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McLetchie: Involving People in Politics

Speech to Hutchesons' Grammar School, The James Maxton Lecture

"I am delighted to be invited to speak to you today. Although I do not share James Maxton's political convictions, I can certainly acknowledge his significant contribution to political life in this country. No less an authority than Winston Churchill described him as 'the greatest parliamentarian of his day' and it is therefore a great honour to be asked to give this memorial lecture.

One of the great sadnesses of the modern era is that, too often, differing political views cloud our judgement as to someone's character or true worth. Like the rest of us, James Maxton was certainly not perfect. However, he undoubtedly wanted the best for the people of this country and especially the residents of the Bridgeton constituency whom he represented with great distinction for such a long period of time. No one could doubt his passionate commitment to eradicating poverty and improving people's lives and we should be able to recognise that his motivations were sincere and his objectives right, whilst still disagreeing fundamentally with the methods he advocated and believing that they would not achieve those aims.

However, one of the qualities which marks James Maxton out from today's politicians is the good reputation he enjoyed. This is certainly not the case today when politicians, and the political process in general, are held in such low regard by a large section of the public. This is particularly true of young people, as demonstrated by a 2003 YouthLink survey of their attitudes. It found that of all groups in society, they have least trust and respect for the press and politicians. As a lawyer, I am pleasantly surprised to see that I am not included in this hall of shame.

But joking aside, I believe that such attitudes have led to a growing disengagement from the political process which is detrimental to our society. The increasing apathy and cynicism towards politics and politicians is prevalent amongst all sections of society, as demonstrated by falling turnouts at elections. However, it is particularly true of younger people, as the YouthLink survey shows that fewer than one in five young people believe voting in elections is important in making someone a good citizen, less than half agree that it is important to vote at all and only just over a quarter claim to know much about the Scottish Parliament.

Today I want to talk about why it is important that young people do become more involved in the political process, and what politicians should do to help bring this about.

The Importance of Participation

I have no doubt that today's lack of interest in politics would have profoundly concerned James Maxton and his contemporaries who lived at a time when few questioned the importance of becoming involved in public affairs and the vast majority accepted that voting was an important civic duty.

It is not surprising that this view was so widely held as they lived at a time when the long struggle for the vote was a fairly recent memory. All men over 21 got the right to vote in 1918, whilst women did not do so on the same basis until 1928. Many of the suffragettes were prepared to endure much to achieve their goal with one throwing herself in front of the King's horse at the Derby of 1913 and many others going on hunger strike and being forcibly fed. So people cherished the right to vote in a way which we no longer do to the same extent today.

However, whilst far too many young people take the right to vote for granted today, this does not mean that young people are indifferent in other respects - quite the opposite. The same YouthLink survey shows your generation is strongly attached to the concept of being a good citizen through respecting others, obeying the law and undertaking voluntary work. It is just that the majority don't see voting as being an important part of citizenship. Yet at the same time, the same survey shows you think it is important to have you say on the issues which matter to you. This probably explains the increase in membership of groups which focus on single issues, in particular environmental groups such as Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth. So democratic society has to resolve this apparent contradiction - wanting to be involved, wanting to have a say - but not wanting to vote.

Whilst I certainly don't believe that involvement in politics is the only way to have a say, it does offer an opportunity to press your own opinions and interact with the politicians who play a large part in shaping our lives.

Equally, if you feel that the current generation of politicians is not addressing the issues of concern to you such as the environment or drugs, then the only way to achieve this is to become involved and change the agenda. The simple truth is that although young people, like anyone else, are perfectly entitled to complain about the actions and decisions of politicians, those complaints carry far less weight if they themselves have opted out of the democratic process.

This disengagement from politics also has dangers which the great Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, Adam Ferguson warned of in his 1767 'Essay on the History of Civil Society.' He argued that we all have a responsibility for maintaining the institutions which comprise a strong civil society - and our political and governmental institutions are clearly part of this - and we should not leave this to a separate political class. Increasingly though this is the situation we have arrived at, perhaps best exemplified by the political elites of Europe who have become increasingly disengaged from their own peoples as they seek to push them into an ever closer political union which most do not want. However, it also applies to politicians in this country with many people adopting a 'them and us' attitude which is aggressively anti-politicians of all parties and blames us for all the ills in society. This leads directly to the cynical attitude displayed in the statement 'don't vote, it only encourages them'. This is an amusing saying which strikes a chord with many, but it is indicative of an abdication of responsibility on the part of the bulk of the population which is potentially disastrous for as Edmund Burke said, 'the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.'

