Written by Luna Webster
The SNP have been praised in recent years for their involvement of young people. The choice to give 16 and 17 year olds the vote for the independence referendum resulted in young people across the nation becoming enthused and inspired by political debate. The recent Smith Commission report, proving that at future Scottish parliamentary elections 16-18 year olds will also be allowed to vote, showed the party is pushing for more representation of the younger generation within politics. I sat down with SNP candidate for North East Fife, Stephen Gethins (a former party special advisor) to discuss how he and the SNP can keep the young political fire lit after the general election.
Hi Stephen! Thanks for joining me. I’ll start by asking about the beginnings of your own interest in politics. What initially made you enthusiastic about politics and what drew you to join the SNP?
Since I was at school I was always quite interested in politics. One thing that got me going and made me quite upset was that, politics is a way to change things and to have an influence – now people say “I’m not interested in politics” and even that is a political statement. So you need people to be really interested in politics. I remember at school I was quite interested in international affairs actually, and how we cooperated with the rest of the world. And what drew me to the SNP in particular was that, I always thought it was a form of isolationism to try and do your dealings with the world through the prism of London, I mean nothing against London or anything like that but I always thought it was like a middle man, you were trying to deal with the rest of the world through a middle man. My wife’s from Kent and I really like England and being there, but it frustrated me, and when I went out and worked in the European Union in Brussels, we were having to go through London to do business, and if you take Scotland as a nation with all the things that are going on, in places like the EU it’s not about size. It’s about influence, and how you deal with people. In Europe increasingly I don’t think the model works very well, especially from a Scottish perspective. So that drew me in initially, then I went to university and joined up with the local SNP branch there, and I was already involved in my local branch anyway in Perth. So it all just went from there.
The referendum really got young people talking and thinking about politics – I’m obviously a prime example of that. How can you as MP, and the SNP in general, help to continue the debate, discussion and interest among us?
I mean the referendum was a real one off in the sense that you had a very distinctive question, yes or no. And you had people who felt passionate about it on both sides. The SNP has been a long time campaigner for votes at 16 and this goes way way back. I think firstly getting people to vote at 16 because people can do all sorts of other things at 16, so why shouldn’t you vote at 16? I think the younger you get people involved, the better. So I think that will help. But another thing I’ve noticed is that younger people are much more informed about politics. And I say that for this reason: the yes campaign had a very strong message to give young people. Now at the start of the referendum campaign, a poll was done for 16-18 year olds and it showed that overwhelmingly they were to vote no. By the end of the campaign a poll was done by Lord Ashcroft which showed they were overwhelmingly voting in favour of independence. So during the campaign there was a big switch. So where I think this came from – just challenging the general election campaign here – young people get their news from a variety of sources. They don’t just read Have I Got News For Youth, they don’t just read their newspaper, recently they’ve been taking it from TV, radio and social media. I think that what happened was young people cut through the propaganda that came from all sides during the campaign and found the information that was important to them. Now, how do we keep that going, and it’s going to be difficult. It’s already difficult, but, there is an energy and enthusiasm around politics in Scotland at the moment that I think hasn’t been there for a long time. The independence referendum enthused people. What we need to do is make sure we’re including young people in debates, we’re touching on issues that are important to young people, and that could be access to education, it could be how Scotland operates in the world, something that originally interested me, the transition to the low carbon economy and the world that we will leave behind. It could also be what the local job opportunities are, I was with Richard Lochhead today talking about the food and drink industry, an amazingly fast growing industry which is providing some really good job opportunities even here in North East Fife, and so how do we make that relevant as well during the election campaign? We need to debate about how we can keep young people in Scotland or attract them to come and live and work here and set up businesses here. That means we need to be speaking to people and having debates and using all the resources at our disposal. To anybody that says we can keep young people engaged in politics through this one solution, it’s not true. It’s like with any group of people in society, it has to be a sort of multiform approach to the whole thing.
One issue that a lot of young people have is that they don’t actually understand politics because it seems like this whole alien subject to them. Do you believe that political education should be improved to aid them when it comes to voting time? Or that the study of politics should be made compulsory?
I’m not a fan of forcing people to study certain things because an important part of learning is to be interested in things. One thing I’d have to make a priority if I was elected though would be to get round as many of the schools as I possibly can because I want to be there, I want to be relevant, I want to be talking to people. So I think there’s a job in the political side of it to make things interesting and relevant – that’s always a challenge. I would encourage schools to have election debates and to open it up because I think one thing that the referendum showed was that where there was discussion, interest was created, and that’s a really healthy thing. The important thing is not how people are going to vote; it’s about the thought process and thinking about how they’re going to vote.
Moving onto policies; what can the SNP offer young people?
One of the big things for me about independence and again more powers for Scotland is what we want are the powers that can help young people want to stay in Scotland, come to Scotland, contribute to Scotland. I think it’s brilliant that young people go abroad – I did it myself when I went away to work! But we need to be able to compete on a level playing field. The emigration away from Scotland has been difficult, and I’d love to see us have more powers to encourage people to come back, and to come here and have a diverse society. I think one of the big failures of Westminster is the current immigration policy which is focused on the south east of England, and I wouldn’t want to comment on immigration policy down there but there are countries elsewhere in the world have devolved immigration policy. And in Scotland for instance I know that there are businesses round here who depend on work and often can’t get people to work because of daft immigration rules. So I think that’s one thing that we’ve got to offer – trying to build a vibrant country and have the powers to encourage people to live here and set up businesses here rather than go elsewhere. I don’t think we should judge anyone who has made that choice in life but as a country we need to be able to compete; we need to keep our young people here, contributing to our society here. And if they leave for a few years – which is great – we need to be able to compete to bring them back again. That’s a big thing for me about getting more powers, and I think a great way to get those powers is to send a lot of SNP MPs down to Westminster.
Thanks so much Stephen! Good luck with the campaign.
Follow Stephen on the campaign trail via his twitter acount here.