It is impossible to escape the national debate about Brexit because, as every politician and media commentator keeps reminding us, it is the most important question in UK politics for decades. But the problem with this great debate is that to have any kind of useful opinion on the vast mass of interconnected issues that make up the Brexit question, one would need to have a pretty good understanding of just exactly how our social, governmental, political and economic system actually functions, and I suspect that relatively few of us could claim anything like that level of knowledge.
How can we then make sensible decisions about topics we don’t really understand, when all we have to go on, in the majority of cases, is half understood or misunderstood fragments of information? And these are more often than not coloured by the prejudices of the newspapers we read or the radio journalists we listen to, or, perhaps even worse still, the family members or workmates who like to give us the benefit of their equally unqualified opinions?
Being poorly prepared to make big decisions is not a formula for success, but we persist in it in so many areas of our national life. The one I spend my time thinking about is the almost total absence of any planned programme of high quality education that prepares young people to build independent lives for themselves once they leave home, and start their journey into adult life. There have been so many fundamental changes in the way we live over the last 25 years or so that it is almost beyond belief that we have not been able to devise and deliver effective training to meet these new challenges through our education system.
The old, well established certainties of life so familiar to anyone aged 40 or older have vanished. A radically new, and in many ways less benign, set of circumstances now prevail which require a set of skills, and a level of comprehension that previous generations simply did not need.
The gig economy, part-time and temporary contracts, so-called zero hours work, no access to the mortgage market, unaffordable private sector rents, degrees that do not lead to a stable career, day to day spending based on credit, pay day lending, living with one’s parents until one’s thirties….all key symbols of the huge changes that have happened since the early 1980s, and which have been grievously worsened by the global financial crisis of 2008, from which our economy has never fully recovered.
To allow young people to simply walk out of school or college and not equip them with the knowledge and skills they need to manage their way through the morass of problems they will encounter is nothing short of madness.
One of our great national priorities should be to do all we reasonably can to produce a generation of active citizens. Citizens who understand fully the key markets that affect every aspect of their lives – employment, finance, housing and public services. Citizens able to make informed choices about their lives. Equipped with the knowledge and practical understanding they need to build a career, avoid debt, manage credit, understand interest, know what a bank is, or why they should save for a pension, what their taxes fund, and how the system they live under works.
If we did this, we would guarantee ourselves a much better future, no matter what vicissitudes Brexit may bring, because our children and their children would be able to meet them armed with the most important weapon of all – knowledge.