Saturday, August 02, 2008

The Age Of Political Consent ?

Twenty-one today, twenty-one today,
I've got the key of the door
Never been twenty-one before
Mother says I can do as I like
So shout Hip Hip Hooray!
I'm the King of the Castle,
Twenty-one Today!
That song - and how old fashioned it seems now - was, up until 1970, when the voting age became 18, sung at 21st birthday parties, which marked the transition to adulthood. The key of the door meant the freedom to come and go as you pleased, an adult in the house. And of course it meant becoming a full member of the community, with all the rights - and all the responsibilities - entailed thereby.

The last Labour policy meeting at Warwick, in between rearranging the deckchairs on RMS Titanic (G. Brown, Capt.) has decided to "back extending the franchise to 16- and 17-year-olds" .

They're putting the cart before the horse. Instead of asking - 'what's the meaning of the age of political responsibility ? is it the same as adulthood ? does adulthood imply independence ?' they're asking 'how can we engage the young in politics' and 'how can we increase our vote ?'.

40 years ago it was much simpler. 21 was adult, full stop. The day you became entitled to vote was the day you became liable to be sent to an adult prison (although some Borstals took people up to 23), the day (pre-67) when you could be hung for murder. I'm not sure what the laws were regarding student grants - whether a 21 year old (say at medical school) with rich parents got less of a grant, but except for medics most education was over by 21, so the question of still being dependent didn't apply.

Lowering the voting age to 18 started to create anomalies - different responsibilities at different ages. Criminals under 21 had previously been dealt with as 'Young Offenders', over 21 as 'Adult offenders', but 18-20 year olds continued not to be dealt with as adults despite the lowering of the voting age, and the income of parents was taken into account when deciding on the level of maintenance grants for students.

Now we have a host of laws restricting the activities of 16 to 18 year olds - for what may or may not be considered good reasons. They can't buy cigarettes, alcohol, knives, guns, fireworks. As a child of seven or eight I bought fireworks - and like the other boys at primary school, I nagged my mother as to when I could buy my first knife (my ninth birthday, as it turned out). The 'age of responsibility' has increased for many things. (Some other things which would then have attracted a prison sentence are now legal for sixteen year olds. Just don't offer them a cigarette afterwards.)

The Government are planning to make school attendance compulsory for 16 to 18 year olds - with their parents going to jail if they don't go. See this blog for details. EMA and other allowances are based on parental income - implicitly declaring the child to be dependent on their parents.

How does this square with giving them the vote at 16 ? I'd suggest it doesn't. The liberal policy wonks seem to be engaged in a process of lowering the age of political responsibility while simultaneously raising the age of responsibility for everything else.

A consistent approach to votes at 16 would be to :

a) abolish educational conscription - how dare you force a 16 year old adult to attend school

b) adult prisons for 16 year old criminals.

c) adult sentences likewise

d) no compulsory parental contributions for education or anything else. Parental income not to be taken into account when assessing grants etc. like the 'staying at school' grant (ECA ?) . Remember, these are independent adults you're talking about. The 16 year old child of a millionaire and the 16 year old child from a council house both have zero income and should both get that £30 a week. They should also get full grants at university.

e) no more nonsense about fining parents for what their children do

f) that law about adults in authority fiddling with their 16 year old (adult !) charges needs to go. And 16 year olds will be able to buy pornography. And act in it. And buy cigarettes. And fireworks. And knives. And alcohol. And air rifles. And ammunition.

Now I think the above sounds somewhat foolish. But so are votes at 16. In fact, given the contradictions still unaddressed from 1970, I'd either raise the age to 21 again or resolve those contradictions.