Nicky Morgan MP, Member of Parliament for Loughborough and former Education Secretary wrote this piece for our pamphlet Civic Duty The Conservative Case for votes at 16 and 17.
On July 2nd, we marked the 90th anniversary of the 1928 Equal Franchise Act which gave women the same voting rights as men.
In the 21st century, it seems almost incomprehensible that women weren’t allowed to vote for hundreds of years. But at the time many people, including women, felt that we would be unsuited to making such decisions and that it would disturb the natural order of things for the right to vote to be shared with men. And, of course, there was a time when the right of male suffrage was very limited too.
In the same way that allowing all men and women to vote seemed a brave step forward – but is now something we wonder why it took so long to achieve – I think the time has now come to allow votes for 16– and 17–year–olds. That is why I am backing a Private Members’ Bill tabled by Labour MP, Peter Kyle.
I strongly suspect that many of the arguments we hear now are the same that were used before 1918. There is no doubt that the age of adulthood is a bit of a hotchpotch with different rules for leaving school, getting married, carrying a knife and joining the armed forces. But that reflects society’s evolving views about these issues and may change in the future.
But, to me, there is one overwhelming reason why this area has to be addressed. By accepting that 16– and 17–year–olds in Scotland could vote on their future in their 2014 referendum, the arguments for not extending the franchise further were completely undermined.
Earlier this year the Welsh Government announced its intention to allow 16– and 17–year–olds the right to vote in Welsh local elections, and voters of that age can already vote in Scottish local and Parliamentary elections. If we want to remain in a Union with each other then we need to have the same voting system.
In the context of Brexit, there is a determination from the Government not to undermine the United Kingdom. Democracy is a key British value which we teach to our pupils and we encourage them to register to vote and to take part at election time.
We cannot now have elections in different parts of the United Kingdom where 16– and 17–year–olds can vote and then other elections where they cannot.
But the most patronising argument, which I suspect has been recycled from the time of the Suffragettes, and which really doesn’t stack up, is that 16– and 17–year–olds aren’t mature enough to vote. Making such a sweeping generalisation on the basis of no evidence whatsoever should be given no air time.
There is no political knowledge test which the rest of us are required to pass before we vote. If 16– and 17–year–olds could take their responsibility seriously in the Scottish referendum then why wouldn’t they do so in Westminster Parliamentary elections and English local elections?
In the same way that the suffragettes and the suffragists needed visionary men to support their cause, our 16– and 17–year–olds now need older voters to support theirs. Fear of change is an understandable reason to do nothing – but it sends a powerful ‘not welcome’ message to those who remain excluded.
At any rate, the experience of Scotland shows that Conservatives have little to fear in supporting a fairer franchise – and much to be gained. Labour do not have a monopoly on youth – so it is time we recognised this and provided something inspiring for young people.
It is increasingly clear that votes at 16 is a question of ‘when’, not ‘if’. Given this, we can either stand like King Cnut against a welcome surge in youth engagement – or sail with it.
It is time politicians stopped wringing our hands and wondering why young people aren’t politically engaged – and instead took the most obvious step to address this: by extending the franchise to our 16– and 17–year–olds.
The Suffragette slogan of ‘Deeds not Words’ has resonance again.
Read Civic Duty - The Conservative Case for Votes at 16 and 17