The first general election I remember was in 1979. I was 11. Before Britain voted, our class at school held a vote. I don’t remember there being a teacher-led discussion about the merits or failings of any party. We were effectively invited to reflect – openly in our classroom and by show of hands – the prejudices of our parents.
The Tories won, easily. There was a modest though unembarrassing number of Labour voters and a single Liberal, the son of Quakers; already thought to be a little odd. He didn’t seem too bothered about being in a minority of one. A boy I liked, who held up his hand for Labour, cried at the result. This reaction felt a bit extreme to me. Then, a few days later his father, the Labour MP for our constituency, lost his seat.
That then was my first ‘opinion poll’, my first ‘landslide victory’ and the first time I properly talked politics with my Dad.
Dad didn’t seem to think tears were an extreme reaction to this turn of events and he muttered darkly about what would happen next. I started to pick up his discarded newspaper and to read it properly. I came downstairs quietly in the morning and listened with him to the Today Programme on Radio 4. Dad’s dark mutterings were right, again and again.
Within two or three years I was protesting and marching, mainly with CND, sometimes for feminist causes. I argued fiercely with my parents about our conflicting views.
Left-leaning themselves, they thought I was both silly and extreme, and sometimes extremely silly. But they never failed to engage with my questioning and challenging, never treated my arguments as unworthy of attention and – most importantly – never stopped me from following the political direction I chose. I paid for my memberships, publications and train fares with my babysitting money and off I went, searching, exploring, arguing, pontificating, belly-aching, but above all, thinking. Thinking about what it would take to make the world a better place.
At last, in 1987, there was a general election and I was eligible to vote. My vote sadly failed to secure the Oxford West and Abingdon seat for a young Chris Huhne. To this day, I have never managed to vote for an election-winner. I continue searching, exploring, arguing, pontificating and belly-aching. One day ‘my guys’ (whoever they turn out to be – I have never voted the same way two elections running) will win. And then of course the world will be a better place.
Until that day comes, if I want to try putting the world to rights, I ring my Dad. Or – and this is a recent pleasure – I talk politics with my older son.
Children ask the killer questions.
They haven’t assimilated all the knee-jerk biases of adults who have cemented their political views long ago. They don’t make their arguments through tired, easily-rebutted tropes. Discussing politics with a child is like embarking on a chess game, only to find your opponent has brought along a conker, or a water pistol.
It’s no-holds-barred stuff. Argue politics with a child and you’ll find yourself stuck because the ‘obvious’ things aren’t obvious to them.
Nothing is a given. Why shouldn’t rich people try to get out of paying taxes – shouldn’t we all try to hang onto what we’ve got? Why don’t we keep foreigners out of ‘our’ country – they’ve got their own country, the country they came from, after all? Wouldn’t it be better if hospitals were like shops and you could just buy the operation you needed when you needed it, instead of having to wait? Why do we need libraries when we’ve got bookshops? Why do we let some children with special needs into the same school as other children when they throw things and break stuff and stop those other children learning? A political conversation with a primary school-aged child won’t go far if you start with phrases like ‘redistribution’, ‘globalised labour markets’, ‘privatisation’, ‘public service’, or ‘the inclusion agenda’.
Because I know these questions come from a place of honest curiosity (and occasional mischief) I stop and reflect on the best way to convey my own views so that my children will ‘get’ them. Because I love my children and want to honour their curiosity and develop their understanding and – yes, I admit it – shape their thinking, i engage. Even when they are silly, or extreme, or extremely silly.
Then one day in the middle of a discussion I hear a different voice. Not another question. In this new voice I hear my child independently articulate a view that I know didn’t come from me. Ouch.
For some parents, I think, this is a worrying prospect.
We hear talk of ‘brainwashing’, of ‘radicalisation’. We fear that adults unknown to us, and with toxic views, will poison the minds of our children against us, and in favour of ideas we find abhorrent.
We fear this particularly from teachers. What parent of a school-aged child hasn’t experienced that moment when their child’s teacher suddenly becomes the absolute authority on all that is? A thing is true ‘because Miss Collard said so’. We can live with this when it’s a question of the gender of the class guinea pig, but what if teachers talk about political ideas with our children?
I think we should welcome this when it happens. We shouldn’t expect to fill our children’s minds with our own views so that they are reflections of ourselves, or little parrots mimicking us.
That injection of other ideas about politics from other sources enriches our conversations. It takes the level of challenge up a gear, enables our children to test their developing thinking, helps them to create fresh hybrid ideas of their own. It makes them part of an important public conversation. And it doesn’t take them away from us. How dull are conversations when we all agree? An input of different political thinking gives us more to talk about, holds us in that conversation for longer. More than thirty years on from our first political conversations, I still take my fresh thinking to my Dad and we chew it over. I hope my children will still want to talk politics with me thirty years from now.
When the teachers were on strike on 30 June, my children’s school was closed. I was supportive of the strike and my son (who understood and was supportive of the strike himself) wanted to know why? How could I support the teachers’ action when it created both a personal problem for me (childcare) and a professional problem (dealing with school closures across the borough in which I work)? We talked together about workers rights, unions and solidarity. He was interesting and thoughtful on these subjects. We both learned from our conversation.
When I received his end of year report from his teacher, among many lovely comments it contained this remark: ‘I have particularly enjoyed talking about politics with him’. I was delighted and proud. Proud that my son – who is only 11 – is already beyond the stage of simply putting up his hand to reflect the views of his parents, and delighted that he has a teacher who is wiling to engage in political discussions with him, and not afraid to be open about doing so.
As my unbroken record of voting for candidates-who-don’t-win continues, my children may turn out to be the best chance I have of making the world a better place. Or perhaps it will be your children? Let’s talk politics more with our children and with each others’ children and see what the future brings.
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