In 2016, at 21 years old, Ross Greer became the youngest MSP in the history of the Scottish Parliament. Elected on the Green Party’s regional list for West Scotland, Ross has had an insight into politics that so few people ever get, especially not at his age, and his experiences can tell us a lot about the place for young people in politics, the issues and the future.
Greer has been involved in politics since he was thirteen, joining the Green Party at fifteen, was elected to the Scottish Youth Parliament at sixteen, and worked full-time for the Yes Scotland campaign from eighteen. While some young people might consider themselves politically engaged, especially on campus, few are quite this engaged.
Now 23, he takes the varied days of life as a parliamentarian in his stride and welcomes the opportunities he gets as a young MSP. He often plays a role in events and debates around young people. When qmunicate spoke to him, he had just finished speaking to the Bahrain Youth Pioneers in an effort to help the development of their own democracy and foster an environment for young people within it.
Despite the added opportunities, being such a young member of the parliament has its drawbacks. These are sometimes harmless – even a bit awkward when meeting people out and about, and being mistaken for the assistant rather than the MSP. Sometimes, however, they come with a bit more bite. He recounts at one debate how an opposing MSP heckled him as a ‘silly child’ as he robustly challenged their record on refugees, but laughed it off, comfortable in the knowledge that he had got under their skin. Fortunately, Greer claims that such instances are extremely rare. What is more common is his opponents’ attempts to de-politicises debates with him. To them he becomes the ‘youngest MSP’ rather than the Green MSP for the West of Scotland, which makes it easier, he believes, for his opponents to discredit him without properly engaging with his ideas. Herein lies the main barrier for young people in politics: not being taken seriously as working politicians. It is not, however, an easy barrier to overcome, especially with such criticism over ‘career politicians’.
Greer’s stance on the issue of people wanting their politicians to have ‘life experience’ is very salient. ‘While such experience can be useful, it is just as important to have young people as representatives as well’, he argues. After all, although everyone was young at some point, only those who are young now know in depth the issues that young people face now. And Greer knows these issues.
He claims that the three biggest issues facing young people in Scotland today are exploitative jobs, housing, and mental health. Whether you agree with him or not, as an MSP Greer is doing his upmost to tackle these problems on behalf of young people. Having a member of parliament who can really act as a proper representative for young people is good news for everyone below the age of twenty-five – even if just for the reason that people will start to listen. And, hopefully, with more people listening, more people will get involved.
The lack of youth involvement in politics is a sticky subject and self-perpetuating issue. With fewer involved or engaged, the youth voice is dimmed, and with very little voice, there is not much incentive to become engaged. Scotland seem to be ahead of the rest of the UK when it comes to youth involvement – the independence referendum and voting age at 16 being prime examples of this – and Greer is doing excellent work himself to encourage this shift. Targeting PSHE in schools, Greer wants a civic education included for all children in Scotland where they can learn the role of all the different political bodies that exert power over them as well as practical skills like how to register to vote and how to actually vote, something that Greer highlights as a ‘psychological barrier’ for many young first-time voters. With such an education, Greer hopes that more young people will become more engaged in politics; he underlines how important this is now the voting age has been lowered permanently. He also sees an important role for the parties to encourage young people to stand as candidates, as they do with many other under-represented groups.
With such views on the issues and roles for young people in politics now, how does Greer see the future of politics in Scotland? He hopes, unsurprisingly for a Green, for an independent Scotland within the European Union, with a reformed, non-exploitative economy that relies on green energy and where power and wealth are much more evenly distributed across all communities. Talking parties, he predicts an end to the fortune of the Scottish Tories, a requirement for a progressive alliance, and the growth of the Greens.
As ever, it will – in the end – rest on who wins over the next wave of youth voters, who will hopefully continue to get much more involved.
[Cal Price – @caltp28]