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Huer's Call by Mike Sagar-Fenton: At 16 you're too young to know things can't be done

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: October 15, 2012

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I've probably never felt more grown-up than when starting sixth form at school. It was even better than graduating into long trousers. Suddenly we'd dropped the dreaded subjects we didn't want to study. We had our own common room. We could no longer be punished by beating – yes, children, up to Year 11 we could still be bent over a banister and hit very hard with a cane. The teachers even treated us with something approaching respect. Better still we had some classes with the Girls Grammar School up the hill. And I became interested in politics.

The last two facts are almost certainly related. At 16 the howl of unfulfilled testosterone fills our waking hours and most of our dreams, and there were only a few ways to convince the objects of desire that you were worth their time. One was to be a gorgeous hunk of sporty flesh with a granite jaw and bulging muscles, over whom girls would become nervous, giggly and tongue-tied with lust. (To digress, these types are always unfairly portrayed as crude and stupid in films, plays and books. Guess who grew up to be writers and who didn't? Revenge is sweet...) Another ploy was to be funny, though girls would often like you 'as a friend', a phrase you'd learn to dread. Or you could be one of the serious ones, willing to discuss the issues of the day, moral mazes, music, books, art. And politics. You'd have lengthy discussions with lovely long-haired girls who were into alternative cultures, who broke the school dress code as a matter of course, who were passionate about justice and truth and equality, who were confident in their female strength, who'd argue their corner, who weren't into cars and money, and who almost inevitably fancied someone five years older than you.

Politics still excites me and provokes passion all these years later, perhaps because it was a rite of passage from the start. Should I have had the vote as soon as I became aware? Should 16-year-olds have it now? As so often Scotland leads the way in enlightened thought, and is proposing that the forthcoming referendum on independence should include all those just entering college. Are they ready? Are they worth it?

On the negative side, our opinions come to us long before experience catches up. Governing a country is a beastly business, involving the needs for health, housing, education, social care, care for the elderly, employment, defence, criminal justice and many other serious issues of which 16-year-olds have no personal knowledge, and balancing them with the money and resources available. It's clear that even 60-year-olds are capable of making a dog's breakfast of it.

On the other hand difficulties, negotiations and political dogmas so often provide a splendid excuse for the experienced to give up, take the wages and do nothing. After a lifetime of trying to influence affairs politicians get tired and bitter and have plenty of reasons for stepping sideways, defending the indefensible, pleading that they've done their best and should be left alone.

That won't wash with the young. They want to know why things don't improve, why jobs can't be created, why they can't look forward to the prospect of free education, employment and affordable housing that their parents or grandparents enjoyed. They feel picked on, and they're right. Before they're old enough to have a say in an election they're supposed to decide whether to undertake a massive debt whose long-term effects they can't know, or to take a chance on any job they can get which doesn't require a degree (even the meanest jobs often do).

All 16-year-olds aren't alike. Some are as privileged and dreamy as I was. Some genuinely don't give a toss. Some have already lived through more grim life experience than anyone should have to. Teenagers can appear scary to the middle-aged middle class who only see them as they race around city centres on Saturday nights full of alcohol and bravado, half-naked, swearing like ... Chief Whips, wild and brainless. But comes Sunday morning and they're still our kids, and the things we do now will dictate the lives they're expected to lead in future. They have the biggest stake. Shouldn't they have a say? Of course they should.

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