Is it just me, or can you also see the irony between the scandal surrounding Jimmy Saville and the debate about lowering the voting age to 16? We talk about Saville’s victims as ‘children’, but then we throw away that definition when it comes to debating lowering of the voting age.
The simple question is: do we want our children to have a childhood, or do we want to sexualise, politicise and commercialise them so that by the age of 16 they are marrying, voting and working?
Saville didn’t discriminate too much between the ages of 12 to 17, and we’re disgusted by either end of that scale. Well, you can’t have it both ways. These were either children or they weren’t.
There’s a saying in legal circles: Hard cases make bad law.
A perfect illustration of this would be, you tell me you know of two 11-year-olds having sex, so that becomes the basis of lowering the age of consent to 11. Would you argue for that? I’m hoping you wouldn’t. The age of consent is set as a mark of society’s recognition of a boundary between childhood and the inevitability of adult behaviour.
But where is the consistency? In England and Wales we can get married at 16, if our parents consent. Surely requiring parents to consent is recognising that, at 16, we are not yet fully able to take responsibility for our own actions?
Only 40 years ago, I had to get the Court’s consent to get married under the age of 21 (I was 19, and my father refused permission). Would we seriously posit that in the intervening 40-odd years we have matured by five years, so that a 16 year old in 2012 is the adult equivalent of a 21 year old in 1968?
The reason we get confused is because there are too many definitions of adulthood, mostly set at different ages. In ascending order, here’s a sample.
– The age of criminal responsibility (currently 10 – and at that age you can be tried in an adult court).
– The age of consent – the definition of when we are considered able to agree to sexual activity (currently 16).
– The age at which we can drive (currently 17).
– Marriageable age, when we can marry without our parents’ consent (currently 18).
– Voting age (currently 18).
In a society where we are encouraging all children to stay at school till 18, these last two make some sort of sense. The rest, really, don’t. Driving age may seem a trivial example, but when I was 17 cars went from 0 to 60 in about five minutes. Now they accelerate in a matter of seconds. If ever there was a case for raising a legal age, it would be for getting behind the wheel of a Ford Escort.
Alex Salmond set the cat amongst the pigeons by getting agreement from David Cameron that 16 and 17 year olds could vote in the Scottish Independence referendum. That started a whole new discussion south of the border about lowering the voting age to 16 across the board.
(A separate question would be: why on earth were we these two men negotiating something so significant, as though we were two separate nation states, and they were constitutional rulers? Where the hell was Parliament in all this?).
In any event, it’s clear why Salmond would want to extend the vote. Young people are idealistic, and he cynically calculated that, while he couldn’t win the vote as things stand, another generation could swing it for him. He thought he could appeal to their idealism, their naivete, their – let’s not mince words – lack of understanding of the issues.
Well, that didn’t work out so well. Among the first time voters, there was little difference in voting patterns than across the existing electorate.
But still the argument continues. Permission has not been granted for 16-year-olds to vote in the EU referendum, but that hasn’t stopped headline-grabbers continuing to lobby for it.
Still, the standard argument in support of lowering the voting age is, if they’re old enough to marry, fight for their country and pay tax, then they’re old enough to vote. Well, just because people are old enough to marry, join the army (but not fight) and pay tax doesn’t mean they’re actually doing any of those things. Most are still at school.
Alex Salmond’s cynical move was the thin end of the wedge – it is the beginning of the end for childhood as we’ve known it. And if you want to know what the thin end of a wedge looks like, there are people out there seriously arguing for the age of consent to be lowered to 14. The constant shifting of societal boundaries leads us down some dark allies.
So here’s a controversial idea – let’s raise the entire legal definition of adulthood back up to 18 – voting, marrying, driving, the lot. And then, let’s leave it there and leave our children alone.