Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
Does Scotland care more about its young people than the rest of the UK does? More, even, than the rest of the world?
Last week, the Scottish Elections (Reduction of Voting Age) Bill – which would allow their sixteen and seventeen-year-olds to vote in local and Holyrood elections - passed the second legislative stage of three. Already out of global kilter by placing legal capacity at sixteen, Scotland’s independence of thought continues to slip the union’s bound hands, whilst forcing issues into them.
Under the pressure of the SNP’s Smith Commission-backed lobby, David Cameron has agreed to a Commons vote on decreasing the age limit of those allowed to vote in the upcoming EU referendum. Albeit unlikely, extending the electorate for such a directly democratic event would be momentous.
Over the past decade, multiple bills on this topic have been proposed by members from across the Westminster political spectrum, without much progress. Campaigners gain visibility, but polling suggests they remain the voice of a loud minority.
It’s easy to forget that the British voting age was reduced from twenty-one as recently as 1969; most see eighteen as a sensible halt. And, whilst many countries are beginning to consider the idea of voting at sixteen, Austria is the only member of the EU to have introduced it for national elections. (Although Guernsey, the Isle of Man, and Jersey - the three UK crown dependencies - have also recently done so.)
But franchise change should no sooner be pushed through in order to keep up with the MacDonalds or Müllers, than it should for expediency or effect. Rather, it’s necessary to ask: is our suffrage truly universal?
To contemplate this, we’ll need to assume that democracy is indeed the least bad form of government - and that a representative democracy, like ours, is its most practical manifestation. Presumably, this might be because we value equality and choice, and want a fair balance between the freedoms of the individual, and the corporate society that protects them.
Choosing local representatives is at the heart of this form of governance. This has developed since feudal times, when land, time, and education began to give barons, bishops and knights sufficient societal standing to form a chess piece line-up at increasingly regular meetings of the King’s parliament.
But, in principle, it’s still recognisable. And it doesn’t simply just happen. Whether or not you believe that rights are intrinsic, institutions are essential for their application.
Suffrage shouldn’t need to be suffered for. It shouldn’t depend on being won, or even wanted. But who - if not everyone - should be able to vote? For centuries, the British answer was grounded in property ownership. And then - exemplified by the suffragette movement – fairness became its focus.
John Stuart Mill thought that universal education should precede universal suffrage. But, whilst education inspires people to vote, it shouldn’t be a prerequisite of being able to do so. Claiming that young people aren’t politically aware is a weak reason to withhold their vote - not least because age is a poor determinant of this.
Mill wanted to set voters a test (to ‘copy a sentence from an English book, and perform a sum in the rule of three’), and to award extra votes to the most educated. But the unlikelihood of these becoming popular policies today does not simply owe to national hesitation in the face of maths problems - it also restates the significance of equality.
The consequences of qualifying involvement can be far reaching. Whilst there wasn’t a point at which black people gained the vote in Britain (a much-Googled question), pre-twentieth century property requirements often precluded their participation. Regardless of the Fifteenth Amendment – which allows Americans to vote irrespective of ‘race, color, or previous condition of servitude’ – so-called ‘literacy’ testing was used by the Southern states to limit this.
If voting is best exercised by the well educated, we should want to increase education standards for all. But we’re not asking who’s good at voting. Indeed, successful democratic governance is defined by its genuinely representative nature, rather than its elections’ results. Does this mean that everyone should be able to vote? Policies affect babies, too, after all. Is age simply another prejudice preventing true universal suffrage?
Easily exploitable Demeny voting - with its lack of age constraints - remains, mostly, a theory. For an election to represent a country’s communal choice, certain citizens sometimes need to be excluded from taking part. This might include babies, as they are unable to express their views, and criminals, who’ve shown a lack of respect for the law.
It also hangs upon the idea of contribution; the social contract sees citizenship as a two-way privilege. When babies are old enough to contribute, or prisoners return to society, they gain - or regain - rights and responsibilities.