This is not to say that I think you should all be forced to vote. The Labour MSP Alasdair Morrison this week raised again the issue of making voting compulsory and the First Minister, Jack McConnell is said to have a fairly open mind on this issue. But we live in a free society and I do not believe that people should be forced to participate - driven like some sullen herd to the polling station to vote under duress. I want people in general, and young people in particular, to recognise that it is in their own and society's interest to become more involved and will increasingly choose to do so. This is because ultimately we are the best guardians of our own freedoms. Government plays an essential part in protecting our civil liberties and in providing the right framework within which we can all pursue our own goals. We cannot be indifferent to the election of those who control the levers of power.

The Responsibility of Politicians

This brings us on to the responsibility of politicians to encourage more people to become involved. It is not ours alone because we all have a responsibility to ensure the institutions which comprise society remain strong. That's true. However, the political culture in Scotland is still one in which too many politicians in too many parties constantly tell us that there is a political solution to every problem which faces us and it is the job of government to act and take the leading role. This places far too much faith in the state and its agencies and has encouraged exactly the disengagement and 'them and us' attitude which has been so damaging. It has bred passive citizens and an attitude that we should sit back and leave public policy to the so-called professionals, thus freeing us to pursue our own private concerns and interests. More and more power is concentrated in a relatively small number of political hands which means that the state has more and more control over our lives.

Conservative Governments have in the past, and particularly in our last period of 18 years in power, tried to reverse this process by seeking to roll back the frontiers of the state and restore more responsibility to individuals, families and local communities. I would be the first to admit, however, that we have not been totally successful in this and we still have much work to do in order to change the prevailing mindset in Scotland.

This is vital because the failure of this big government, socialist or corporatist, approach to deliver has not only undermined the political doctrine which supported it, but also created public cynicism about the ability of politicians and the state to deliver anything very much at all. Starting to reverse this process requires all politicians to be far more realistic about what government can and cannot do effectively. We need to know the limits of good government and empower and enable citizens to make choices in public services such as health and education.

Whilst there are few who still believe that the state should run everything - most of them in Tommy Sheridan's Party - there are still plenty of politicians who believe in the predominant role of the state and politicians in shaping society. The perennial divide in politics is still between those who place most of their trust in politicians to create a better society and those who place their trust mainly in people. The planners versus the liberators if you like or those who believe in the nanny state versus those who believe in a free society.

I am not a nanny.

Many people today claim that there is no real difference between the parties today, which is another reason why they see no point in voting. However, I believe that this fundamental divide still remains, although I accept that there is less of an ideological divide than there was in James Maxton's time. He and I would certainly disagree about where the balance between public and private should be drawn, just as I disagree with his modern descendants in the Labour Party. However, I am sure we would have agreed wholeheartedly that this clash of ideas is essential to a healthy political debate and good decision making.

In this respect, political parties and politicians have a responsibility to raise the level of debate here in Scotland if we are to re-engage with the public and particularly with young people. However, we shouldn't affect dress or language and pretend to be what we are manifestly not i.e young. In my experience, if my 22 year old son is anything to go by, such superficial and embarrassing behaviour makes most young people cringe. It is phoney and patronising and arouses nothing but contempt.

In this respect, modern politicians could do a lot worse than learn some lessons from James Maxton. No one questioned his motives because he was patently a man of sincerity who stuck to his principles and argued for the causes he believed in with real passion. In this respect, whether his views were right or wrong is less important than the fact that the way he engaged the public in debate and drew a response from them. He did not talk down to people or attempt to evade issues as politicians do too often today through superficial soundbites.

We need to treat the public today with the same respect and engage in more open and robust debate here in Scotland. We should certainly not be afraid of this just because it conflicts with the idea of consensus politics. Genuine agreement, founded on principle is to be prized, but too often the idea is invoked to frustrate debate and serve the interests of the government of the day. Real, democratic politics is about presenting choices to the voters at elections. Consensus too often denies voters the opportunity to make those choices about their own future. Moreover, instead of seeking the right solutions to our problems and being prepared to make hard choices, worshipping the false god of consensus too often leads to adopting the lowest common denominator on which everyone agrees. And it tends to come at a very high price for the taxpayer as real and difficult issues about the division of the spending cake are ducked and everyone agrees that the solution is to bake a bigger cake. That may suit us in the short run - everyone is happy for today, but it comes with a price tag in the longer run - higher borrowing and higher taxes.

Our objective should be to distinguish a welcome clash of ideas from the petty bickering and clashes of personality which too often pass for genuine debate and which alienate the public from the political process. In fact, the often artificial arguments in the Scottish Parliament disguise the fact that the majority of the parties in the Parliament share a common approach to politics which is statist and places its trust in the institutions and agencies of government to direct society. This has been the dominant view in Scotland for a long time, so it is no surprise that most parties have adopted it. However, there is clearly a need for a genuine alternative if we are to have a proper debate.

I am clear that the role of the Scottish Conservatives must be to provide that alternative in Scotland by setting out clearly what we stand for and arguing for it with real passion and conviction. This does not mean that parties should stop criticising the policies of their opponents - that is an important part of debate and of testing what works and what doesn't. However, when saying what is wrong, opposition parties, in particular, have an obligation to say what they would do to put it right.

