From national service to civic service?

Moira Craig says experience of public services for the young would pay democratic dividends

One of the most important decisions which we make as we approach adult life is which job we would like to have or which profession we would like to join. No matter which it is, we will expect that it will be preceded by a spell of training and, indeed, that it might require us to obtain a professional qualification before we are accepted or even considered for a post. There are no professions and, indeed, few occupations where people do not have to provide proof that they have the ability and the training to be accepted. Unfortunately, this does not apply to those who wish to be Members of Parliament for MPs are not trained for the job – despite the fact that they have the salaries and expenses which give them an upper middle-class income. Sadly, although some in Labour have for many years argued against this form of crony capitalism, Labour has done little to correct this phenomenon and have not stopped their own Westminster MPs from frequently employing relatives and from misusing the expenses system.

While British MPs are not trained for their job, voters are not trained for their task and tend to cast their votes for the party whose policy appeals but without understanding the tasks which are involved and the judgements which MPs must make and, indeed, without having a clear knowledge of the effects which their decisions will have on society as a whole. This lack of understanding probably explains why such a large percentage of registered voters do not vote – a fact which is not presently included in election results. If we show how many of the registered voters did not vote as well as those who did we have a clearer version of electors wishes. Thus, in 2015 General Election, 34% of registered voters did not vote. The Tories won with votes from 24% of registered voters, 20% voted Labour, 8.3% voted UKIP, 5.2% voted Liberal Democrat, 3.1% voted SNP and 2.5% Green.

The Scottish Parliament is, of course, more democratic mainly because all MSPs have the opportunity to participate in the committee system in which they can have a certain amount of cross-party cooperation and a clearer understanding of public needs than Westminster MPs. Unfortunately, the debating chamber still allows them to spend much time on cross party insults which they feel is necessary if they are to keep their jobs.

Scotland is a small country but has many widely different physical aspects and communities which do not regularly travel from their home environment to learn about the variety in life experiences of their fellow Scots. Geography and History classes within our schools do not necessarily spend much time on Scotland and, indeed, many Scots also seem unaware that we have a distinctive legal system. If we understand the need to have both those elected to parliament, and those who elected them, to have an understanding of their country and how it is run and should be run we must ensure that our present education system is sensibly revised to ensure that children are made aware of the widely different geography, history and lifestyles which exist in their country.

So, we should introduce the following as essential civic education. Starting in the third year of secondary school, individual pupils should spend one day per month working for the national and local government services of the areas in which they live – education, health, transport, emergency services etc. They should continue to work one day per month throughout their schooldays and any post-school education in colleges or universities but also throughout their working lives when they would begin to have experience of other areas in their country.

As the voting age in Scotland has been reduced from 18 years to 16 years, it is singularly appropriate that we should ensure that these young voters should have the opportunity to develop a clearer understanding of the different needs of the various populations within their country and enable them to make a more intelligent estimation of government practice than has been possible for past generations.

Parents and grandparents who have been asked about their views on this proposal for an extension of the educational experience into the wider society have been enthusiastic in their approval, and the general view which they have expressed was that young people would appreciate and enjoy this process as it would give them a clearer insight into how society is run and how it might be improved. The impression was also given that the parents and grandparents would rather like to have had this experience themselves. Over time, it might well be possible, therefore, to have a volunteer scheme to allow older voters to participate.

Moira Craig is a former educational psychologist