This morning I visited a school in Hackney to briefly speak at their Year 12/13 assembly. While sitting amongst the ‘kids’ (as little as that applies to 16-18 year olds) waiting my turn, I watched various notices and talks being addressed to them. One of them was particularly striking – a plea to work hard and think about the future, with a warning about how much competition there was for university places and, beyond, for jobs.
Even sitting there as a 31 year old in employment, I felt fear, sadness and anger. Looking around the room I saw people who looked much like I did at their age (they were generally more stylish, perhaps!) and it really struck me how different the adult world they are entering is from that of even 10 years ago. I don’t want to seem like I pitied them and in the chat that followed I certainly gained no sense that any of them felt hard done by. However it’s difficult not to think that things were easier for me. I went to university the year before tuition fees were introduced. We all marched against them and thought they were terrible (well, unless you were a student politician already with your eyes on a future career) but I don’t think there was ever really a sense that they would fully go away. Now they’re higher and any hopes of them disappearing are all but gone.
Furthermore, the experience of university is becoming more and more focused on careers and less on being places of learning, places of growth. People speak of ‘value for money’ and the path that I took (going to university to study humanities with absolutely no sense of what I wanted to do) looks ever more quaint. The message is hammered home again and again – be focused, work hard, aim for that salary and security at the end. What lies at ‘the end’, though? A mountain of debt and massive youth unemployment. An increasing demonisation of the unemployed and those unfortunate enough to need help from the state. Beyond that, a housing market which it’s all-but-impossible for most people of my generation to get onto, nevermind those coming up behind us. The creeping privatisation which is already pervading universities is now entering the school, health and policing systems. A constant mantra of how unaffordable everything is, while government grows ever more authoritarian and the pointless wars we fight show no sign of abating.
I think it’s very fair to say that the politicians of Blair, Brown, Cameron and Clegg’s generations, who benefited from free education, a proud welfare system, an NHS that was deemed sacred and all the rest, have betrayed the generations after by pushing neoliberalism further and further into our lives and, in those immortal words, seeing “the price of everything and the value of nothing”. Yet sitting there this morning I thought about how ideas move from being unthinkable to being the ‘norm’ and how resigned most of my generation is to things like tuition fees, debt and over-priced housing. Perhaps my generation doesn’t feel *too* betrayed because we caught the tail-end of the post-war consensus and benefited from it. Perhaps younger generations won’t feel *too* betrayed because they’ve never known things to be different. However much we all disagree with what’s happened, and what’s happening, we just carry on and keep believing the same old myth that if you only work hard, you’ll be alright. Maybe we have to believe that because not doing so would highlight the impotence many of us feel in the face of a ‘march of history’ which governments pursue irregardless of public opinion and certainly irregardless of whether they are ‘left’ or ‘right’.
And yet, and yet. Watching Alex Salmond’s speech at the SNP conference over the weekend, he spoke of independence offering the chance for Scotland to be a social democratic beacon in the world. He spoke of his belief in a ‘free university education’. He defended the NHS, saying:
“Nye Bevan once said that “no society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means.”
He went on:
“And let me be absolutely clear – because of the independence we have over the NHS – this government, this SNP government, will ensure Scotland’s National Health Service is never for sale.
“And in education …
“I remember back to 1979 – just of course, I was a babe in arms – when some of the foremost sceptics about devolution were in our universities.
“But is there anyone on campus now – student or academic – who would rather the Tories were in charge of our universities?
“Free education would be a thing of the past.
“Public funding would be slashed.
“And tuition fees would, today, be creating an insurmountable barrier for thousands of young Scots – a barrier to aspiration and talent.
He said that they should “Never put a price on learning that undermines the value of learning” and defended the Education Maintenance Allowance. Perhaps most impressively of all, he observed that ““Westminster would spend on weapons which could destroy the world. Scotland should spend on social provision which could be the envy of the world.”
The contrast with the rhetoric we hear from Cameron, Clegg and Miliband couldn’t have been starker. Make no mistake, I have no blinkers regarding the SNP, no particular affection. Yet, for all that and for all their faults, they are doing things differently. I support the union but it’s not difficult to see why independence sounds so alluring. Where are the national figures willing to stand up for education, for the health service, for the welfare system? Above all, where are the figures who are willing to stand up and say that we should not expect our youth to pay for the ideological dogmas of their elders with their futures? The kids I met this morning were inspiring and we owe them more than this.