For instance, environmental issues are of vital importance which I know from my many visits to schools and colleges are of particular concern to young people. It is up to all political parties to come up with policies to tackle problems such as pollution, climate change, waste disposal, conservation and the protection of the countryside. Yet so far the debate has focussed on yet more state intervention and regulation as the only way to protect our environment. All I would say is do not assume the answer lies with big government as former Socialist governments in Eastern Europe and elsewhere have shown themselves to be the worst polluters. We need to create wealth in order to conserve our environment and equally importantly we need to define and respect property rights. Where no one owns something, no one conserves it and this is at the root of many of the environmental problems we see today, whether it be the depletion of our fishing stocks or the poor state of many of our council housing estates.

That is our challenge, not just on the environment, but across a whole range of issues. There is no doubt that new ideas are necessary, as demonstrated by the rise in the numbers who are disenchanted with established party politics in this country. In 1964, more than 80 per cent of voters identified with a political party, whereas today nearly half of the electorate cannot bring themselves to do so. In conducting this research, the pollsters ICM found that this disaffection is even greater among the young.

In trying to attract these disaffected voters who show little interest in politics or political news, parties have tended to concentrate on the image of their leader and reducing a limited number of safe policy proposals to soundbites to get the message across. Whilst these things do matter, the evidence suggests that what voters are really crying out for are new ideas in their areas of greatest concern with 90 per cent telling ICM that the NHS was in need of fundamental review and similarly large numbers saying the same thing about how we tackle crime or run our education system.

Surveys suggest that people can also be attracted by policies which give them the opportunity to exercise real choice. All of us are used to making choices in all aspects of our lives these days and, quite rightly, we are no longer willing to accept politicians running second rate services on our behalf and financed from our taxes.

I don't think we can recreate mass political parties overnight, but it is important that parties do what they can to broaden their appeal so that they are more representative of the communities we seek to represent in Parliaments and councils. And there is every reason to believe that young people can be attracted to join political parties if they believe that the causes are worth fighting for or the ideas interesting enough. That is shown by the large numbers who have joined organisations concerned with conservation and the environment and become involved in projects as well as campaigning.

We also have to remind people that political parties are essential to the proper functioning of our democracy. Although few would agree with every last word in a political party's manifesto, the fact that parties represent certain broad principles provides voters with choices and governments with coherence. Voters can then vote for a particular approach and in doing so know what they are getting in general as well as specifics. This would not happen if people could only vote for a collection of independents who would have no unifying principles and would reduce politics to the crude service of their own electoral interests in their constituencies rather than the wider public interest and the country as a whole. Such a system would never make the hard choices necessary for good government. We need political parties to form governments, because governments have to say no and that requires discipline and coherence and courage.


So what are the necessary ingredients to increase involvement in politics - robust debate, clear choices, rolling back the state, empowering people and a restatement of the value and importance of political parties.

Scotland has a long and proud tradition, stretching back to the Enlightenment and beyond, of encouraging and valuing debate in a quest for the truth. Nowhere is such a debate more necessary in our own time than in the political sphere where far too many things are accepted as the received wisdom when they are patently not working. Too many public consultation exercises are also designed simply to bolster the Executive's position rather than come up with new ideas. Those who dare to criticise are often attacked in an unacceptable manner as we saw only last week when our First Minister, Jack McConnell, launched a personal attack on the Secretary of the Scottish Police Federation whose crime was to criticise a part of the Antisocial Behaviour Bill. This particular incident is not only a betrayal of our history and traditions, it also highlights why young people need to get involved in order to promote their own interests. The particular section of the bill to which we and many others, including the police, object gives the police new powers to disperse groups of young people in certain areas. The police already have more than enough powers to disperse groups who are causing trouble and shouldn't be called on to harass innocent young people who are committing no offence. Let's face it, young people have been hanging around on street corners since time immemorial - indeed it is almost a rite of passage and a lot of the people who are now beating this drum would do well to remember their own youth. Such demonisation of young people is not only wrong, but increases the alienation young people feel towards the political process and damages relationships with the police. It's why you have to be involved to make a difference.

So I believe that the new devolved settlement needs to be matched by a 'New Enlightenment'. A renewed commitment to the principles of open and honest debate in which all are encouraged to participate and challenge established views. That is the true Scottish tradition and one to which the Scottish Conservatives are firmly committed.

We do not expect to win all the arguments, but I believe we have something vital to contribute to the debate because it is genuinely different to the perspective offered by the other parties in Scotland.

We all have a vested interest in encouraging this debate because it is the key to making devolution work to the benefit of everyone in Scotland, to renewing interest in politics and to encouraging the participation of far more people."

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