In this morning’s Times (£), Matthew Parris sets out why he believes that the Conservatives should endorse the extension of the franchise to 16-year-olds, in response to the House of Lords’ vote to do so for the EU referendum.
In short: they’re an antidote to cynical, self-interested tax-paying voters; and it’s going to happen anyway – and once it does we’ll wonder why we bothered.
To my mind, none of these arguments are especially convincing.
It is only natural that people whose whole experience of the state is on the receiving end should have a distorted view of it (or have “a refreshingly different contribution” to make, in Parris’ phrase).
The second point really deserves a post of its own about how the left manufactures a sense of inevitability to soften the right’s resistance to bad ideas. Suffice to say, “it will happen” does not mean “it should happen”.
Meanwhile, whilst it is undoubtedly true that we’d almost certainly not repeal it once passed, and that others have not, that’s less a commendation of the policy than an indictment of a serious shortcoming in British democracy and its offshoots: a chronic reluctance to repeal anything.
Yet all of this is really secondary. The real problem with ‘Votes @ 16’ is that it runs entirely contrary both to the direction of policymaking and the evolution of society regarding young people.
In fact, 16-year-olds have probably not been less equipped for the franchise in the last 50 years.
When I was at school, 16 was still a major milestone in a person’s life. Forget the usual saws about marriage and military service (both of which are subject to serious qualifications). It was the age you could leave school, or buy cigarettes.
There was no real suggestion of full-blown adulthood, of course – not whilst you had to lie your way into the cinema and the pub – but it was nonetheless a real staging point on the road to adulthood.
But the last string in the creaking bow of the votes at 16 brigade – that it was the age at which young people could leave school and start their own lives – snapped during the last Parliament. Labour raised the smoking age long before.
With the exception of the age of consent (whose relevance to voting is surely not overwhelming, absent all those lost factors), it’s hard to see what justifies votes at 16 over votes at 15, or 14. Doubtless you could find a handful of people that age to call for it, if you looked hard enough.
They can’t drive until they’re 17, and Labour considered raising that threshold. They still can’t be trusted to make their own decisions about having a pint on the weekend, or renting The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
A generation ago, a 16-year-old could well have moved out, have a full-time job, and be embarking on the first stages of adult life – events which these days often don’t occur until the mid-20s.
If our approach to the franchise was consistent with the rest of our policymaking, we’d have more business raising the voting age than lowering it.
That so many MPs whose actual legislative actions clearly suggest they think 16-year-olds are children can wax pious about giving them the vote represents, not the latest crest of the democratic wave, but the low value we place on the franchise today.
My father’s generation vote much more reliably than mine. His mother’s votes near-religiously, and reaps the rewards. Her parents’ generation often put on their Sunday best to go to the polls.
Having fought long battles to acquire and defend the vote, people of those generations were conscious that it wasn’t just a right, it was a responsibility and a duty. There was no shame in debating whether or not people were prepared for it.
Today, many appear to see it as something that can be blithely given to people they clearly think are incapable of making their own decisions about far less weighty subjects than the government of the country.
The old system, wherein people gradually acquired adult responsibilities before attaining their full majority and attendant civic responsibilities (including the vote), seems far more intuitive than our own, reverse approach.
If the Conservatives want to call the bluff of the votes at 16 brigade, they should instead table a universal age of majority, tying drink, cigarettes, sex, the vote and more besides together with one simple question: “Can people this age take responsibility for their own decisions, or not?”
Or put another way: are we really arguing that someone should have the vote two years before they’re allowed to watch some episodes of The Thick of it?