Leader: Let young adults vote

THE Scottish Government’s suggestion that 16 and 17-year-olds be given the chance to vote in the independence referendum has elicited much critical comment from opposition politicians, who have questioned the SNP’s motives.

Many of these criticisms are justified. Votes for this age group has been an SNP policy for many years and yet, despite having been in power for almost five years, the Nationalist government has done little to make it a reality.

It did not form part of the SNP’s critique of the Scotland Bill, and as far as anyone can tell, there has never in the past five years been any move by the SNP to request that Westminster change the law to allow such a reform. True, the SNP did legislate for 16 and 17-year-olds to participate in direct elections to health boards, but this measure – little known, little noticed and, if truth be told, something of an irrelevance – was never developed to produce an extension of the franchise in more meaningful elections. This is a pity. Such a reform could have been a historic achievement of the first ever SNP administration, standing comparison with any of the headline policies in the first decade of devolution. The fact that it did not may have something to do with the fact that it would have required a joint effort with Westminster, at a time when relations with UK ministers were fraught, to say the least. But it must be regarded as a missed opportunity.

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For it to surface now, as one of many issues the SNP has brought to the table in its discussions with the UK government on the practicalities of the referendum, is unfortunate. What could have been a great point of principle is instead a bargaining chip. UK ministers are said to be open to persuasion on such an extension of voting rights, and it may form part of the agreement between the two administrations that allows legislative competence for the referendum to pass from Westminster to Holyrood. But the measure could just as equally form part of the unseemly horse-trading Alex Salmond and David Cameron have been conducting over the past three weeks, surrendered by Salmond in an attempt to win a victory on one of his other demands. Its introduction into the debate has been inauspicious.

Other criticisms of the SNP on this policy have less foundation. As Professor John Curtice writes in this newspaper, there is scant evidence that 16 and 17-year-olds would be any more disposed to independence than other voters. As for voters aged 18-24, the belief that young people are more natural SNP voters has been challenged in recent years, and there has been volatility in the voting patterns of this age group. Younger voters are also far less likely to turn up to the polling booths, which would limit the impact of any particular political disposition they might have.

It is, perhaps, more instructive to look at arguments against giving this group the vote on independence. Few opposition politicians are against the idea per se. They are simply against introducing the change for this referendum. It would indeed be wrong to give these young people the vote on this occasion only, but if the principle is right, why not make this a historic first, with all other elections following suit?

The principle is sound. It is a tenet of democracy that there should be no taxation without representation. Sixteen-year-olds can pay tax – as well as marry and join the army – so why should they not vote? The timing of it may not be perfect, and that may have taken the shine off, but that should not stop it. We should respect young adults enough to give them a say in their nation.