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.