Alistair Carmichael moves order giving power for votes at 16 to Holyrood

I can’t imagine Alistair Carmichael will have been much prouder in his political life than he was that night when he stood at the Despatch Box in the House of Commons and gave the Scottish Parliament the power to do something that he’s wanted to see for many years – give the vote to 16 and 17 year olds.

He said:

On 18 September last year, the people of Scotland, including tens of thousands of 16 and 17-year-olds, voted in the Scottish independence referendum, and made the historic decision to remain a part of the United Kingdom. The participation of our young people in the vote was truly historic and inspirational to witness. We saw the young people who took part in the referendum in great numbers listen to the arguments, frequently ask the toughest questions, and make up their own minds in a mature and reasoned way. They showed that they were more than capable of being a part of Scottish democracy when they helped their country take the biggest decision we have faced for centuries.

Evidence suggests that, having listened to the arguments and participated in the debate, 16 and 17-year-olds voted in the same way as the population of Scotland as a whole—to maintain Scotland’s position in our family of nations. This is, of course, welcome in itself, but it also puts paid to the notion that those who are old enough to marry and have children are not old enough to weigh up the issues and decide how to cast a vote. It demonstrated the desire to be involved in an event that would shape the future of the country, and it demonstrated to us all that when people understand the issue before them, hear the arguments and know the facts, they want to use their democratic right to make a difference.

The point was well made in the debate that it was hardly fair that the 16 and 17 year olds who cast their vote in the referendum would not be able to choose their Westminster government. What Alistair said with regard to that point was intriguing:

We may indeed have that vote in time—who knows what business will come before the House, or by what route? However, to all intents and purposes it will not be practically possible to extend the franchise for the UK general election before May, so I think that the House would do better to devote its attention to scrutinising the order before us tonight, whatever sympathy I might have for the proposition that the hon. Gentleman is seeking to advance.

Might there indeed be a vote on this before Parliament is dissolved – which is now only a matter of a few weeks away.

Bob Smith also added his voice in support:

I wish to reinforce the experience of having 16-year-olds involved in the political system. The referendum did that in a practical sense, but for years many Members of the House have been going into schools and recognising that 16-year-olds have an informed and enthused approach to the political system and engagement with politicians. An important aspect of engaging people at 16 is that they are in a stable environment such as school or college, and many are still in a home environment. There is therefore a chance of getting them registered and involved in the electoral system before they get into the flux and change of life that goes with the upheaval of moving on from school and towards the rest of their lives. If we can engage people at 16, they are more likely to stay engaged with the voting system throughout their lives.

Many of us criticise short-termism in electoral decision making, but 16-year-olds clearly have the most long-term future in decisions that are made about this country and what is happening. If we can engage with them and get them to think about the future and build on that, we can perhaps take a longer term approach to our voting system. I welcome the order and I hope that the House will see it come to fruition, honouring the Smith commission and delivering votes for 16 to 18-year-olds in Scotland.

The SNP’s Angus Robertson got a bit snarky. Everyone talked about how this needed to be done for Westminster elections too, but the agreement was just too much for him.  Alistair dealt with him fairly deftly.

There has been a remarkable consensus in the House this evening, despite all the efforts of the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson), who did his best to challenge that consensus by violently agreeing with everything that was said by everyone else. It takes a particular skill to sow division by agreeing with everyone else, and that is just one of the reasons for which I have always regarded the hon. Gentleman as very special.

He ended on a poignant note, though:

One of the more positive memories that I will take from that campaign is of a packed meeting in Kirkwall town hall, which was addressed by me, by my noble Friend Baroness Williams of Crosby, and by a 15-year-old Orcadian school pupil, Jack Norquoy, who was not even old enough to vote in the referendum. It was both humbling and inspirational to observe that level of engagement and participation. It is, indeed, that level of engagement and participation that has brought us to this point, and it is for that reason that I am immensely proud to invite the House to agree to the order.

This is a good moment that should make us all proud. It’s down to the efforts of Mike Moore and Nicola Sturgeon that our parties’ long cherished policy was implanted for the referendum and it’s great to see it permanently devolved to Scotland.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • stuart moran 3rd Feb '15 - 9:18pm

    Is this going to be in the manifesto for the Westminster election?

    I believe Labour want it, and if you guys do as well, with the SNP and probably some others it would stand a chance of becoming law for 2020

  • If only this could be introduced for Westminster. It might help compensate for some of the hundreds of thousands of young adults who have vanished from the electoral roll thanks to individual registration – most of them students, much to the Lib Dems’ distress no doubt.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 3rd Feb '15 - 10:27pm

    It’s been in our manifesto for several elections, I think. Labour have now made it a firm commitment, the SNP is on board so I’d hope there was a good chance.

  • I must admit I was against lowering the voting age until fairly recently, but the coverage of the Scottish referendum changed my mind. It made a refreshing change watching young people getting involved and presenting their ideas, they may be a little idealistic at times, but I don’t think that’s always a bad thing. I’m not sure whether you could keep the minimum 17/18 age restriction on things like smoking, drinking, x-rated films, marriage without parents permission, driving etc. The case will surely be made that if you are old enough to vote you should be able to decide for yourself. However, there are one or two things I would like the 18 age restriction to remain. I certainly wouldn’t like to see 16 year old soldiers on the front line and I’m sure there are a few others, but overall I’d be happy to see the voting age lowered to 16.

  • Teenagers often have poor decision-making skills when it comes to spur-of-the-moment decisions, whether in a crisis or just some silly dare. One wouldn’t want a teenager making life-and-death decisions, or being behind the controls of anything whose mishandling could cause serious damage.

    However, given time and leisure to think about issues and ponder evidence, I see no reason to believe that teenagers would make worse or more irrational decisions than anyone else, or would be more likely to be swayed by emotions than the average voter. Votes are presumably cast with some care and deliberation, not out of a casual whim. And even if teenagers were notably prone to political folly, one could say that of so many adults that the additional folly would be unlikely to make much difference.

    I will add that if young people start voting at about the time they begin to be interested in politics, they will probably keep it up as a habit, and increased public participation can only be good, both for the public and for the legitimacy of governments.

  • It’s so unfair! 16 year old’s will get to vote in 2015 (for example) but the first time a 14 year old will be able to vote is in 2020 when they will be 19 – we (ie. LibDems) MUST do something to end this injustice!!! 🙂

    I find it interesting that some are wishing to lower the voting age when the general direction of travel has been to steadily increase the age at which a person leaves full-time education and becomes a fully fledged adult member of society.

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