By Matthew Barrett
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An intriguing report in the Independent on Sunday today contains some pretty positive news – and some pretty awful news.
We are told that details of an agreement on the referendum for Scottish independence will be announced in the next few days. The "Scottish Government" and the Government have agreed terms which will mean there will be a simple yes/no independence question on the ballot paper. That's the good news.
The bad news is what Alex Salmond will get in return: the precedent of votes for 16 and 17 year olds. He knows that even if he is defeated resoundingly, on the scale of the AV referendum, he will be able to introduce votes for 16 year olds for Scottish Parliament elections from 2015 onwards – because if they can vote for or against Scottish independence, why on earth should they not be able to vote in Scottish elections?
If they can vote in Scottish elections, the Welsh Assembly will follow suit (although perhaps not so the Northern Ireland Assembly), and, with many Labour MPs already supporting the concept, Parliament will have to reduce the voting age to 16 for there to be any conherence in British elections.
One could point out that most 16 year olds don't work, and therefore don't have the same stake in society (especially in tax affairs), but I'm not particularly concerned with the issue itself – yet. My primary objection to this new votes-at-16 move is that it has come about from deals behind closed doors to sort out the terms of a distasteful referendum.
If the voting age is to be lowered, it should come about as a result of general acceptance in society, a campaign from backbenchers in Parliament, and/or being prominently placed in the manifesto of a winning party – all of which would follow a period of serious consideration of the issue. As it is, we are set to introduce a major constitutional reform quietly, and because the quixotic Salmond thinks it will help his campaign to break Britain up.
Perhaps some comfort could be taken from two facts. Firstly, Mr Wilson lowered the voting age for the 1970 election, believing 18-21 year olds would vote Labour. He then lost the election. Secondly, a poll conducted by the Mail on Sunday last weekend showed that only 26% of voters who will be 16 and 17 at the time of the referendum support independence.