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Respect our elders? No chance, writes Laurie Penny

The government's new youth strategy is nothing but spin.

The government's new youth strategy is nothing but spin.

It is some testament to the awfulness of Christmas telly this year that I took time out in between the Queen's message, the Archbishop's sermon and one of the most mawkishly pointless episodes of Doctor Who ever broadcast to read the blurb behind the government's new "Positive For Youth" strategy.

After twelve months of devastating cuts to schools, universities and youth services, a million unemployed 18-24 year olds and voiceless, frustrated young people burning and looting in the inner cities, it would be nice to think that someone has finally decided to start taking an interest in the generation currently on the cusp of adulthood.

Unfortunately, there's nothing new about this strategy but the spin. Precisely no additional funding is being allocated for youth services - the plan is just an involved way of making it look as though there is. Meanwhile, fresh research has revealed that schools across the country are being forced to cut frontline services, from extra-curricular activities to arts, music and careers services. Thousands of careers advisors have been laid off, and presumably some of them had not yet reached the stage of rocking, crying and inviting young jobseekers to pray with them over the latest unemployment forecasts. Local councils are also slashing their provisions for young people, from youth clubs to special needs grants.

At every level of government, youth services are the first to go when cuts are imposed, because they have few measurable outcomes - meaning that by the time the damage done can be properly tallied, the political careers of the current administration will be beyond scrutiny.

Instead, the "Positive for Youth" strategy echoes the Queen, the Archbishop and the rest of the Westminster machine in replacing actual ideas with lots of rhetorical flourishes about duty, family and responsibility. There is much talk of "listening to" young people - which is all to the good, as young people in Britain today have some fairly urgent about education and economic policy, some of which have been written on the Treasury wall in spraypaint for the attention of ministers - but no coherent plans to actually take any of their concerns into account. One young participant told me that teenagers who were consulted in drawing up the document had to fight to get phrases like "young people will learn to respect authority and their elders" removed, but the sentiment is still there in the meat of the text.

As we move into 2012, with all the old certainties disintegrating into the scurf of yesterday's consensus, the message to young people is simple: please, just don't kick off anymore. We may not have done anything to deserve your respect, but respect us anyway, or we'll send in the police. Sit down and shut up. Sois jeune et tais-toi.

There is no strategy here for the future, because there doesn't need to be. Nobody votes for the future anymore. For at least thirty years, politicians have played to a lexicon of temporary, individual self-interest and short-term profit. Even today, those who talk of decreasing the deficit through austerity measures have quietly ceased to speak the language of long-term growth. Nobody is investing in young people, in the environment, in infrastructure, in education, in any of the things that might make us - in an addictive little phrase I picked up at Occupy Wall Street - "good ancestors".

Instead, all the current crop of politicians seems to be able to do is beg and bully the young and disenfranchised into giving them respect. The riots were a gift, because they allowed the centre-right to frame social breakdown in terms of delinquency rather than despair. Nonetheless, I can think of few historical moments where respect for our elders has been less appropriate. From government cuts to the Eurozone crisis to the meltdown of the Durban climate talks, the political elite is fairly obviously making a total hash of almost everything they're in charge of.

Respecting them at this point would not only be unfitting - it would be downright foolish.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 02 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, And you thought 2011 was bad ...

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The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.