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by Douglas Chapman
13 February 2024
Fit for the future: It's time to end tribalism and politicking for the sake of the young

Despite a buoyant property market in places like Edinburgh, young people are struggling to own their own home | Alamy

Fit for the future: It's time to end tribalism and politicking for the sake of the young

In a rolling news cycle of doom and gloom, we could all do with some hope. Hope that someone, somewhere, has a plan that’s not subject to the vagaries of electoral cycles, political careers or pet projects. A plan based on objective analysis, informed by strategic foresight and pragmatic preparation, a plan with vision and most importantly, with the ability to deliver.

Hope, that despite what might get thrown at us in the future, we are busy ensuring we are more resilient, equal and fair, far more sustainable and prosperous and able to stand on our own two feet in a time of crisis or change.

We owe this much to ourselves, and most certainly we owe it to our young people. A recent report in the Financial Times by their data analysist, John Burn-Murdoch, highlighted one of the many ways in which young people are being “robbed of the milestones that marked the lives of previous generations”, in this instance home ownership. His analysis shows that nowadays, the most common home set-up for 18-34 year olds is to live with their parents as opposed to owning their own homes – in other words, an illustration of the “breakdown” in a “central aspirational belief” in the UK, that if you work hard, you can buy your own house. In fact, the last time house prices were this expensive relative to earnings was back in 1876.

Of course, not a week goes by without serious news headlines on people living in the Highlands being priced out of their local property market thanks to second homes and the most unequal system of land ownership in Europe, a title Scotland most ignominiously holds. Housing is just one in a long list of reasons why people are leaving rural areas as well as widening inequalities in wealth between different parts of the country.

Add on concerns on cost of living and energy crises, climate change, war in Europe and the Middle-East and recent news on the Doomsday Clock edging scarily close to midnight, and it’s not hard to see why aspiration and hope are in short supply.

How do we change this? How do we build hope, aspiration and resilience into our plans for Scotland. How do we give our young people the opportunities that our older generations have had, create new positive opportunities for them and the power to adapt to a rapidly changing world in terms of technology and geopolitical volatility?

At a recent parliamentary event, I had an interesting chat with Irish Senator Malcolm Byrne, who is calling for Ireland to follow in the footsteps of Finland and establish a statutory, permanent Committee of the Future. Byrne is keen for the Irish government to move away from thinking only as far as the next election and instead focus on generational strategies that recognise the rapidly accelerating pace of change, explores how to navigate these uncertainties, anticipates what we might need to thrive in this changing environment and prepares our citizens for the future. And all under a joined-up and proactive approach to planning across government.

He cited the example of Finland, who, back in 1993 set up the Committee for the Future in Finland which is part of their parliament and serves as a think tank for futures, science and technology policy. This Committee has received international plaudits for its innovation, its visionary power and impact, its scientific rigour, and its inclusivity and representation of the diversity of Finns.

Byrne is keen for Ireland to follow suit, ensuring that citizen engagement and participation is at the heart of any Committee going forward, building on Ireland’s successful Citizen Assembly process but with a more integrated democratic mandate and power for change.

Could we do something similar in Scotland?

The Republic of Ireland of course as an independent nation has a major leg up from Scotland in that they have their own Futures Fund or Sovereign Wealth Fund using budgetary surpluses and corporate windfall taxes to bolster the country ahead of future challenges. Byrne is pushing for more public engagement on how this fund is used. Read it and weep Scotland.

Without this pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of sovereignty (pardon the mixed metaphors), unlike our Irish cousins, Scotland has not benefited so far from the wealth created by our enormous natural resources and innovations, which is one of the many reasons I support independence to change this gross unfairness. However, in the absence of the same kind of budgetary freedom, this idea of a Futures Committee in Scotland has been raised by MSP, Sarah Boyack at Holyrood and is being considered as part of a consultation process for the Wellbeing and Sustainable Development Bill. It will be fascinating to read the responses once published.

Wales is already ahead of the game, establishing a Future Generations Commissioner back in 2016 to examine long term impacts and act as a “guardian” for future generations. And I was delighted to see the Carnegie Trust highlight Sophie Howe, the first Welsh FG Commissioner’s reflections on her term in office and the importance of strengthening relationships between agencies and departments in government to drive change in real terms.

Sarah Boyack has garnered much cross-party support for this kind of long-term decision making to be legally mandated. That’s not an easy thing to do in the face of a lot of entrenched political tribalism. But it’s exactly this kind of tribalism and short-term politicking that we need to discard if we’re to build a more positive future. The antithesis of this is exactly where the magic works in terms of the success of Finland’s innovative approach in their Committee for the Future – their reports are produced with neither fear or favour in their objective analysis; their recommendations are analysed by broad age groups so that young and old can participate in finding solutions; and these solutions have teeth at the very core of democracy.

Unbiased analysis, engagement, participation, ownership, consensus, delivery and future planning. Its these key aspects that could lift us out of despondency, invigorate society, energise our political discourse and, most importantly, give hope to our citizens. Seems like a good place to start to me.

Douglas Chapman is an SNP MP.

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