2014 is set to be a landmark year for Scotland with the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, The Commonwealth Games, The Ryder Cup and most notably the Scottish independence referendum. The latter is dominating the media and will undoubtedly continue do so until the ballot takes place on 18th September 2014. The referendum will be the most important vote in Scotland in the past three centuries with the outcome of the vote potentially resulting in an overhaul of the current political landscape. The SNP have announced that the vote will be extended to those aged 16 and 17 years, a decision which has created a divide with supporters stating that this would be a seminal vote for Scottish democracy and those in opposition believing that it will result in catastrophic consequences.
Those aged 16 and 17 have the potential to play a valuable role in society in the form of engaging in employment, ability to get married and join the army. Therefore it seems wholly unjust to deny them the opportunity to make democratic decisions regarding their future. The younger generation will be most affected by the potential change in the political landscape thus surely their voice should be held as paramount. In this regard, it seems discriminatory that someone of 80 has the opportunity to be part of the decision making of the future of Scotland and deny those aged 16 and 17 as the future citizens and leaders of the country.
Further, including 16 and 17 year olds in the political process would provide an increased sense of belonging and pride in the country that they live in. The frequent negative portrayal and stereotyping of the youth in the media results in young people feeling excluded from the political sphere and increases apathy and disinterest from young people. If we educate and stimulate interest in the political process from an early age it would instil in them a lifelong interest in politics. This will result in a more democratic state as turnout will increase and thus the elected body will be more representative of society at large.
The standing that 16 and 17 year olds lack the required knowledge to be effective contributors to the democratic process has been put forward by those opposing the extending of the franchise. Yes, admittedly young people have not the benefit of life experience of the older generations, this fact we cannot change. We do however have the ability to change the fact that many of our young people are reaching adulthood without even a basic knowledge of the politics of their country and the realisation of the far reaching implications that it has on their daily lives. Perhaps the recognition of this gap in our education system could pave the way for change in the form of equipping young people with the necessary knowledge to allow them to take an informed and responsible role in the democratic process. The Educational Institute of Scotland (EiS) has expressed its overwhelming support for the extending of the vote and enshrines the two key principles of the Curriculum of Excellence of effective contributors and responsible citizens. Given the appropriate education there is no reason as to why those aged 16 and 17 are not capable of making as valuable a contribution to the political process as those of more advanced years. We need to empower our young people and reassure them of their role in our society. Moreover, when an individual turns 18 are they suddenly blessed with a wealth of political knowledge? I think not. Further what is to say a 16 year old is any less political aware of someone in their 30’s or 40’s? Age does not necessarily yield superiority.
Opponents argue that the SNP have extended the vote as a political expedient for the referendum stating that young people are more likely to favour independence than the older generations. However, according to research carried out this week by the University of Edinburgh and documented by the BBC this claim has little basis. Of a total of 1,018 young people aged 14-17 years questioned on whether they supported independence, the outcome of the study saw 60.3% in opposition to independence. The reliability of such research cannot be viewed as conclusive and only the referendum will expose the true picture.
Those contesting the decision to extend the vote further aver that the timing of the election in a year when individuals will undoubtedly have an increased feeling of being patriotic. Cynics argue that if there was a true commitment to engage the young in the political process then the extension would be applicable to all elections.
Whether a ploy by the SNP or a genuine commitment to engage young people in politics, we should regard this an opportunity to encourage our young people to take an active participatory role in the decision making process and reassure them that they can be the change that they want to see in the world.