It has dawned on me belatedly that there is one subject even more taboo than religion in residential and foster care settings, and that is politics. Scanning the 200 or so articles that I have written for the TCJ and ChildrenWebmag I find for example that I have never devoted a single piece to the subject. And looking at the books on my shelves dedicated to child care I find that apart from one or two by the late Bob Holman, which are about community action and community work rather than residential care, all steer well clear of politics.
So here we go! Perhaps there is something to do with referenda as distinct from elections that engages with people of all ages, and cuts across some of the predictable dividing lines in a society. I was not able to visit Scotland during the 2014 Independence referendum, but it was palpably obvious that deep emotions were stirring. In households, schools, clubs, and in pubs and community centres conversation was unusually deep-seated and fresh. I haven’t heard from residential and foster carers but I would be surprised if they were exempt from such a lively national conversation.
And now the UK has held its Brexit referendum, and very deep feelings have been touched and laid bare. Apparently the two post-Brexit days at Glastonbury were like a wake: and this had little or nothing to do with the customary mud! We have regularly discussed aspects of the subject at the meal table at Mill Grove for weeks, and a few days before the actual vote my oldest grandson asked me what I thought about Brexit. I can’t remember exactly how I replied then, but his question stayed in the mind and I have just posted a letter to him explaining how and why I voted as I did.
I can’t imagine writing a 3,500 word letter to a grand-child about more general politics or economics, but this seemed to be an historic occasion that merited serious thought. I told him that I voted strategically with his future, and that of his sisters and cousins in the forefront of my mind. And as I wrote I realised that he would be in a position to see how accurate my analysis and forecasts were, long after I was no longer around to test them for myself! It was rather cathartic to point out that I might be quite wrong!
But as I say, perhaps referenda could be a special case. So what about everyday party politics in residential and foster care? Clearly there are reasons why we have trod so carefully around so potentially contentious an issue. For some there is the spectre of radicalisation (Ayatollah Khomeini: “Anyone who will say that religion is separate from politics is a fool; he does not know Islam or politics.” Tahrīr al-Wasīla Vol.I). We are understandably wary of airing our political views in professional settings and contexts. The current shadow chancellor of the UK, John McDonnell, was in residential child care for several years, and although he has well-known political views now, I am not aware that he made them known to the children and young people for whom he was responsible.
What possible guidelines or code of practice would or could be drawn up? I thought I would have a go, just to get the ball rolling. With citizenship education on the agenda, it might be worth professional bodies having a go.
There needs to be space created in which political (and that includes ethical and economic) issues can be discussed without awkwardness or fear. The idea of no newspapers and no news in a residential or foster home is a sad one. But which papers and which channel? Who chooses? For years I have encouraged both the Guardian and the Telegraph at Mill Grove, as a way of demonstrating the fault-lines in British politics and society.
Theoretically the professionals in these settings would remain politically neutral, but why should that be? If young people ask honest questions about what we believe, should we not respect them enough to answer them?
I guess we could rule out homes functioning as wings of political parties.
But what if candidates appear on the doorstep? Why not invite them in for a chat?
What and how do we go about discussing history and current affairs around the world? Surely we cannot remain agnostic about the relative merits of Stalinism, Maoism, Nazism and say the European Project? If historical questions never arise, then there is something suspicious about how a home engages with the personal and social development of a young person.
And what do we say about the importance of voting in a democracy? Is it not appropriate to encourage young people to see how the system (however imperfect) works, and to encourage them to vote? Involvement in politics at whatever level is surely part of personal and social development.
This leaves the thorny issue of whether a professional should reveal how he or she has voted (in an election as distinct from a one-off referendum). Is there a coherent reason why not? Perhaps a person chooses not to reveal this to anyone including close members of their own family, but if someone is happy to share with others, why not with those in care?
I am in an interesting and possibly helpful situation as far as this is concerned because there simply isn‘t a political party in the UK that remotely represents my political views. They don’t fit. On the one hand more radically love-communist than the most ardent left-winger; on the other hand sympathetic to the conservative political philosophy of Edmund Burke. On the one hand pragmatic; on the other hand enthusiastically green. The elections I like best therefore are those when I have more than one vote. With careful allocation of my handful of votes I can spread them with just a hint of what I would like to see as a good government, local or national.
But if a professional is part of a radical political party should he or she withhold this information from young people in care? Perhaps the person would not have been appointed in the first place were there views known.
How different is this, I wonder from what happens in ordinary families?
You will have noticed that the questions keep spilling out, and there are many more as yet spelt out.
But it is a start. And if readers of TCJ really wanted to know what I wrote to my grandson about Brexit I would consider sharing my letter to him with others!