When I was a young English teacher in the late 1980s at a Home Counties comprehensive school, a pupil in my Lower Sixth articulated a strongly held view during a classroom discussion. ‘I just don’t think it’s right or fair that it’s actually the people who have to pay in their taxes for things like the Army and hospitals and schools and railcards and stuff. It should be the government that pays, that does all that.’ I pointed out to her that government doesn’t actually have any money. The expressions across the various faces ranged from scepticism to bafflement. I let the silence linger and then I explained that any funds that the government held were the result of what it raised in taxation. I didn’t think it was worth complicating things by talking about former Labour Chancellor Denis Healey and the humiliation of the International Monetary Fund bailout a mere decade or so earlier. However, the penny dropped (as it were) with those 16- and 17-year-olds, and I think someone may even have muttered ‘Oh yeah’. We went back to Paradise Lost.
I often think of that teenager when the issue of reducing the voting age to 16 crops up again, as it did again in the House of Commons on November 3. That was when a Private Member’s Bill introduced by Labour’s Jim McMahon had its second reading. There were shouts of ‘shame’ across the chamber when Conservative MPs were accused of filibustering to obstruct Opposition efforts to give 16-year-olds the vote. On the contrary. What is shameful is that politicians should be seeking to exploit the unworldliness and gullibility of the young in events as important as General Elections. This, however, is the cynical and manipulative position of all the Left-leaning parties: Labour, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party.
One of their arguments is that if one is legally old enough to marry (with parental permission), join the armed forces (but not be deployed on the front line) and have sex, then it is only proper that one should have a say in what kind of government is in charge. There are, of course, other things one cannot legally do until the age of 18 (and let’s remember this is now the age up to which one has to remain in education or training). These include sue or be sued, open a bank account solely in one’s own name, serve on a jury, acquire a tattoo, buy cigarettes or buy and drink alcohol in a bar. It may be that all those Corbyn supporters who are so keen to get the voting age down to 16 believe in a one-size-fits-all definition of when one becomes an adult. That includes going to an adult prison if you commit an adult serious crime such as murder or rape. I don’t imagine any of them would be arguing for that, though.
No, what the Left craves is to capture the votes of 16-year-olds because it wants to capitalise on their ignorance and lack of life experience. It is confident enough in the covert indoctrination structure that has long been in place in schools to know that the young are easy to win over with facile notions of fairness and social justice; get hold of their minds before they’ve been able to trouble themselves with more complex matters of the kind of competent economic management that means jobs. That is to say, economic decision making on such things as fiscal and foreign policy, industrial relations, international trade, inflation. Get the hearts and minds of young people before they can start nosing about and learning the truth about Marxist policies, about command economies or finding out about former prime minister James Callaghan’s sober and unwelcome warning to grim-faced delegates at the 1976 Labour Party Conference during the IMF crisis, the speech in which he had to say that spending one’s way out of a recession was no longer an option. No, the last thing you want with youngsters is for them to have time to get their heads up from their smartphones and start reading a bit of history. Last thing you want is for them to think that spending is in any way a bad thing. Spending is fun. Makes you feel better. Even if you spend what you haven’t got. The economy? Boring.
Former PM Gordon Brown was open to the idea of lowering the voting age so long as it went alongside proper citizenship education. He knew that such lessons in the hands of Left-leaning teachers (and it’s a rare teacher who’ll let it be known in the staffroom that he or she is a Conservative voter) would be likely to deliver happy results for his party. Advocates on the Left who are enthusiastic about reducing the voting age to 16 can say all they like about tackling voter apathy and low turnout and increasing political engagement amongst the young. They are dishonest. They know full well it’s because they’re bullish about their access to youngsters through both schools and social media.
They can also say all they like about 16-year-olds being actually very well informed on current affairs and politics. But just because they claim it doesn’t make it true. Of course, there are certainly many over the age of 18 who are badly informed about politics – bigots, idiots, the mad, bad and dangerous to know – yet they still get the vote, while sane, decent, intelligent 16-year-olds do not. True enough. No system is perfect. But as the quotation often attributed to Churchill goes: ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.’ And a legal voting age has to start somewhere. Voters over 18 are at least going to have more life experience as regards earning money and paying taxes. Surely nobody is going to deny that.
The Left needs to tread with caution, though, because you don’t always get what you’re banking on. Nicola Sturgeon made sure 16-year-olds could vote in the Scottish referendum in 2014, and look what happened there. If Corbyn were to be swept to power, and then reduced the voting age, why stop at 16? Just take it lower and lower. Fourteen? Secondary school age? You could bring in a maximum voting age too. Or you could get rid of those nasty old polling stations that you sometimes have to tramp to in the wind and rain, and make voting all by social media. That’s the trick. That’s progressive. That’d see a lot of the old-timers off, all those selfish old Baby Boomers who just refuse to see the Corbyn light. You know what, though, the best thing would be just to keep running elections one after the other until the people are intelligent enough to vote correctly. Remind you of a recent Referendum result that people were too stupid to get right?