McTernan on politics

Are we becoming a significantly less tolerant society then we were
in the past? It certainly seems that there is a lot of unfocused
anger around nowadays. Newspapers offer abundant evidence – we read
of road rage, air rage and even trolley rage. What is the
underlying cause of these flare-ups? Partly, it is a growing desire
for speed – we do not want to wait in queues, whether on the road
in traffic jams or in supermarkets. Some of the cause is the fierce
appetites which are created by modern consumerism. But is there
something deeper seated going on?

At a recent conference on antisocial behaviour a Scottish chief
constable responded to criticism from councillors – not from his
patch – who were complaining that police were slow to respond to
complaints about youngsters causing a nuisance. The chief constable
cited a case in his area where local residents had wanted the
police to take action against young people who were making noise in
a park. “Isn’t that where we want them to be?” he asked.

His point was about the need to accept different behaviours in
different contexts – don’t get upset when boys use open green space
to play football. I was left wondering whether what we can see
emerging is a new “generation gap”. But this time it is the growing
number of older people – including baby boomers who enjoyed
scandalising their elders in the 1950s and 60s – who are setting
the pace. Ours is an ageing society – during this decade the number
of people over 60 will pass the number under 16 – and this is going
to have an effect on how we live together.

The increasing demonisation of young people in the debate about
antisocial behaviour may well be a reflection of the new shape of
our society. Older people do become more fixed in their ways and
are less tolerant of noise and apparently aberrant behaviour.

Politics, however, is traditionally about balancing the rights and
needs of all sections of the community. The unquestioned way in
which local concerns about low level disorder become magnified into
national legislation is an example of the political system working
dysfunctionally. The political and media rhetoric is all one way –
it is young people who are portrayed as the problem. The reality
that drink-fuelled violence and noisy parties – to take just two of
the most common neighbourhood problems – are far more likely to be
the result of adult actions is quietly ignored.

Scottish ministers are starting to be aware of this issue and have
praised the majority of young people as “a credit to the country
and the hope of our future”.

But actions speak louder than words as a new generation gap

John McTernan is a political analyst.

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