Scotland: the world’s most childish nation
The SNP thinks children should be trusted with votes in a referendum, but adults shouldn't be trusted with booze and fags.
This week, the UK Lib-Con coalition government and the Scottish National Party (SNP), which holds the majority in the Scottish Parliament, are set to announce they have come to an agreement on the terms for a referendum on Scottish independence. The SNP has agreed that there will be only one question on the ballot paper: should Scotland leave the UK. In return, the UK government will agree to the nationalists’ preferred date for the election – some time in 2014, to coincide with Glasgow hosting the Commonwealth Games and the seven-hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn. More importantly, it seems, the two sides have agreed to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote, too.
There is plenty to be said about the wisdom of throwing away 300 years of common history. Scotland became part of the United Kingdom in 1707 once the Treaty of Union was approved by parliaments north and south of the border and the history of the two countries has been intimately entwined ever since. There seems little benefit to dissolving this union now. It is also right to wonder what exactly ‘independence’ would mean within the European Union. When so much law is now decided in Brussels rather than Westminster, and the Scottish Parliament already has considerable control over domestic law and policy, how much more ‘free’ would Scotland be if nominally independent?
But what is also remarkable is the cynicism of the SNP: a party that has been trying to take adult rights away on the minutiae of everyday life is now insisting that teenagers who will very likely still be at school or college are in a position to make a historic judgement on the relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK.
There are good reasons to believe that 16-year-olds are in no position to take such a serious part in political life. In the past, the majority of 16-year-olds would have started to make their way into the adult world, getting jobs, paying taxes and possibly starting to think about marriage, kids and a home of their own. Yet there has, historically, been little support for the idea that the voting age should be lowered from 18 to 16. But now, less than 20 per cent of all Scottish school leavers, even taking into account 18-year-olds leaving school, will enter the world of work. Most 16-year-olds go on to further education and training.
But politics requires the ability to make decisions for yourself and be in a position to take responsibility for those decisions. The famous cry of the US colonists before the war of independence – ‘no taxation without representation’ – could equally apply in reverse. How can you seriously decide about the great political issues of the day if you’ve never contributed to paying for public services or at least made your way in the semi-independent world of higher education?
The issue of reducing the voting age has been on the agenda for some time. That’s not because politicians seriously believe that 16- and 17-year-olds have really got something serious and new to add to political life. Rather, it’s a desperate attempt to shore up the legitimacy of current political institutions. When it comes to boosting electoral turnout, any turnout will do.
Such cynicism is particularly galling from the SNP. While every major party in British politics has competed to show how nannying and interfering it can be, the Nats have probably run off with the prize of being the worst authoritarians of all. In 2007, the SNP (admittedly, with the support of all parties in the Scottish Parliament) raised the age that cigarettes could be purchased from 16 to 18. In May 2012, the Scottish Parliament approved an SNP bill to introduce a minimum price per unit of alcohol, to be set at 50 pence per unit. (This in itself could be a test case for the limits of Scottish independence if, as seems likely, the European Union rules that minimum-pricing laws are an illegal restraint of trade.) In 2010, the parliament threw out a measure in an SNP bill to raise the age for buying alcohol in shops from 18 to 21. However, a year later and with a full parliamentary majority secured in the May 2011 election, the SNP government had proposed that Scottish local authorities would be able to raise the legal age for purchasing alcohol in shops from 18 to 21 on a case-by-case basis.
In short: the SNP believes that 16- and 17-year-olds should be able to have a significant say in the future destiny of Scotland, but are not to be trusted to buy cigarettes until they are 18 and would ideally like to prevent them from buying alcohol until they are 21. The SNP is hardly alone in the view that adults are not to be trusted with even quite minor lifestyle decisions. For example, the Nats were not in charge when Scotland became the first part of the UK to introduce a smoking ban, in 2006. But the hypocrisy of arguing for a lower voting age while stripping existing voters of personal freedoms is really quite staggering.
That said, maybe the SNP are merely ahead of the curve in British politics, being the most explicit promoters of a diminished view of the citizen and of political participation. In contemporary politics, voting has been reduced from a serious decision about the future direction of your country to the provision of a figleaf of legitimacy to fundamentally anti-democratic politics. How can there be real democracy when no real issues of substance are voted upon? Similarly, free speech is chipped away at constantly because we are not to be trusted with dangerous ideas. It is no surprise that it is the SNP that has brought in draconian laws to lock up football fans for simply saying or singing the wrong thing.
The SNP are the torch-bearers for this destruction of citizenhood, where governments can reduce the vote to a childish choice while removing the freedom to have a cigarette or a drink at the time of your choosing. To rephrase William Wallace in Mel Gibson’s film Braveheart: ‘They can give us votes, but they will take away our freedom.’
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