Alex Salmond’s Bannock Bairns?

The SNP wish to lower the age of franchise for Scotland's independence referendum to 16 years of age. Is it wise to ask 'wee bairns' to make the biggest decision the country has faced for a generation?

The proposal to allow 16 and 17 years-olds to vote in the Scottish independence referendum is an added tension between the Prime Minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond. The UK Parliament lowered the voting age to 18 in 1969 and the age of enfranchisement for all elections has remained a reserved power within the Scotland Act (1998). It is not clear if Scotland’s parliament has appropriate powers to lower the franchise for the forthcoming referendum.

The SNP have proven consistent supporters of ‘votes at 16’ over the past decade. But, as with much else linked to the issue of Scottish independence, Alex Salmond’s decision to place this issue on the political agenda is calculated.

Lowering the voting age would have two advantages. The first is that it would further emphasise Scottish difference from England, thus enhancing a narrative that seeks to portray the UK parliament as archaic when compared with Scotland’s ‘modern democracy’. The second advantage is more tactical and transparent. Numerous surveys of Scottish public opinion have shown that support for independence is greatest amongst 18-34 year olds. A majority of 16 and 17 year olds may well be similarly sympathetic, thus enhancing the chances of victory in the referendum.

The extent to which the SNP are committed to the democratic empowerment of Scottish young people is questionable. The previous UK government established the Youth Citizenship Commission (YCC), which we served on, to examine whether the voting age should be 16. In declining to recommend a lowering of the voting age, the YCC recommended that the UK government could consider devolving responsibility for the voting age to the devolved legislatures for sub-state national and local elections.

But the SNP-led Scottish government did not adopt our recommendation and lowering the voting age was not an SNP manifesto commitment in either the 2010 general or 2011 Scottish elections.

There is little groundswell of opinion amongst young people in the UK for lowering the voting age at present. Young Scots can vote in regional health board elections but when offered the opportunity have proven considerably less willing to do so than their ‘adult’ counterparts. SNP have also proven disingenuous in their claims that 16 and 17 years-olds should be given the vote because they are liable to such responsibilities of adulthood as joining the armed forces, consent to marry and pay tax. There is no minimum age for tax liability but the vast majority of young people in this age range do not pay tax. Moreover they need parental consent to join the army (and cannot undertake frontline duties), get married or leave home.

Indeed the YCC noted the general upward trajectory in terms of ages of responsibility in Scotland as well as the rest of the UK which raised the potential of enfranchised under-18s experiencing ‘two-tier citizenship’. Like its UK counterpart, the SNP government made no attempt to equalise the age of responsibility to rationalise citizenship rights for 16 year-olds.

The SNP appear to deem Young Scots responsible enough to vote on their country’s future, but not mature enough to buy fireworks, alcohol or even a celebratory cigar to marke the advent of independence.

There are questions also about the political literacy of young people who might be asked to vote on the future of Scotland in the Union. Scottish citizenship education is not a statutory element within the curriculum, being established as a cross-curriculum theme unlike in England, but is variable in its quality and quantity in Scottish schools. Modern Studies provides some ‘education for citizenship’ through study of geography, history, economics, and politics and international affairs to promote knowledge of current affairs and increase political literacy skills. However only one-third of Scottish pupils choose to take this subject, meaning the vast majority of young Scots receive no formal citizenship education.

It is instructive that when the SNP government have sought to reform the curriculum, it has been to develop cultural rather than political education. The introduction of Scottish Studies is currently under discussion to address what has been described as the ‘marginalisation of Scottish learning’. The professed aim is to creating a distinct strand of learning focused on Scotland and incorporating Scottish History, Scottish Literature, the Scots and Gaelic Languages, wider Scottish culture and Scottish ‘current affairs’. It is not known whether this will be a statutory within the curriculum or how it will mesh with other subjects. But it is that the prime motivation is to stimulate Scottish national consciousness rather than develop political literacy.

Yet the SNP’s support for votes at 16 presents problems for the main unionist parties. Soon after the YCC reported, the Labour government left office and the devolved voting age recommendation appeared to be quietly buried. Labour supported the lowering of the franchise for the AV referendum and many high profile Scottish MPs and MSPs have publically supported the Votes at 16 campaign. Liberal Democrats have historically supported votes at 16 and included it as a manifesto commitment in the 2010 general election. In government this support has, as with other young-centred commitments, been sidelined and Westminster MPs did not seek to lower the franchise age for the AV referendum. However Scottish MSPs have supported the inclusion of 16 and 17 year olds for health board elections, raising the potential for disagreement within the party of this issue. Opposition from either party to the SNP’s voting age proposals though could play poorly with many young Scots.

Conservative opposition to lowering the voting age has proven most durable. A recent Coalition government consultation, Positive for Youth, offered a number of proposals which were similar (but not attributed) to those of the Commission, including supporting the UK Youth Parliament, ‘youth-proofing’ national and local government policy and empowering young people to scrutinise local youth service provision. But Votes at 16 was not even mentioned and this could be an area of growing tension with the Scottish government.

Even in a referendum of seismic constitutional importance, many Scottish youngsters may not bother voting or might even vote against independence. Nonetheless, how the Scottish and UK governments handle this matter is of great importance. It is likely the UK Electoral Commission will attempt to arbitrate between Westminster and Holyrood on whether the franchise age should be temporarily lowered. However power politics between the UK and Scottish governments could see age of franchise simply become an issue to score political points concerning the forthcoming referendum.

None of the parties concerned can claim the high ground at present as they all focus mainly on older members of society who are seen to be more likely to vote. Young people remain isolated from a British political system whose party leaders continue to overlook inconsistencies in how youth citizenship is understood or articulated. Votes at 16 alone will not be a panacea to the marginalisation of young people in society. There is also a need to support dedicated citizenship education provision in schools and funding of sustainable youth representation frameworks across the UK which have direct input in local, regional and national government. Indeed lowering the voting age could actually be damaging for the development of youth citizenship in Scotland and the UK as a whole, particularly if political parties do not address the peripheral status of youth within our democracy, be it British or Scottish, or both.

About the authors

Andrew Mycock is a Reader in Politics at the University of Huddersfield. He is also co-founder of the Academy for the Study of Britishness at the same university, and co-convenor of the Politics Studies Association Britishness Specialist Group.

He is one of the founding members of the Manchester Film Cooperative. In his spare time, he is secretary of Rostherne Cricket Club and his bowling continues to improve the averages of batsmen across the north-west of England.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool.