Who Cares? Politics, Students and the Election…with Charles Kennedy.

8th April 2010 Published in GUU’s Magazine

I’m lost and out of place. I’m a student standing with politicians and journalists at the heart of the General Election campaign.

Politicians have an odd relationship with youth. We look good on camera, yet locking nasty young hoodlums up can be a vote winner. Youth means enthusiastic and new; while also meaning idealistic and inexperienced. Politicians commonly face accusations of being ‘out of touch’, and in an election dominated by jobs, tax and families, there is a question of whether students are left out in the cold, outside of the political debate. Do we matter and should we care?

Politicians are not only out of touch with young society, yet this specific relationship seems to be at a ‘sleeping on the couch’ stage. Compared to the ‘05 election students are far down the agenda. ‘Tuition fees are here: get over it’, is the message down South. University spending is already cut in England and Wales, and a similar experience is coming to a campus near you. No party is promising students anything nice. At this election student issues are like Bebo – effectively dead and unpopular.

Yet, for the parties, the lack of pocket money is no excuse. They need us. Why? Because old people die. In the coming decades, when everyone who elected Thatcher is dead, we will be choosing the Government. If there’s a political generation gap, then that’s a problem. If we don’t care, we won’t bother choosing very well. My granny doesn’t understand music downloading, student costs or the pain of Freddos’ inflation– but then she doesn’t vote on laws. (yet?) There’s a difference. MPs can’t afford to seem distant or irrelevant.

Uninformed MPs create greater problems than Granny’s gift of poor Christmas clothes, but is party politics out of touch with students? I went to the launch of the Lib Dem Scottish election campaign to find out the truth. There are plenty of young people about, and that’s just their leader.

There’s also a sea of journalists, T.V. cameras and an eager mix of smiling politicians. This hubbub is a dot along the horizon of the Clyde. It’s a general election – effecting 60 million people – but it takes place inside a bubble. It’s orchestrated, planned sound-byte by sound-byte. It’s a middle-aged affair.

I shuffle through some of the baying paparazzi. There is no sign of Jordan. Instead at the center is an ageless man of class: our beloved Charles Kennedy. Charlie’s witty words beam towards television screens and cyberspace. The cameras record the election for millions.

On the ground, politics is a smaller, exclusive club. It’s an election launch set between the BBC and STV television centers. The cameras focus in on the leader’s smiles. Clegg and Kennedy – joined at the hip – are as youthful as politics gets.

Meanwhile the MPs and prospective candidates are the media rejects. They fill up the background for PR, blocking the grey sky. The photo-shoot ends. The journalists note their quick quotes and leave. A few stay behind for some short interviews and questions on personality. ‘How is the campaign looking?’

It’s all presentation and style – irrelevant to young and old. So I approach Kennedy, who incidentally is modeling what looks like a GU graduate tie: black and Lib Dem gold. A mention of the GUU creates a warm response. ‘Great institution’, he beams. With the pleasantries over, it’s time for some tough questions. Someone needs to rescue the feckless British media. Stringing words into sentences suddenly becomes more important than usual.

I ask about the distinctness of Liberal Democrat policy compared to 2005. My words come out in sentences, which helps. Yet as soon as my mouth closes Kennedy is off, flowing through his well tuned rhetoric. He studied this art in Glasgow and Indiana. You can tell in conversation, as there’s not a word out of place.

He’s alert and completely controlled. I’ve just stepped out of bed. It’s a true clash of politician and student. Yet there is no personality chasm. He is informed, he is articulate, and he comes across as a ‘man of the people’. He cares. That’s why he is the most successful Liberal leader since men wore cloth caps or bowler hats. It explains his cross campus support in the Glasgow Rector election. He’s in touch – be it with students, street sweepers or surgeons.

On the issues, he’s well grounded. “It’s all about fairness”, he says. That’s the sound-byte. Yet behind this, what are the Lib Dems actually promising, I ask? There is no Iraq or tuition fees anger, yet, in 2010. Should students care?

While Kennedy says these issues are “not off the agenda”, there is a caveat. “Now it’s the economy, the unfair tax system which affects everyone. We’re dealing with that.” It’s not a common source of campus controversy and is a theme unlikely to engage students at the heart of the political debate. Yet this doesn’t deter Kennedy. The economy will decide the election and his delivery on the issue is calm and confident – mass student participation or otherwise.

Personally, I’m lost within this. I’m an idealistic student who has lost confidence in most current politicians to represent the people. I don’t know the ins and outs of UK tax policy; nor do I especially know how to outwit Charles Kennedy. It’s a tough task.

I throw in a last ditched attempt to gain a spark of policy individualism from the ex-GUU President. The Lib Dems want to be ‘the voice of Scotland’ yet they are against an Independence referendum. They support other referendums across the UK. They argue, right now, that ‘It’s the economy stupid’, focusing on jobs and taxes. After a steady return to growth then, I ask Charles, it’ll be time for a vote? “That’s a question for beyond today”, he replies. He literally takes the question in his stride. Interview over, he’s off to Gilmorehill. I ask for a cheeky wee lift in his car. Sadly, he has another stop on the way. In each destination he’s fighting to win back credibility for politics amongst young and old.

Yet the reality is that political style and substance is dressed to impress the employed, the bank balance fretting middle aged. Student issues are often a side affair, but it will not always be like that. This election is centered on economic management, but students and many others look for more than that.

And one day we will be the focus of electing the Governments for this messed up little island. So, for now, tell the politicians not to be out of touch, not to be out of date, or in the future we’ll put them out of office.

Charles Kennedy was re-elected as Rector of the University of Glasgow in 2011.

His Rectorial Address is available here:


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