Miles Briggs MSP, Member of the Scottish Parliament for Lothian wrote this piece for our pamphlet Civic Duty The Conservative Case for votes at 16 and 17.
Arguments for and against votes at 16 are often highly subjective. For some time there has been a suspicion that 16– and 17–year–olds are too young to be trusted to vote sensibly – or indeed that they are not interested in securing the vote.
Thankfully, there is no longer an absence of information and experience with which to move this important debate forward.
In Scotland, we are proud to say we were the first nation in the Union to extend the vote to 16– and 17–year–olds. They were first given the opportunity to express their democratic will in 2014 during the independence referendum.
Far from being apathetic, they seized the chance. A survey for the Electoral Commission found 75% of 16–and 17–year–olds had voted in that referendum. Thousands of young people, supposedly uninterested in politics, attending the polling station alongside their parents and grandparents – despite having no experience of having ever done so before.
But it was the experience of how they participated in the debates which surrounded the referendum itself which inspired many Conservatives in Scotland to the cause.
This was not 16– and 17–year–olds being dragged along or told how to vote by their elders. This was 16– and 17–year–olds making up their own minds, contributing to the discussion both inside and outside of their schools, making decisions about what they wanted from their futures.
I have not met anyone who was out there campaigning, who was not impressed by their contribution, their intelligence and their diligence.
Since then this age group has been entitled to vote in both local and Scottish Parliament elections, and has done so.
This has not somehow detracted from Scotland’s traditions – it has bolstered them. I believe this to be one of the most politically engaged generations we have seen: people who are also deeply affected by political decisions are actively contributing to our democratic process.
Looking now at the United Kingdom as a whole, we have been left with a democratic anomaly. 16– and 17–year–olds in Scotland can vote in local and Scottish Parliament elections, but not in General Elections.
Meanwhile, their counterparts in England, Wales and Northern Ireland remain entirely disenfranchised, frustrated that they do not have the same rights.
This anomaly must be set right.
The positive option is to continue with the progress which has already been made by advancing it across the United Kingdom.
In Wales, there are positive signs. A consultation is ongoing which could result in 16– and 17–year–olds being given a vote in Assembly elections. The Welsh Government also want to extend the voting age for council elections from 2022.
It is in Westminster, and often among my own party, where opposition remains. So let me outline to my political friends why I believe we should as a party lead this positive change to give 16– and 17–year–olds the right to vote.
Many of my Scottish colleagues, having seen the positive experience here, are now firmly of the belief that an extended franchise would not only be a forward–looking step for our party, but would strengthen the bond between our young people and our Union.
Because there is a lot to be gained – both for the Conservative Party and our country – in embracing this shift. Whatever the case, the wheels have been set in motion and the brakes will only hold for so long.
There is an opportunity right now to position the party alongside this group, to earn their trust and support. But this chance could soon disappear.
I am proud that the Scottish Conservatives voted for extending the franchise to all Scottish elections – we have built on recent tradition and have been rewarded for it at the ballot box.
This is now the time for the Conservative Party at a UK–wide level to take this beyond Scotland – ensuring 16– and 17–year–olds are empowered to take control of their lives and help shape the institutions by which they are affected.
Our young people are our future – let’s hear their voice.
Read Civic Duty - The Conservative Case for Votes at 16 and 17