On Saturday, the last day but one of a holiday by boat and train from the Swiss Alps to the Moray Firth, and on to the Highlands, I sat chatting to an old friend.
It was on a bench looking out from the scenic village of Findhorn into the estuary of the river of the same name. It’s virtually an inland lake, and beyond a narrow headland is the Firth itself. Bounded by the North Sea to the east and the waters of the Firth to the north, the attraction of this great promontory of eastern Scotland is its bleakness.
Miles of beach are virtually deserted. Visitors are relatively few. Over-tourism isn’t an issue here. The passing remark from one I have known for decades was that old wish of “wouldn’t it be great to be young again?”
I couldn’t disagree more.
The almost 59,000 students who got their Leaving Certificate results yesterday will also certainly have a harder life than my friend and I. We and the parents of the 59,000 are the luckiest generation in the history of the planet. If a little less windswept than the North Sea coast of Scotland, the Irish generation now hitting 50 or past it hardly know hunger or poverty. The exceptions, which are shocking, are so because they are rare. We have such affluence now that we memorialise poverty with our tenement museums and Famine memorials.
Only people with full bellies and soft beds do that. They also often lack the necessary sense of irony to understand what it is they are fetishising. They re-enact tragedy without seeming to realise they are creating comedy.
One immediate challenge those students face waking up this morning is the underfunding of third-level education. On coming into office in 2011, Fine Gael had a five-point plan. It is now unveiling a series of five-year plans, and each to date is predicated on doing nothing. One, a few weeks ago, was about broadcasting.
We may well move on, or move back to be more exact, to Pat Rabbitte’s plan for a national broadcasting charge.
Only nothing will happen for five years. Moving politically ahead of the coverage of today’s exam results, the Government announced a five-year freeze on college registration fees at €3,000 and any idea of student loans is now binned.
It is three days since the Taoiseach generously lauded Seán Lemass in. Free secondary education was transformative for Irish society, and our economy. Having essentially benefitted from almost free third-level education more than 30 years ago when far fewer were lucky enough to get there, I have no ideological opposition to the concept.
Except, as the Taoiseach knows, it’s unaffordable for far more students now, at a standard that is going to keep Ireland ahead economically and educationally in the future. On third-level education, we are locust eaters. We are fattening on the fruits of past investment while effectively refusing to provide for the future.
Forty-five minutes away from Findhorn is Fort George. It is an enormous, magnificent feat of 18th-century military architecture and the definite Hanoverian answer to Jacobitism after the Battle of Culloden nearby. It secured the Highlands, and long after that need was over, it was a base for the British army in Scotland. Those regiments in their pomp were a major part of Scottish identity from the 19th century.
It was colonialism, and it partly epitomised a specifically British identity in Scotland that was both overwhelmingly successful and a shared basis between the constituent parts of the union in the great enterprise of the British empire.
Now Fort George is soon to be empty. The famous Black Watch regiment will leave by 2032. Curiously, local Scottish nationalist politicians have protested about the departure of an army marched north in 1745 by the ‘Butcher’ Duke of Cumberland. But times change, I suppose, and irony is essential in navigating the boundaries between history and politics.
Third-levels fees and underinvestment in education are not the only issues facing today’s newly-minted Leaving Cert graduates. The greatest is a symptom of a world largely characterised by order and prosperity for 75 years that is now changing fundamentally.
With the conspicuous exceptions of Vietnam and the Middle East, the world was once largely peaceful. As recently as the era of Tony Blair and David Cameron, Britain seemed a stable, progressive place. Now it’s chaotic and divided. That chaos will, after it is irretrievably unleashed by Brexit, spill its consequences onto this island. Immediately they will be economic, but soon afterwards they will be political and fundamental.
On the bench at Findhorn, my friend, who has a practical mind, organised a stop at Marks & Spencer. They have the best sandwiches in those parts. Mine was egg and things, but mainly egg. That’s not everyone’s taste, but it’s mine. It struck me since — where did the ingredients for those sandwiches come from? Was any of it Irish produce? I don’t know. But a lot of food in British supermarkets is. After Brexit, how will an Irish egg get itself into a sandwich in Scotland? If the egg can’t get into the sandwich on time and within cost, how will the Irish egg man make his living? If he cannot, he is on the dole, and taking out of what he previously contributed to. What’s left is less.
Because we have spent right up to the ceiling, and beyond, of what was prudent in recent years, we have no slack. We have no student loan scheme, no water charges — and property taxessuch as carbon changes, are anaemic.
This generation, growing up in the slipstream of this Age of Entropy —the scientific concept that measures disorder — will bear the brunt. A house of their own to call ‘home’ is much less likely an outcome for them than it was for their parents.
A pension to support the longer life they seem set to live is a fading prospect too, although auto-enrolment and a much longer working life to support a lengthier natural life can address that. But fundamentally, the balance of wealth and of decision-making is held by older people with property and pensions. They are the votes that decide elections, and their interests will not be disturbed to provide for a more equitable, viable future. That’s just on national issues.
Globally, climate change is the ultimate legacy of the locust. Everything is compulsively consumed until nothing is left. Let’s see if carbon charges go the way of water charges, student loans, and a broadcasting charge.
If you are living in the moment, there is no reason that you can’t have a great old time. And most of us are.
If not, most things are now available on the five-year plan.