If, even in the quietest moments, we wondered if we might sneak independence in by the back door, well, we ken noo. One of the most contentious issues is the SNP’s proposal to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote in the referendum. A referendum apparently is no place for bairns, not even if they were born to be free. Me? I’d go even further and let all children over the age of five in Scotland have their say. This is, after all, the independence generation.
Over at a Burdz Eye View (http://burdzeyeview.wordpress.com/2012/01/14/vote-should-1617-year-olds-vote-in-independence-referendum/), I thought it might be fun to run a poll on the issue of votes at 16, little knowing just how complex it was. I challenged why the Scottish Government had not already done this for local government elections, assuming, without checking, that because everything else to do with local government elections is devolved, the franchise bit would be too.
But like so much else in the devolution settlement, it’s not that straight forward. The franchise in local government elections is expressly reserved in Schedule 5 and sections 11 and 12 of the Scotland Act 1998 state that any change impacting on the Representation of the Peoples Act requires the Secretary of State for Scotland to make an order. http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1998/46/part/I/crossheading/franchise-and-conduct-of-elections
It would appear that I am not the only befuddled craitur, for the Secretary of State for Scotland appeared not to realise that his permission was required to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote in the independence referendum. In the Scottish Parliamentary debate on Scotland’s Future, John Swinney, Cabinet Secretary for Finance, went some way to clarify the situation (http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/28862.aspx?r=6658&mode=pdf). The Scottish Government has consistently called for all powers in relation to elections in Scotland to be devolved. Indeed, the Parliament committee which scrutinised the current Calman-inspired (I use the term loosely) Scotland bill called for this, yet there has been no response from the UK Government.
But had the Scottish Government wanted to implement this longstanding party policy, it could have done so by decoupling it from its other demands around elections. There was a local government elections bill passed in 2009 which would have provided the perfect opportunity. There was even a pro votes at 16 supporter at the Scotland Office in Jim Murphy MP and given that the Liberal Democrats support the policy (but only as and when it suits them apparently), Holyrood would surely have voted the measure through.
Maybe it just didn’t occur to Ministers at the time, though it clearly did when the Health Board elections bill was being drafted, which did, incidentally secure support from other parties. Even though none of the anti-independence opponents think it’s such a good idea now. Apparently, giving the vote to 16 and 17 year olds for the referendum – a partial solution – isn’t good enough, even though it was okay for many Scottish Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs to support it during the AV referendum bill process at Westminster.
This issue has formed but one of the opening skirmishes in the battle over the independence referendum. It’s like watching two sides engaged in the Haka, each posturing, volumising, gesturing and threatening, with neither actually landing a blow or prepared to do actual damage. Entertaining the first time you watch it, but already it’s becoming a little tedious. The sooner we get into a proper debate the better. And there’s no reason why we should exclude children from that.
While allowing everyone over the age of sixteen a say in our constitutional destiny would be a very good thing, for me, it doesn’t go nearly far enough. I’d like all children in Scotland to be allowed to vote in the referendum.
Some will think such an idea is preposterous, that we could not possibly entrust something this important to the bairns. Yet, this is their future too. Children are well capable of forming an opinion on things from the age of five and enjoy being consulted. Empowering them to make decisions and take responsibility for their actions is a vital part of children’s development. Frankly, they are as capable of making an informed decision as the rest of us. And given the behaviour of the main party political protagonists in this debate in the past week, who’s to say they couldn’t conduct themselves with more decorum? It might make even make the adults behave, if they knew the weans were watching them.
The way to do it would be through schools – every child is required to be registered with a school and this would form the electoral roll. It would make a great Curriculum for Excellence project, with a range of age-appropriate resources to enable children to engage in the process and learn about the different options available and what they mean. Some of us big folk might find that pretty useful too.
They could learn about voting and how to run an election, with every school in the country taking part on referendum day, or in the week running up to it. Each pupil would be checked off on the school register, handed a ballot paper, and afforded the same rights as adults to a secret ballot. And just as happens for disabled adults, disabled children could be supported to participate too. The sealed boxes would then be rushed off to be counted as part of the wider local authority count, with a separate room set aside to ensure that we can discern how the bairns voted from the adults. That in itself would be fascinating.
It is of course unlikely to happen, if the stushie over votes at 16 is any indicator. But they should not be excluded from the process. Resources should be developed now so that children are encouraged to take part in the consultations happening shortly. And so that they can at least organise mock referendums in schools. We should know, before we go to the polls, what children think. Some of us might want to be influenced by their views in working out how we might vote. After all, it is the children born and still to come who will be living with the consequences of our historic decision in the years ahead.