There’s not an inherent magical age at which one becomes a full player in this game, however; any official moment of maturity is a societal construct. Whilst the UN deems under-eighteens to be children (unless the country in which they live has ruled otherwise), it has often been argued that British sixteen-year-olds should be allowed to vote because they do adult things like paying tax, fighting for their country, and getting married.
Today, this is countered by claiming that fewer of them can, or must, still do these things. Which is right?
The 2008 Education and Skills Act aimed to keep people in mandatory education or training until the age of eighteen - but the youngest school leaving age remains sixteen. Moreover, the act does still allow sixteen and seventeen-year-olds to enter into full-time employment. And this means full-on taxation.
Yet, ‘no taxation without representation’ would, again, give the baby the vote. Or, at least, the baby with the hefty savings account, or the starring role in a hit sitcom. British children are neither exempt from tax, nor treated differently within its system. Whilst the Northern Irish government’s citizens’ advice website does, unusually, include a young person’s section, clicking on ‘Taxes’ very quickly offers you standardised advice on retirement!
The death of unenfranchised soldiers in Vietnam influenced America to lower its voting age to eighteen. And, if British sixteen and seventeen-year-olds had been allowed to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan, then the Scottish bill would likely be unnecessary. However, you can apply to join the armed forces at the age of fifteen years and nine months. And a recent MOD report shows that, whilst only one per cent of those in the army is under eighteen, they accounted for almost 20 per cent of its 2013-14 intake.
Sixteen-year-olds (with consenting parents) are still able to get married. But greater contemporary resonance surrounds issues such as the age of consent, and teenage parenthood.
In the Yewtree-lined avenues of these post-Rotherham days, the former is particularly vexed. A fear of frank discussion can lead to the vulnerable remaining at risk, whilst simultaneously being infantilised, and hounded by vigilante voyeurs.
Failures includes a lack of consideration for levels of reprehensibility; we mustn’t equalise all sex crimes. An adult who kisses a keen twenty-looking fifteen-year-old in a club, is not as bad as one who abuses a baby. However, whilst sexual maturity doesn’t suddenly transpire on one’s sixteenth birthday, rules are obviously essential for the prevention of exploitation.
Yet, 16-year-olds can, and do, legally have sex, which sometimes leads to them having children of their own. And a teenaged parent is treated the same as any other regarding child benefits and income support.
Whilst turning eighteen remains a legal English landmark, sixteen and seventeen-year-olds (and, sometimes, younger children - remember, criminal culpability begins at the age of ten, here) are often treated as adults. To evade current conflictions, we need to be more consistent about when British (or English) adulthood begins.
This is a contentious goal, not least in a global world, complicated by layers of EU and UN supervention. And it wouldn’t necessarily solve the voting conundrum.
Basing suffrage on a person’s contribution to society provokes the dangerous requirement of balancing rights with responsibilities. Are we going to remove the vote from those receiving welfare (another Mill suggestion)? What about the people whose ability to contribute and choose remains limited, despite reaching a certain age? Do they not deserve representation?
Whilst ‘a lack of mental capacity is not a legal incapacity to vote’, voting remains difficult for those suffering from mental health problems. We need to balance the aim of making the electoral process as representative as possible, with awareness of the complications this can bring. After all, representative democracy is a compromise in itself.
If - or more likely, when - Scotland affords voting rights to sixteen and seventeen-year-olds, the rest of the UK will be called upon to reconsider the issue. And, as universal education continues to improve, and people gain more control over their lives, society needs to adapt.
But absolutes remain. Maybe we’re looking the wrong way at both voting and adulthood. Whilst reducing the voting age to sixteen would seem fair considering teenagers’ role in society, should there be prior considerations? It’s as easy to be influenced by what one can, or must, currently do in society, as it is to be tied to the symbolism of an arbitrary age.
Should we link suffrage to societal roles? Would Scotland care more for its young people by protecting them from adulthood for longer? Should sixteen-year-olds pay tax, or fifteen-year-olds be able to choose to join the army? Maybe we should just have a referendum on all this…