British politics

It's mental to give 16‑year‑olds the vote

Neuroscience shows us why teenagers are too young to vote.

It’s the debate that just won’t go away: should the voting age in Britain be lowered to 16? The Liberal Democrats promised as much in their 2010 manifesto; Ed Miliband made the same call last September; and 16- and 17-year-olds will be able to vote in Scotland’s independence referendum this autumn. Now, after a delegation of teenagers went to Westminster to campaign for it, Labour’s Sadiq Khan has weighed in with his support, declaring, ‘those society deems responsible enough to pay taxes and get married should have a democratic stake in the way that society is organised… We need to make our democracy more open and accessible to young people.’

These are familiar arguments. Giving 16- and 17-year-olds the vote would make them ‘part of democracy’ at an earlier age, says Milliband, and that it’s only fair considering that at 16 you can join the army and at 17 leave school or drive a car. As a report by the think-tank Demos reiterated last week, there are many smart and politically mature 16-year-olds out there. The status quo is discriminatory and excluding.

This raises some interesting questions. By this logic, we should level down completely. So would these advocates also let 16-year-olds serve on juries, take out mortgages, serve as magistrates, pay income tax, serve jail sentences in adult prisons, become members of Parliament? Would you honestly have given your passionate, clever, simplistic-minded, credulous, massively insecure 16-year-old self the vote?

If the current system is unfair and socially exclusive, wouldn’t lowering the age thereby exclude brainy and well-informed 15-year-olds? What about those precocious 11-year-olds that turn up in the newspapers every year with their five A-levels and places at Oxbridge? Where does it end? Votes for babies? I shouldn’t joke. The aforementioned think-tank Demos proposed exactly that in 2003.

When stacked up against other recent government policies, lowering the voting age seems a rather incoherent step. The minimum school-leaving age in the UK, upped from 16 to 17 last year, will rise again next year to 18. Last October a government-commissioned report suggested raising the minimum driving age to 18.

Although neuroscience isn’t the be-all-and-end-all that some determinists think, most scientists agree that youngsters in their mid-teens aren‘t suited to politics. Barbara Strauch, in her 2003 book The Primal Teen, the psychologist Peter Jensen, and Jay Giedd, of the US National Institute of Mental Health, have all argued in recent decades that the brain’s prefrontal cortex – which helps us weigh moral dilemmas, think in abstracts and control emotions – is still underdeveloped in teen years. ‘It’s sort of unfair to expect them to have adult levels of organisational skills or decision-making before their brains are built’, says Giedd.

As Richard Dawkins and R Elisabeth Cornwell elaborated when this debate was doing the rounds in 2003: ‘Frontal-lobe damage causes severe personality changes and sudden emotional outbursts. Patients often can’t control inappropriate or antisocial behaviour, can’t plan for the future, or see the consequences of their behaviour. Do these symptoms sound familiar?’ Sixteen-year-olds shouldn’t be given the vote for the simple reason that they aren’t yet grown-ups.

Yet many on the liberal-left have a kind of addiction to extending rights to anything that moves. ‘We’ve given blacks and women the vote, we might as well give it to children now.’ The rise of the animal-rights movement is bad enough, but the youth-rights movement is taking an even more sinister turn in Belgium, where children will now be permitted to kill themselves if their request for euthanasia is ‘voluntary and well-considered’.

Elsewhere, a new book popular in Sweden, called How Children Took Power, argues that decades of treating children as equals in Scandinavia has raised generations of effete depressives with unrealistic expectations and suicidal tendencies. Now that silly teenage cry, ‘I wish I’d never been born’, no longer sounds so funny.

Blurring the boundaries between childhood and adulthood helps neither children nor adults. Indeed, if we are to believe the scientists, and we are having this debate, we should be talking about raising, not lowering, the age of franchise. After all, it was only reduced cynically from 21 in 1969 by the then prime minister, Harold Wilson, in the hope that it would get him more Labour votes. (It didn‘t work; Labour lost the next year. Take note, Alex Salmond.)

The aforementioned Jay Giedd, and other scientists, assert that the frontal lobe isn’t fully formed until the mid-20s. Last September, new guidance was also given to psychologists in Britain advising that adolescence runs up to the age of 25. ‘The idea that suddenly at 18 you’re an adult just doesn’t quite ring true’, says child psychologist Laverne Antrobus of London’s Tavistock Clinic. ‘My experience of young people is that they still need quite a considerable amount of support and help beyond that age.’

Most people don’t carry on in adult life as they do between the ages of 18 and 21. Who doesn’t regard today’s immature, censor-happy student-union politics with some horror? Who doesn’t remember the ridiculous student politics of their own youth? When you’re between the ages of 18 and 21, a lot of politicking is either attention-seeking or a mating game by proxy. Think of the cringe-worthy male who declares himself a feminist or the alpha-male revolutionary hoping that marching on a demo will conclude with a bunk-up.

I agree that most people don’t truly grow up until their mid-twenties. However, I don’t think the age of voting should change; 18 seems a fair compromise, and it‘s not as if we haven’t enough kidults as it is – so let‘s not encourage the ‘prolonged adolescence’ model. It’s just that reducing further the voting franchise reduces us all. Pretending adults and children are equal is bad for both.

Patrick West is a columnist for spiked. He is the author of several books including Conspicuous Compassion (Civitas, 2004). Read his blog here.

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