By Paul Goodman
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Michael Forysth thinks that David Cameron has lost in his battle with Alex Salmond over the Scottish referendum terms, and has compared the Prime Minister to Pontius Pilate. (Who is Jesus in this comparison?) Malcolm Rifkind believes that Mr Cameron has won, and has said that Mr Salmond has experienced "a comprehensive defeat".
I don't know which one of them is right. Nor do I know whether Ministers are correct to be "confident
that lowering the voting age will not benefit the SNP’s cause", as Alan Cochrane reported yesterday – agreeing while doing so with Sir Malcolm. Mr Cochrane believes that Mr Cameron has "run rings round" Mr Salmond.
Nor still do I have a set view on whether 16 year-olds should be allowed to vote. I am not persuaded, as politicians say, that it should fall further to 16, but am open to argument on the matter. What I am not open to is Messrs Cameron and Salmond's agreement that 16 year olds should have the vote in the forthcoming referendum, for three reasons.
- It is manifestly unfair to give them the vote in the 2014 referendum but not in the 2015 general election. Some argue that extending the franchise to them in the referendum will boost faith in politics. It is more likely that first extending it to them in the referendum and then removing it for the general election will boost disillusion with politics.
- Further to that point, can someone please explain why a 16 year old has the maturity, wisdom, judgement and so on to vote in a referendum, but not the m, w and j to vote in a general election?
- Finally, who should and shouldn't have the right to vote is a matter of clear constitutional import. But this decision has not been approved by Parliament, or even debated. It has simply been agreed by Messrs Cameron and Salmond. This is wrong.
In short, Mr Cameron has signed off the referendum vote to Liesl, who in 2014 will be "sixteen going on seventeen" ("Timid and shy and scared am I/Of things beyond my ken") and Rolfe, who will in that year be seventeen going on eighteen ("You need someone older and wiser/Telling you what to do"). Age and wisdom consist in Rolfe's case, as aficionados of The Sound of Music will remember, of joining the Nazi Party. And then trying to stop the Von Trapp family from fleeing to Switzerland.
To sum up. I don't know what effect the Cameron/Salmond decison will have on the referendum, if any, but I do know that a precedent has been set, thus providing a classic illustration of our old friend and enemy, the law of unexpected consequences.
The Prime Minister needs someone older and wiser telling him what to do.