There’s a vote in the Commons this Thursday on the idea of giving the vote to 16 year olds (and 17 year olds, obv). The Scottish Government has done so for the Scottish referendum and my own instinct, no more than that, is that’s probably right. But what’s struck me is how utterly crap the quality of debate is. It’s full of Youth Parliament members saying; ‘it’s soooooo unfair that 16 year olds can’t vote’, followed by politicians agreeing for no particular reason. Here’s one of the better essays, but even it’s full of patent nonsense, see; ‘the paucity of opposing arguments’, the circular arguments and the childish, personalised attack on a former UK cabinet minister.
This week, I’ve tweeted a couple of times to campaigns such as @votesat16 who have previously tweeted me for support on Thursday. I asked if they support the lowering of the age for buying fags to 16. They’ve been struck dumb, while the Pirate Party and others have come back to me with ‘voting doesn’t kill’. You what? First off, of course voting can kill; voting can do anything you want it to. Policy issues will often involve fundamental decisions about life and death. Want safer roads? Lower the speed limit. Ah, but you don’t want to have to drive at 20mph on busy ‘A’ roads? You choose.
But the wider point is surely that democracies are defined by how suffrage works. The right to vote, wherever we draw the line, makes all adults equal. We can’t, surely, laud legislating against a huge category of voters on the grounds of age? Too many younger/older drivers in car crashes then ban them from the roads? Too many under-30s drinking – ban them from buying alcohol? Of course there are discrepancies in the UK and across the world in respect of the age certain rights kick in. Marrying at 16, driving at 17, alcohol at 18, HGV licenses at 21, and so forth. But these are all ‘old’ legislative measures. You might expect the votes at 16 lobby to want to iron them out, but it seems they actually want their continuation and place voting below even smoking when it comes to linking maturity to rights.
No, I’m afraid it’s turning out that those involved in Youth campaigns are at risk of showing themselves as shallow as many other interest groups. Why aren’t they, for example, arguing for an end to the dictatorial way the mainly middle-aged adults who run the country take one view when it comes to their drug of choice – alcohol, while categorising the much safer drugs younger (though not only them) people consume as illegal ‘Class A’s? How can they seriously think taking away rights from 16 year olds, such as the one to choose to buy fags, is OK?
This post is already getting too long, so I’ll conclude with some of the questions the votes at 16 lobby might want to address.
Do we want to say that voters are adults (and so treat 16 year olds as adults), or that it’s not that important so we let kids do it too. Do we want 14 and 15 year old’s details on the publicly available voters register, with parties ringing their homes to lobby them? Do we want 16 year olds risking death in theatres of war? Do we want 16 year olds treated as adults in the justice system? Do we want them buying their own alcohol in pubs and off-licences (the SNP doesn’t, by the way, it wants to raise that age to 21)? And why draw the line at 16 in any case – 14 year olds can pay tax and are perfectly capable of understanding the arguments put by political parties at election time.
Or do we, instead, want to protect young people until they are 18 – treat them not fully as adults for their own good?
Voting isn’t just another boring issue and changing the way suffrage works really shouldn’t be ‘a game for the kids’. Voting’s about as sacred a right as anyone has in a democracy and it comes with other rights and responsibilities.
Extend the franchise and say 16 year olds are fully fledged adults or ‘protect the kids’ while reducing the status of voting? The Yoof can’t have it both ways.