It’s a constant theme of this column that today’s young need to stop whingeing about their prospects and get on with making their own future. But a quick north-of-the-border tour as official campaigning kicks off for the Scottish referendum persuades me that the pessimism of the generation about to enter the world of work is for once well justified — and may play a key role in averting the potential economic disaster of independence.
When SNP leader Alex Salmond chose to give 16- and 17-year-olds a say in September’s poll, he must have presumed that teenage Scots — if they could be bothered to vote at all — would be swayed by the romantic nationalism and anti-English fire of the Yes campaign. Not so, it turns out. A survey last year (an update will be published shortly) by Edinburgh University academics of more than a thousand 14- to 17-year-old school pupils found 60 per cent on the No side to 21 per cent Yes and 19 per cent undecided; interest in the issue was high, and there was no obvious pattern of kids parroting parents’ voting intentions. The Better Together campaign has subsequently tracked some 50 school and college debates from Annan to Aboyne that produced emphatic No results, among them two large polls of university students in Glasgow.
Yes campaigners cite a vote their way in a Strathclyde University debate organised by Islamic students — a whiff of tartan jihad perhaps — and outliers such as West Highland College at 65 per cent Yes. But the trend is pretty clear, and so is the rational self-interest behind it, formed more by classroom chatter, I suspect, than by the impact of the propaganda that will intensify in the 100 days remaining before the poll. I met no Scot, young or old, urban or remote, who was anything other than irritated by last week’s exchange of shamelessly sexed-up data claiming to show they will each be £1,000 a year better off independent, or £1,400 worse off.
Being brought up to be deeply suspicious of big business, the young may also be largely deaf to warnings against separation from the likes of Bob Dudley of BP, Ian King of BAE Systems and Sir Ian Cheshire of B&Q (‘I can’t really see the upside… It would put a pause on everything’). Yet somehow this junior cohort of voters seem to have worked out for themselves that their job and pension prospects, and the prosperity of their own children, will be better favoured by membership of the United Kingdom and all that comes with it. They’re right, and for once I salute the wisdom of youth.
Grateful home buyers
While the jury is out on Help to Buy, it would be too Ukip-like to conclude that the scheme must be a good thing if the European Commission is telling the Chancellor to ‘adjust’ it in order to head off a house-price bubble. Europe is another story — in the way its leaders have tried to brush off the recent election result, it might almost be another planet — but suffice to say Downing Street probably doesn’t feel advice is needed from a near-zero growth zone that may have to resort to negative interest rates to avert deflation and further decline while our own recovery (according to this week’s CBI survey) forges ahead on a rising tide of consumer and business confidence.
Still, we know that soaring house prices — even if the latest data suggests a slight moderation in rates of increase and levels of mortgage activity — are a headache for us. We know also that between now and next May, George Osborne is highly unlikely to ease back on any wheeze that makes him a friend of the young floating voter who would also like to be a first-time home buyer, even if advice to do so comes from a source more respected than Brussels, such as the Bank of England. Help to Buy — loans and guarantees that allow buyers into the market with a deposit of as little as 5 per cent of the purchase price — makes economists nervous because they see it pouring debt fuel on an incipient boom and stoking land prices where developers are chasing sites. This potentially slows the rate of housebuilding, which is ultimately the best way to make supply meet demand and stabilise prices. Labour opponents predicted the scheme would be abused by ‘Osborne’s City pals’.
But data just released indicates that Help to Buy is actually doing what it says on the tin. It has had far more impact in the north of England than in London, has been far more used to buy low-priced homes than fancy ones close to the £600,000 upper limit, and it does not generally appear to be tempting borrowers into mortgages that will cripple them when rates rise: the average mortgage size in the scheme is just over three times the borrower’s salary. And once again, that dangerous look of impish smugness plays across the Chancellor’s features.
Given my customary enthusiasm for state-of-the-art mass transit systems, you might have expected my Scottish itinerary to take in the inauguration of Edinburgh Trams. But I felt a boycott was more appropriate, because this is surely one of the developed world’s worst advertisements for public infrastructure investment, in the category of fiascos headed by Boston’s multibillion-dollar ‘Big Dig’ highway tunnel.
Three years late, plagued by disputes with contractors, half the length first sketched on the drawing board and likely in the end to cost three times its original estimate — worthy of a William McGonagall ode, indeed — the tram project has been a colossal embarrassment to the Scottish government and the city council who co-funded it, hence the gritted-teeth tone of last Saturday’s opening. In the coming 100 days it might well be held up, alongside Edinburgh’s own ten-times-over-budget Scottish Parliament building, as an example of what you get from small governments run by mediocre politicians with bloated ideas — except that one of the few points anyone now recalls from the SNP’s 2007 manifesto is a pledge that wasn’t kept, to scrap the tram.