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16-year-olds aren’t adults, so why give them the vote?

The SNP’s extension of the franchise to 16-year-olds is a cynical move.

Craig Fairnington

Topics Politics UK

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When Labour leader Ed Miliband announced last week that his party would seek to lower the voting age in UK elections to 16, he was following in the footsteps of the Scottish National Party (SNP), which earlier this year secured the right for 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in the Scottish independence referendum. A long-term SNP policy and a stalwart topic for youth parliaments, debating societies and classroom discussions, the extension of the franchise was called a ‘step forward for democracy’. After all, supporters say, 16-year-olds can get married, leave home, pay tax and join the army. Add to this the undoubtedly true claim that many 16- and 17-year-olds are politically informed and engaged, then why deny them the vote?

Usually, we think of voting as an adult responsibility – making decisions not just for ourselves, but having our input into decisions for the whole country. Do we think 16-year-olds are adults? The decision to extend the franchise to them might indicate that the SNP and now Labour certainly think so. However, almost everything else both parties do in relation to young people shows that nothing could be further from the truth. The mark of adulthood is the recognition that one is responsible for oneself and one’s actions. Among other things, 18-year-olds are free to sign contracts, to choose to smoke, to drink – signs that society treats them as adults capable of making decisions for themselves. Meanwhile, 16-year-olds are not free to make these decisions, as society deems them unready to take such personal responsibility.

There has been no corresponding move by any party to move the age of adult responsibility down to 16. In fact, the trend today is to view young people as in constant need of having their hands held and their actions controlled by the state. Numerous moves have been made to force 16- and 17-year-olds into compulsory training or learning. The SNP’s prospective Children and Young People’s Bill would, if it passes, give all children a state guardian until the age of 18. There is certainly no prospect of the smoking age being returned to 16, and 16-year-olds drinking in the pub – once a harmless presence, permitted at the landlord’s discretion – has become a police issue. In 2010, the SNP even tried to restrict the freedom of 18-year-olds to buy alcohol from off-licences – their rejected plans would have allowed local licensing boards to ban sales to under-21s.

More broadly, society is increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of young people being adults. Helicopter parents are now a fixture at universities (and even job interviews), while psychologists tell us that the cut-off for adolescence is actually 25. And while 16-year-olds can get married, in England and Wales they still need their parents’ permission to do so. The fact that, according to recent statistics, few actually do marry is perhaps a sign that we don’t think young people are ready for this kind of adult commitment.

So, no, the SNP and Labour’s moves to extend the franchise certainly doesn’t mean that they think 16-year-olds are adults. Instead, the moves are all about the political parties themselves. Increasingly disconnected from the public, they’ll jump on any chance to add a few more votes and give themselves an extra sheen of legitimacy. Letting teenagers vote gives parties a slightly bigger constituency in one cynical swoop. Instead of coming up with a vision to inspire the public into voting for them, parties hope that citizenship classes and field trips to the voting booth will convince the kids they’re relevant.

Craig Fairnington is online resources manager of the Institute of Ideas. Follow him on Twitter: @craigfair

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Topics Politics UK

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