First Minister’s Questions

 

When Source was invited to spend half an hour with Alex Salmond to find out what the Scottish government is doing about the issues affecting Scotland’s young people, we were on the train to Edinburgh faster than you can say “First Minister”. Lindsay Cochrane reports back on her afternoon with the man in charge…

 

It’s not every day that you see a 50-something-year-old man in a suit flicking through a glossy magazine with Jameela Jamil on its cover. But there he was, having a look through Scotland’s top student title, reading a headline aloud with raised eyebrows: “Are you experienced?”

A strange enough scenario, made stranger still when the man leafing through the summer 2011 issue of Source is Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond.

Bute House is a gorgeous Georgian townhouse on Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square which acts as the official residence of the First Minister, and it’s where we spent the afternoon with the man himself to find out more about what the SNP government is doing for young Scots.

LET’S GET POLITICAL

Politics has become a bit of a tricky subject for young people. While some embrace it heartily, others see the goings-on in Holyrood or Westminster as too far-removed from their lives and – let’s face it – pretty boring. With middle-aged men in suits banging on benches and barking at each other, what do they really know about the issues which matter to young people today?

If you find yourself feeling this way, it’s time to think again. As himself Salmond says, politics affects more than you might think. “It affects everything,” he says. “From university fees to employment opportunities. Young people should be involved and engaged. People should care.”

THE DIVIDE

Mr Salmond reckons that he and his MSPs are doing their bit for young people. He’s particularly proud of the country’s Youth Parliament and its involvement with the government.

“It took Westminster yonks to set up a youth parliament,” he says. “And even then, with the Westminster thing as far as I can judge – and maybe I’m being unfair to them – they’ll turn up for a day’s debate, whereas the Youth Parliament of Scotland is much more structured – they’re constituency reps and I have surgeries with my youth MSP.

As we talk, it becomes clear that the First Minister is always keen to get one up on his Westminster counterparts. He’s fiercely proud to be Scottish, from his Scottish Nationalist Party allegiance to the selection of Tunnock’s biscuits and shortbread on offer, and from the Saltire pin on his lapel to the flags throughout the building. He’s adamant that us Scots do it better.

A HAND UP

“On the whole,” he muses, “We do alright by young folk. A lot of the stuff that we’ve done is designed to assist and give people a helping hand.”

Having studied economics and history at St Andrews (“I was the most god-awful student,” he confesses. “I was never there. In my Honours economics class one day the rest of the class stood up and applauded because it was the first time I’d been there!”), Salmond is a big believer in education – especially when it’s coupled with the right training and skills development. Which is why, he says, education will remain free in Scotland for as long as the SNP is in power. But will spending cuts need to be made elsewhere to sustain this?

“All of life is choices,” he says firmly. “Government is choices. To govern is to choose. And I choose free education.”

MAKING CHANGES

Education and training opportunities are all very well, but what actually happens when you’re finished with all of that? As recent figures show, more and more young Scots are out of work. In August, government figures showed a whopping 45,000 18 to 24-year-olds in Scotland were claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance, a rise of 5,500 from the previous month. It’s a bleak prospect for any student getting ready to leave their educational career behind and embark upon the world of work.

“The most important thing to solve when solving youth unemployment would be to solve unemployment, or get unemployment in a much better position.” Mr Salmond pauses to think, before admitting: “In any unemployed situation, young people are always going to come out worst.”

The launch of the Community Jobs Scotland scheme earlier this year has given some hope, picking up where the UK-wide Future Jobs Fund left off. The government has invested £10 million in the project, where 16 to 24-year-olds who’ve been claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance for more than six months are entitled to apply for government-funded jobs in the third sector. Through Community Jobs Scotland, you could find yourself doing anything from working on reception in a small local charity to training with the marketing department of a larger organisation.

“The argument for doing [the scheme] in the voluntary sector is twofold,” he explains. “One, by the doing it in the third sector, there isn’t as much danger of an exploitative relationship, and secondly, there’s a training component. People get training and achieve something while they’re doing it, so that was worth doing.

“The 25,000 apprenticeships we have are also worth doing. The preservation of college and university places is worth doing. That’s not happening south of the border. We’re under the same spending constraints as they are and on the same reductions pro rata, but we’re making a series of different choices.”

TO THE FUTURE

The future is uncertain for young people, that much can be said. We can’t deny that the government is trying to make a difference in employment, education, politics and beyond. But will it work? Only time will tell.

So what advice has the First Minister got for the young people that he represents every day in Holyrood? “Stick in, get on, enjoy yourself and be proud to be a young Scot,” he says firmly. It might not get you the job of your dreams in the fiercely competitive employment market, but it’s certainly a start.

Source Autumn 2011

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