Angus MacDonald, who studies PPE at Stirling, and Ben Edwards, a school pupil from nearby Kippen, were recently elected Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSYP) for the Stirling constituency. Brig caught up with both of them to talk about their campaigns and their plans for the future.
First things first, congratulations to both of you on your election. Can you talk us through what it’s like campaigning to join the SYP?
Angus MacDonald: It took a long time for me personally to appreciate the magnitude of it. I took a long time to decide that I was going to run in the first place, and then even after I had decided that it really took me a couple of months before I started to realise what it was I wanted to campaign about.
The kind of local issues, particularly around transport and mental health and youth democracy locally, which in the end I got fired up about, took me a long time to get around to. You always like to tell yourself it’s going to be easy to get people fired up about the same things which you care about, but it didn’t turn out to be quite the case.
So yeah, it was a challenge and it was a learning curve, but I suppose we’ve both come out the other side of it now and are happy to have gone through with that and even happier to have been elected in the end.
Ben Edwards: For me, getting involved in this kind of thing was a complete first. I had never actively engaged in politics to this degree ever in my life, so it was a completely new experience, something which so far I have enjoyed so much more than I thought I would.
It’s great to campaign on issues that I know are important to young people in the hopes of making their lives better.
What was it that really inspired you to do it – was it a single event, or an inspirational person in your lives, or your own political opinions, or something else entirely?
Ben: I’ve always had an interest in current affairs and politics in general, and as a member of a political party myself I thought it was finally time to throw myself into something like that and just see how it went, and even if I didn’t win I knew it would be a very interesting experience and would allow me a unique insight into politics.
I suppose it was just a collection of things: a general interest in politics and a passion for certain issues that affect me and other people.
Angus: I suppose for me it’s much the same really. It was always something I’d been interested in. I’ve got a couple of close friends in particular back home, in Orkney, who had done it and really enjoyed the experience, done some quite positive things locally with it, and that did inspire me to get into it.
And then as time went on I started to become a bit more aware of the local issues and, in my opinion, a real opportunity to connect with the university and the wider community to build some bridges there. I became quite inspired by that and that’s a lot of the reason I ended up going for it in the end.
There were four candidates in the running for the two SYP positions representing Stirling. Why do you think you two won? (You can be honest, chaps…)
Angus: I suppose I’m still asking myself the same question! I had absolutely convinced myself on the night that I wasn’t going to get it. I’m still pleasantly surprised that I did.
The other two candidates were both great candidates, Tom [Morley] and Iona [Wheeler], and they both fought for things which are absolutely just as important as the kind of things myself and Ben are putting forward.
For me personally, I really tried to distance myself in a way, putting out my stall as standing for the university which is something that MSYPs in Stirling in the past never really have done. I tried to put something different on the table and in the end folk bought into the pitch. Here I am – very grateful!
Ben: I would just like to second what Angus said, and say that everyone involved in this were brilliantly unique candidates that brought something else to the table.
I like to think that what pushed me through was a unique passion for things that affect not just me but everybody else, people that I’ve never met in my life, and I hope that I put across that I do genuinely care about everybody around me and everyone in society.
Can you name me one thing from either Tom or Iona’s manifestos that weren’t in yours that you’d now like to take forward?
Angus: Certainly I think Iona had lots of fantastic ideas about how to engage people from various minorities. Her particular ideas around LGBT groups – that’s very important.
Mental health as well is something that we all feel very strongly about and was in all our manifestos to one extent or another.
The great thing about what we’re doing now is we’re trying to build this Youth Forum which Tom and Iona are hopefully going to be quite heavily involved in, so we’re very hopeful that we won’t lose their perspectives.
Ben: An issue that Tom focused on particularly that I didn’t – and I actually almost regret not focusing on it in my manifesto – is the environment, because it is probably one of the biggest issues that affects not just young people but the country as a whole today.
It’s something that not only will affect us now, but will affect us for decades and centuries to come. I think that’s something I would certainly like to be strong on and to improve it specifically in Stirling.
Let’s get down to brass tacks: for the benefit of our readers, what will you actually do in your new post in the coming months?
Ben: I think a lot of what will be involved to start off with will be consulting with the young people of Stirling to see what they feel the most important issues are to drive forward, and not only just listening to young people but making sure we do drive forward these changes, to ensure that issues are raised and solved here in Stirling.
Angus: Our job, first and foremost, is to represent the young folk of Stirling: everybody from the age of 14 to 25 in the entire constituency, which is the same as the Scottish Parliament constituency. So it’s a lot of people in a lot of different schools, and of course the university itself, and various different youth groups. We have to make sure we are representing everybody.
So we’ll have to be holding a lot of surgeries, and making sure we’re consulting with folk. We’re still figuring out exactly how we’re going to go about this, and how to ensure we’re being representative, but a big part of this is this idea of a Youth Forum and how it can be used to democratically uphold the views of the different stakeholders within this and hopefully drive forward change.
