I feel rather sorry for Alex Salmond.
He has a face that looks vaguely crestfallen even when he’s on a roll, and at present it must be looking all the more so. The Scottish referendum may not be an obvious topic for an edublogger to write about, but there are a number of thoughts we might draw from it – and if educators cannot be permitted to discuss the ‘wider context’, then we really are in danger of losing sight of what it’s all for.
Having been a fairly regular visitor to Scotland in recent years, in ways that sometimes got further under the skin that the average tourist might manage, it is very clear that the country remains distinct from England and if anything, devolution has given it a renewed energy, for all that the low standards of living (by European expectations) remain evident in many areas. London feels a long way away and I sympathise with people who feel they want more say in their own affairs. Heck – I feel pretty much the same way about Westminster – and it’s only forty miles from here.
I have been ‘blessed’ this term with a rather more challenging Year 12 tutor group than in recent years, and it has already been something of a struggle to engage and enthuse them with what they are about to undertake – the first years of (more or less) voluntary education. Well, that is how I sell it to them anyway, in the hope that they will start to reflect on the fact that education is not, fundamentally, a peculiar and terrible kind of punishment.
We needed to produce a ‘Thought for the week’ for wider sixth-form consumption, and it was proving hard work to get past the protests and apathy. I delegated to a particularly reluctant group of boys – and then suggested that they took the Scottish vote as their theme. Once I started feeding them ideas of what could happen in the event of the Yes vote, slowly but surely the interest took root, until much of the group was pulled into the debate. This continued for several days last week – to the point that on Friday, quite a few of the group came into my room proclaiming the result – and the required Thought was duly, and quite well produced – in the inevitable form of a PowerPoint.
There have been many commentators hailing this issue as evidence that British public interest in politics is not dead, and I think they may be right. What is needed are issues that engage people because they can see the relevance of them. Sterile debates about bankers and the economy often don’t do that; matters of national identity clearly (if surprisingly) still do. Personally, I would like to see a federal United Kingdom, and calls for all-English devolution don’t go far enough. Many of the countries I know that have higher levels of engagement are those where decision-making remains sovereign to smallish groups – and that implies federalism. Devolving powers to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales – and then leaving the English as a single bloc of 50-odd million does not address most of the issue.
England needs regional government too. Creating a system where people rose through regional politics as a conveyor to national politics would offer a stepping-stone for interested individuals that barely exists in the age of the career party-politician; introducing an electoral system that did not disenfranchise those who do not align with the local First-Past-the Post monopoly could remove the sense of hopelessness that deters would-be candidates and voters. All of which would make it easier to promote politics as a worthwhile activity to young people. We might also regain some local control of education; one of the ironic effects of ‘local management’ and the loss of county council involvement is that much has actually gone the other way: up to Westminster.
And what of Alex? For all that he is a shrewd and even cunning politician, and for all that I have many reservations about his agenda – when seen from a British as opposed to Scottish perspective – he projects some qualities that many politicians seem to lack: a certain gravitas and clear sense of vocation. He also had a life in the wider world before becoming a politician – something that would have benefitted many of the current Westminster crop.
And in an age when teachers talk so glibly about the ‘success’ or otherwise of their pupils, I wonder what Alex’s teachers would make of him. Success and failure in reality are not as distinct as we suggest: is Alex a success or a failure? He lost the referendum and with it his position – but he moved his chosen issue from being that of an eccentric minority to one that re-engaged and energised public debate in the whole U.K. and beyond with our sense of identity – and has perhaps sparked much-needed changes to the way our politics and society functions in these islands. Even if he stood to gain personally from a Yes vote, it seems to me he had the courage to stand and fall by a matter of dear principle – also an admirable quality that we might advocate to young people in this mercenary and self-interested age.
Even within my own tutor group, he is not quite the failure he might at present seem.