-end jobs, and there are people who go into any college course that would take them. They are now racking up debt to pay for it, and they don’t even know if it’s what they want to do.”

McLeary is at university now, thanks to financial assistance from the Robertson Trust, which helps people from disadvantaged backgrounds get a degree. The scholarship, he says, put pressure on him “in a good way,” to strive at school. His ambition to become a teacher is related, he adds.

“My experience of high school gave me the motivation to say, ‘well, if education is in this poor a state, I know all it can take is one teacher to make or break a student’s interest in a subject, and maths is such an important subject at a fundamental level, not only to get a job but working through everyday life.”

Norquoy and Leitch are very aware that many young people in rural communities go away to study at university and often don’t come back. In Leitch’s case, she did after having to pull out of her degree at Aberdeen University.

She says coming back gave her a different perspective on the opportunities for young people in her community, becoming aware that they had been divided at school between those that were expected to move away to succeed and those that weren’t.

She also noticed a gender pay gap already growing among those who had stayed.

“If you look at the girls who have stayed compared to the boys that have stayed, the boys are earning so much more already. They might be three years into a joinery apprenticeship, whereas the girls are mostly still in a job they did when they left school, the one they worked at when they were still at school, you know.”

However, having applied to do a masters in sustainable rural development at the University of the Highlands and Islands, Leitch can see positive change in how more flexible, multi-location higher education can open up opportunities.

Baigrie has also started university, despite still being a full-time carer.

“None of my family had been to university, and it was a really big thing for me to get to go,” she says.

“I started to look into university early, to see what was available for young carers. I wanted to choose a university that is carer friendly. But student carers don’t get any extra funding or anything. Currently I have a part-time job where I work about 20 hours a week, I have a full-time caring role which is around 40 hours a week, and I’m at university full-time.”

How does that work? “It doesn’t. That’s what I want to see changed. It’s my next big campaign.”

Walker, meanwhile, is embracing his new apprenticeship with the civil service.

“Working in the civil service really does open your eyes to just how hard governments work. A lot of people complain about ‘the government’ but working in government, you see why some of it is necessary.

“I’m not saying everything the government does is correct, but it’s not as simple as ‘we’ll do this, we’ll do that, we’ll pay for this, we’ll tax those people’ – there has to be so much scrutiny just to get to the stages where the public are aware of it.”

Walker suggests Scotland is “world-leading” in engaging young people, and he’s not the only one to point to a more global perspective.

Cairns describes “objectively liberal” Scotland as a great place to grow up, but suggests there is a generation gap.

“Sometimes I’m walking down Clydebank, and you hear some of the older people talking to each other, and sometimes I feel like I’m in a Scotch and Wry sketch.

“There is definitely a cultural generation gap between myself and the older generation. I feel that’s to do with a much more globalised eye on the world.

“Growing up, I can see my parents didn’t have as much access to culture and massive global events, outside of the UK. With the internet and social media, I’ve got access to all over the world.”

McLeary and Baigrie mention friends abroad, specifically in the US, with whom they often compare their lives. Bairgrie spent four months of last year working at a summer camp in the USA.

“When I talk about home, Americans just can’t believe a country like Scotland exists, where we have so many opportunities they don’t have.

“One of my best friends lives in Iowa, and I think I took for granted a lot of what the Scottish Government gives me. When I look at what she has to deal with in terms of healthcare, education, university, job potential, it’s a different world. I’ve been so naive to the fact that that exists, that not every country is as lucky as ours.

“I’m bringing her over here in May to see it. To let her feel the culture. She wants to come to the parliament and see how it’s different.”

But for a globalised generation, Brexit is a hard pill to swallow. Having witnessed the independence referendum, enthusiastically voted in a council election then a Scottish parliament election, the voting age was not lowered for the EU referendum.

“I feel like after my generation had seen the outcomes of Brexit, we got a taste for what it was like for our voice not to be heard,” says Bairgrie. “I don’t know one of my friends, peers or colleagues who are happy about the Brexit result.”

What will the fallout be for this generation, and will it be articulated through another referendum on independence?

Leitch says: “I could do without another referendum. But I’m much stronger than when I was 15 or whenever it was, and I think I could handle it.

“People would assume I was on the other side from them, and they’d have been right, to be honest.

“There’s part of me now that’s like ‘maybe I would vote differently now if we left the EU’. Would I vote for independence? That’s the interesting thing in politics now.”

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