The Scottish independence referendum on September 18 marked the first enfranchisement of 16 and 17 year olds in the United Kingdom. Whether or not their inclusion was a cynical move by the First Minister, Alex Salmond, to enhance the possibility of an independent Scotland, is up for debate. But regardless of the means, the end was a good one.
There is one fundamental argument to be made in favour of voting at 16. If you are of an age where you can be in full time employment, start a family and have a mortgage to pay, then you should have the right to have your say in who runs the country. Theoretically (and there are likely several instances where this is a reality) 16 year olds can be married with children in a home that they own (or have a mortgage on) that they pay for through full time employment. What part of this dynamic isn’t directly affected by the decisions made by the government?
However, the age-old arguments continue to be put forward: “16 and 17 year olds aren’t mature enough, they aren’t informed enough and they don’t have enough life experience.” The number of people making these points is thankfully in steady decline, but it is probably worth suggesting the equally cliché retort that there are a significant number of people who aren’t well informed on politics, regardless of age, who are allowed to vote.
There is no doubt that people learn from their life experiences, that the same person who is currently 16 years old will have vastly different opinions in 20 or 30 years time. However, a democracy should be reflective of all of its working age population, at all stages of their development, who are old enough to be completely independent of their parents.
So if 16 year olds should be able to vote, why, you may ask, shouldn’t 14 and 15 year olds be able to? The simple answer to that question involves the same logic as before. 14 and 15 year olds can’t, even theoretically, have children, be in full time employment or own their own home. Because the decisions involving the welfare of those under the age of 16 are legally delegated to their parents or guardians, the right to vote is delegated too.
Another conservative stance on this issue is that 16 year olds rarely contribute to government tax revenues. The problem here is completely different. It is true that it is virtually impossible for people under the age of 18 to earn enough money to pay tax. But that shouldn’t be the case. The minimum wage for 16 to 18 year olds is an appalling and illogical £3.72 an hour. This leaves a 16 or 17 year old in full time employment (36 hours a week) with a salary of under £7000. All the more reason why they should be allowed to vote, in order to support political parties who best represent their interests.
Furthermore, it has been clearly demonstrated in the independence referendum that 16 and 17 year olds can be trusted to debate sensibly and come to their own conclusions. In high schools and in the workplace across the country, Scotland’s youth can be proud of how they have handled the responsibility of being the first of their age to be able to vote. On the back of the success of this temporary extension of the franchise, Westminster must make it permanent.