THERE’S no doubt that history was made the moment Alex Salmond and David Cameron finally reached agreement and cleared the way for the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence.
In fact, the outcome of their talks is doubly historic. Not only will Scots have the chance to determine their own future: in addition, the voting franchise for the poll to be extended to 16 and 17 year olds.
As a long time campaigner for giving voting rights to young people, this is a move I warmly welcome. The contribution they can make to politics is immense, and it is wonderfully encouraging that modern democracies like Scotland are prepared to allow them to do so.
Extending the franchise is becoming increasingly common across Europe. Austria and Germany already have voting at 16, as, in part, do Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro.
The Crown dependencies of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man have extended their voting franchises to 16, and the Welsh Assembly has also declared itself in favour of making the change.
Why is this move so important? The straightforward answer is simply because it’s the right thing to do. Young people are arguably now more mature and bear more responsibility than ever before. They are expected to make sense of a complex, rapidly changing, technology-driven, multicultural world.
In Scotland, as in most other Western countries, 16-year-olds can marry, join the armed forces, pay taxes, and be prosecuted in adult courts. Yet they cannot participate directly in the democratic process. To put it bluntly, they can serve their country and pay for its upkeep, but not have a say in who runs it. This is deeply unsustainable.
Here is another example of how unfair the current system currently is. A 16-year-old can marry a politician, but is currently deemed to be too immature to take part in the process which elects them. It’s not difficult to see the silliness of that.
One accusation which is regularly made by critics of reducing the voting age is that younger people aren’t interested in politics, don’t understand the arguments, are highly malleable, or will simply vote on the basis of niche subjects of interest to them such as legalising cannabis.
This is completely untrue. As Honorary President of both Young Scots for Independence and the Federation of Student Nationalists as well as a trustee of LGBT Youth Scotland, I work with younger people all the time. I know from personal experience that they are thoughtful, responsible and take politics seriously.
They learn about modern society and the political process at school, and care passionately about things like community, fairness, quality of education and the environment.
Another good reason for extending the franchise is that we have an ageing population, with families also choosing not to have as many children. This means that Scotland’s demographic, in common with other countries, is becoming older.
Giving younger people the opportunity to have their say in the democratic process helps to restore the balance across the generations. It’s also about natural justice. As a young person, This is your country and you are its future, so it’s only right that you should have a say in how it is run.
In fact, there is strong evidence that 16 is a good age to introduce the vote as young people then tend to be living at home in a stable, settled environment and have time and opportunity to think about their futures.
By the time they are 18, they may be in their first job or working to settle in to college or university. Often they will be out in the world on their own for the first time. Listening to political debate and going out to vote isn’t necessarily a top priority at that stage in their lives.
The SNP and Scottish Government have already been accused of allowing 16 and 17 year olds to vote in the referendum because they are more likely than older age groups to vote for independence.
While it’s certainly true that they are more disposed to be sympathetic to the notion, this isn’t the reason for extending the franchise. The truth, as I have already said, is that this is happening not because it’s expedient, but because it’s right. Extending the franchise to 16 has been SNP policy for decades - indeed, Winnie Ewing first raised it during her maiden speech to the House of Commons in 1967.
I’m delighted that the debate over voting rights at the referendum has been won. However, we cannot and must not stop there. Having established the right of 16 and 17 year olds to participate in the democratic process, we can’t take it away again. I would very much hope that the 2015 Westminster election will allow an extended franchise, and I’m certain the next Scottish Parliament election in 2016 will do so.
It’s also critical that the European Parliament adopts the same approach. Last month, as a Scottish MEP, I was proud to sign a written declaration calling on EU member states to lower the voting age to 16.
I’m hoping that this will now be voted on by my MEP colleagues in the parliament before being forwarded to the European Commission, Council and member states for their agreement. With an increasing number of individual European nations seeking to extend the franchise, it only makes sense for the EU also to do so.
Here in Scotland, though, I’m delighted that it’s about to become a reality. I’m sure a yes vote can be achieved in the referendum, with 16 and 17 year olds playing a vital part in achieving that and in building the new Scotland which will follow.
With that bright future ahead of us, then we really can reflect that William Wordworth’s words have come to pass: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive - but to be young was very Heaven.”