At the same time we’ve got our sittings, which are three times a year (MSYPs serve for two-year term). Our first sitting will be in June – we still don’t even know where it’s going to be but that will be exciting. Three times a year we have the opportunity to discuss these issues on a broader scale, with the body as a whole, and decide what the agenda for the Youth Parliament as a whole is going to be, which is also exciting!
Angus – you have campaigned hard on this idea of a Youth Forum, which sounds great. But as always with these kind of ventures, it is engagement that’s important, and often lacking. How will you engage young people in order to develop a forum with enough clout to make change happen?
Angus: It’s going to be a gradual thing. I think Ben and I both look at it by saying, if by the end of a two-year term, the Youth Forum is up and functioning and is taking in people and is getting towards those goals, we’ve done a good job – that’ll be our legacy. It’s not going to happen overnight.
But I’ve been involved in this kind of things back home, and I’ve seen the ways it can come together, and I’ve learned some of the pitfalls as well in terms of gathering in young people. One of the things which I’ve definitely learned from back home is that engagement from the council is absolutely pivotal, and luckily enough we have that right now and we really want to build on that and use it.
If you’ve actually got links with the local authority, and people who are genuinely willing to make the change, then that’s half the battle already.
But it will take a lot. I’ll be shouting about this – I hope you’ll hear about it a lot over the next couple of years around the campus. We’ll also hopefully be going around schools, trying to drum up support for it. I genuinely do think there are people out there who want to be involved in this kind of thing, among the schools and among the wider body of young people here. I think there is an appetite for it.
Ben, you spoke a lot on the campaign trail about poverty and income equality. But what plans do you have that would be effective at addressing these issues, given your power is very limited?
Ben: Obviously, as you mentioned, our powers are severely limited so what I would like to do is bring it to the attention of people who have the power to change these issues, because it can not be continually ignored by the people who can change what is affecting so many people across the country and in Stirling in particular.
In our constituency we have a massive gap in equality, with very wealthy areas but also areas that are steeped in inequality and poverty. I think the important thing to do is go to the people who can help drive this change and say, ‘Look, these are the people that need help, this is what they want done, you need to do it and you need to do it now.’
What I would like to do first is consult with the people who struggle with these issues and decide what they want and how they think it should be done. Then I plan to go to both the local council and the Scottish Government, saying this is what my constituents feel needs to be done to help them and I will be there to support both sides and drive forward this change.
Another one for Angus: You made mental health a big part of your manifesto, as did all the candidates. I saw on one of your campaign Facebook posts you described the Scottish Government as “doing nothing” on mental health services. But the latest budget did earmark £150m in investment for mental health services, and there is a new mental health strategy on the way. Was “doing nothing” a wee bit harsh on your part?
Angus: I believe if that was my post, and I think it was, I did write quite a big spiel on my Facebook page! I believe I actually posted it before the budget came out.
What I would say is that it’s absolutely no secret that we are in the middle of a mental health epidemic, and it’s something which young people in particular seem to be bearing the brunt of. It’s been borne out in statistics that young people are struggling with these issues at the highest rate since modern records began.
We have to do something and it’s no secret either that the NHS is chronically underfunded. If a young person these days goes to their GP and says they’ve been suffering from depression for a number of years, then more often than not what happens is they’ll be told, ‘That’s a shame, come back next week if you feel the same way, here’s a letter.’
There are extreme waiting lists as well for referrals; to try and see a psychiatrist through the NHS, you’re probably going to wait the best part of six months, depending on where you live, which is absolutely devastating and means that for people who really need the support, quite often they’ll do stupid things to get themselves seen because you can get an emergency referral through that.
Our whole approach to mental health really does need to change. For me, it’s a twofold issue, in that there’s tackling the stigma around mental health, which I actually think the Youth Parliament – and the (Stirling Students’) Union as well – have been quite successful at, with the Speak Your Mind campaign. Both, incidentally, having the same name for their respective campaigns!
But at the same time we have to be putting pressure on government – local, national and at Westminster too – to ensure funding for these things is being put forward.
Ben, I have also been stalking you on Facebook. Your campaign page highlighted public transport and you said that paying for a bus home after extracurricular activities at school was unreasonable. Are you going to try and push for free travel for pupils in that situation and do you think it’s something you can realistically get?
Ben: I think it’s perfectly realistic due to the fact that we used to have that free travel. That travel was subsidised by the council. I feel it’s abhorrent that people who want to take part in extracurricular activities but can’t due to lack of funds for themselves.
It’s perfectly reasonable to be able to expect some sort of subsidy from the council, especially considering it used to be that way for a number of years. I would like to talk to the council and see, where has that money gone and why has that money gone? And I’d tell them quite simply that they need to bring it back.
I would also like to communicate with First Bus, which currently has a virtual monopoly on the bus routes throughout the Stirling constituency, and talk to them and say the fact you’re not providing a reasonable service while you continue to dominate the bus routes is just completely absymal, and put it to them straight that we cannot tolerate this any longer, and that you have to provide a quality service at a reasonable price, which is perfectly understandable considering there are no other bus services that run from Kippen (where Ben lives).
Thanks for your time guys, and best of luck representing the constituency in your new roles!