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A historic moment for democracy

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Monday’s announcement of a legally binding referendum on Scottish independence wasn’t simply a historic moment for those calling for the end to the United Kingdom as we know it - it was also a historic moment for democracy in Scotland.

The powers given to the Scottish Parliament by the UK Government will most likely result in 16 and 17 year old Scots being given the opportunity to fully participate in the biggest decision the nation has ever taken. Calling on for the voting age to be lowered is something that campaigning groups such as the Scottish Youth Parliament and the British Youth Council has been arguing for many years. Indeed all the parties who have representatives at the Scottish Parliament, excluding the Conservatives, have agreed that the franchise should be lowered to 16.

The calls are intrinsically linked to the idea that with great rights come great responsibilities. When a young person turns 16 in Scotland they can leave school, get married or enter a civil partnership, get a full-time job, pay taxes, leave home, play the Lotto, consent to having sexual relationships, change their name by deed poll and join the armed forces. Yet that very same young person is deemed not to be responsible enough to cast their vote at an election. By giving these young people all these new responsibilities on their 16th birthday, it surely should go hand in hand with granting them the vote.

The same arguments that being used against lowering the voting age are the exact same as the ones that were used after 1918 Representation of the People Act which only permitted women over the age of 30 to vote. These arguments were that women would not be mature enough or have enough information as to make an informed choice at the ballot. In 2012 is would seem nonsensical to differentiate between sexes in relation to the franchise. However those same arguments of maturity and being informed are the key arguments being used to deny those 16 and 17 years olds the vote across the UK.

Young people are incredibly well informed; schools now have to teach their pupils citizenship classes where they learn how our democratic system works and how to participate. In Scotland the new Curriculum for Excellence which is being rolled out across the sector aims to ensure that young Scots are ‘active citizens’ in their communities. It is also clear that not only are young people well informed about the political process, they are engaged in the issues of the day. The Scottish Youth Parliament’s manifesto, ‘Change the Picture’ saw 42,804 young people from across Scotland take part and express their views. It is therefore clear that 16-17 year olds are more than equipped to make their own decisions and opinions on the world around them.

Aside from the issues that focus on maturity, there is a key flaw to the arguments being used by those against a change in the franchise, and that is that a true democracy does not require its citizens to pass a certain threshold in terms of political knowledge for them to receive the right to vote. There are just as many 40-year-old voters who could not name who the Foreign Secretary as there are 17-year-olds – the only difference being that one can vote and the other cannot.

Turn out in UK elections makes for very disappointing reading with the 2010 General Election only seeing 65% of the electorate cast their vote - meaning all most one third of the population did not think it was worth voting. The majority of politicians accept that there needs to be a greater emphasis put into informing and engaging the public so they will take an active role in society by casting their vote. However very few people would suggest that for those who do not wish to use their vote then they should have that right stripped away. Regardless of how many 16 and 17 year olds turn out to vote in the planned 2014 referendum they should be given the opportunity to none the less. Extending the franchise is not simply about increasing turn out, it is about giving those who are already contributing to society the right to have their opinion listened to by decision makers.

Critics of plans to lower the voting age for the 2014 vote also argue that this will result in the classroom becoming politicised with campaigners vying for pupils’ votes. However the same could be said for the work place being too politicised – people are not being canvassed at their desks by political parties during their lunch breaks.

The Scottish Government have now set a precedent that other parts of the UK should look to follow. The extending of the franchise for the referendum will give young Scots an opportunity to question and engage with the issues around independence and most importantly cast their vote.

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