The following is republished with the kind permission of Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson. It is one part of Giving 16 and 17 Year Olds the Vote – The Tory Case, a publication from the Tory Reform Group.
The Scottish Independence referendum on 18th September was unprecedented for many reasons. The decision, for the first time in British history, to give 16 and 17 year olds the vote was just one of them.
The extension of the franchise followed negotiations between the UK and Scottish Governments prior to the vote, at the insistence of the former SNP leader Alex Salmond. Salmond believed at the time that adding this extra 3% onto the electorate – or 125,000 voters – would help his cause. Some polls showed that support for independence was running highest among the younger generation (by as much as 8%, according to one survey). Thus, he ran a concerted campaign to give them a vote. The UK Government agreed to let him have his way.
The political motives for the decision may have been questionable but the democratic effect turned out to be entirely positive. As the campaign wore on, schools, colleges and universities across Scotland took the opportunity to engage with students about the referendum. Countless school debates and hustings were organised, and numerous mock referenda were staged. The level of interest was immense. Towards the end of the campaign, the BBC staged a live TV debate in the 13,000 seat Glasgow Hydro arena, inviting 16 and 17 year olds from every secondary school in Scotland. Despite widespread scepticism about whether the broadcasters could meet their ambition, the students filled the auditorium to the brim, providing a remarkable example of their level of interest and engagement.
The statistics backed that up. By polling day, the Electoral Commission declared that 121,497 16 and 17 year olds had taken the effort to register their intention to vote. It amounted to more than 90% of the total age group. Polling stations across the country witnessed school pupils in their uniforms eagerly taking up the opportunity to cast their ballot. By then, no-one was arguing that extending the franchise had been a mistake.
In the weeks following the referendum, the debate has inevitably shifted onto whether the franchise should now be extended to all other elections. 4 Those in favour of the status quo argue that while the referendum offered a clear, unambiguous choice, parliamentary elections present a more muddied, multi-layered decision which require a more mature electorate.
But having watched and debated in front of 16 and 17 year olds throughout the referendum, I have found myself unable to agree. My position has changed. We deem 16 year olds adult enough to join the army, to have sex, get married, leave home and work full-time. The evidence of the referendum suggests that, clearly, they are old enough to vote too.
There is a final irony in the referendum example. The Nationalists had only pushed the case for extending the franchise because they believed it would boost their vote. But there was evidence that, once they engaged with the facts, a majority of 16 and 17 year olds decided – just like everyone else – to say No Thanks. In a mock referendum of more than 10,000 16 and 17 year olds in Aberdeenshire, more than three-quarters voted No. Similar votes at the Universities of Glasgow, Dundee, Strathclyde and Edinburgh all followed suit. Surveys before the vote showed that 16-17 year olds had the exact same concerns as everyone else, the economy prime among them.
Far from being dazzled by the Nationalist banner, it appears 16 and 17 year olds considered the facts just as rationally – if not more so – as everyone else. If that doesn’t prove they are worthy of the vote, I don’t know what does.
Ruth Davidson MSP