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Tuesday, October 31, 2006 

Dave's raves pt. 94

Say what you like about David Cameron, and the fact that he's an old Etonian who's encouraging a lot more ex-public schoolboys and girls to join his already toffee-nosed party means that there's plenty to go on, but he does on occasion manage to at least promote vaguely different and interesting policies.

Take his rave yesterday. Stealing a huge amount of Lib Dem thinking which has been going on for years, he suggested that the current plethora of age limits should made more uniformly. Using the curious fact that you can buy a gun at 17 but not fireworks until you're 18, he certainly has a point. The ludicrous legal distinction that means you can consent to sex at 16 but not watch others doing so until you're 18 is one of things that rankled the Lib Dems most, although whether it was one of Mark Oaten's main concerns or not is unclear. When this was one of the discussions points a couple of years back at the conference, the Tories and Labour universally mocked this woolly liberal thinking. Like the emerging consensus on climate change, what was once sneered at is gradually coming into vogue.

Even such a seemingly minor thing as this though is a potential minefield. There would be little public or political support for lowering the legal age to drink alcohol to 16; giving the franchise to 16-year-olds seems likely to only further lower the turnout at elections. At the same time, raising the smoking age to 18 seems just as daft. Learning to drive at 17 seems just the right age, and there seems no reason why you should have to be 21 to be allowed to stand for parliament.

Naturally though, being a member of the Conservative party, Cameron's plans don't mean that the young are just going to be given a free lunch of new rights. They have to be "responsible" at the same time. In order to prove that the they're fine upstanding potential Tory voters, to gain some of these new rights they have to first volunteer to take part in "community work and personal development projects" which is in other words a euphemism for the bringing back of a distant relative of national service. Britain's youth might be either hoodies or emos, trendies or grebos, but they'd unite over not having to prove themselves yet again to be anything other than feckless. Today's youth are expected to keep their mouths shut, not go outside for fear of paedophiles, while at the same time being told that they musn't become couch-potatoes either. They shouldn't hang around on corners in case they scare the old, even though there's often little else for them to do. They face exam after exam and test after test, and even then around 50% of them won't reach the government's target of 5 "good" A to C GCSE results. Being a teenager is pretty bad as it is; you're confused, angry, sad, hyperactive and moody and sitting through dismal citizenship lessons isn't going to infuse them with the impetus to go and volunteer to clean graffiti off bus shelters.

Then there's the sheer unworkable nature of it. Cameron proposes that those who do decide to give up some of their time for instance be given the right to drink or go to pubs and clubs at an earlier age, but doesn't explain how on earth that's going to work. Bouncers and bar workers aren't going to give a fig about some certificate that some little urchin has; they want proper ID. Besides all this, most schools already have their own local schemes for working with communities, and there's also programmes like the Duke of Edinburgh awards, which are worth working towards thanks to the fact it impresses employers and looks good on any application, even if you do have to go and meet the bald, racist, lecherous fucker.

As often with Cameron, he seems to have his heart in the right place. There's nothing wrong at all with wanting to give 16-year-olds "a sense of purpose, optimism and belonging", something which a lot of adults certainly don't have. It's just that there's the same old Tory hiding in the background - the whole programme smacks of wanting to turn out conforming, easily to control young people, making them do something purely because the blue rinse, authoritarian brigade doesn't approve of them being given the rights they've enjoyed all their lives just because they've reached a certain age. Perhaps the last word should be left to a young person who does know what he's talking about - the one that heckled Cameron:
"You do not know your arse from your elbow, you bastard."

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