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Attitude to sleaze gives young wrong idea

Article | Published in TESS on 18 July, 2008 | By: Henry Maitles

We seem to be awash in sleaze, from the "cash for honours" scandal at Westminster to Wendy Alexander's (pictured) resignation at Holyrood

We seem to be awash in sleaze, from the "cash for honours" scandal at Westminster to Wendy Alexander's (pictured) resignation at Holyrood.

The school playground excuses being given, which would not be accepted anywhere else, are embarrassing - "I didn't know it was illegal"; "it wasn't me, it was an administrative oversight"; "yes, it probably was illegal, but nobody got hurt".

Does it matter? Yes and no. Gordon Brown and David Cameron set up think tanks to work out why there was such a large democratic deficit - that people don't trust their elected representatives or the institutions. There is evidence that it does impact on young people and their idealism.

Research suggests that cynicism - one major aspect of this democratic deficit - is alive and well in our schools. Indeed, the more we encourage young people to involve themselves in single-issue campaigns, such as Fairtrade or animal welfare or climate change or Make Poverty History, the more cynical they can become towards our elected representatives, who make promises (for example at the G8 summit at Gleneagles) and then have to admit that they haven't delivered (at the G8 summits since).

In a piece of research involving 1,600 pupils in S3-4 from a diverse range of schools, we found to the following statements:

- "Politicians promise things just to get your vote", 64 per cent of pupils agreed;

- "Scottish MSPs are out to line their own pockets", 31 per cent agreed;

- "The way people vote is important in deciding how things are run", just 47 per cent were in agreement.

However these findings are interpreted, this shows some fairly profound disillusion. If we want trust in politicians, or politics, sleaze must be dealt with. It is no good telling young people that, legally, nothing wrong has been done and those allegedly involved can lead the investigation into it - that is the democratic deficit.

If politicians are cynical towards sleaze, no wonder the mass of young people is cynical towards them.

Henry Maitles, head of curricular studies, faculty of education, University of Strathclyde.


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