Jane Devine: Age does not denote the ability to take responsibility for voting
AT WHAT age do we become responsible? Last week the SNP lodged their bill to reduce the voting age from 18 to 16 in the 2014 referendum on independence.
They claim that if you are responsible enough to join the army, marry and have a family you should also be able to vote on the future of the nation.
Their reasoning implies that there is some logic to the legal age restrictions placed upon certain activities in Scotland and also that age equates to responsibility. There isn’t and it doesn’t.
At the moment a person can marry at 16, have children and join the army; but has to wait until they are 17 to learn to drive; and until they are 18 before they can buy alcohol, cigarettes and vote. We are all aware of these rules, but when you look at them all together and at the restrictions they place on life, some of them seem, in this wider context, frankly ludicrous.
You are deemed responsible enough to have children, but not to drive them around; and to get married but not to drink at your own wedding. Even more bizarre is that people are only deemed responsible enough to buy cigarettes two years after they are legally responsible enough to choose a career in our armed forces.
These rules create contradiction, but the picture becomes even more skewed when we take into account the age at which people are judged to be criminally responsible. In Scotland it is at just 12 years old. As a society are we really saying that you can be responsible enough at 12 to know right from wrong in life, but you have to be six years older (or in the case of the referendum, four) to judge it in politics?
There is no doubt that people reach maturity, and therefore the ability to handle responsibility, at varying ages, with the differences being more exaggerated the younger the person is. Maturation can depend on gender, placement within a family and simply the way someone is brought up. Everyone is different.
The law, however, cannot be individualised: it has to set thresholds based on objective elements, such as age. There is also no doubt that there are some things that people can be too young to take responsibility for, no matter how grown-up they are.
It seems though, that we haven’t quite got the hierarchy right. The consequences of committing a crime can be life-changing for both the perpetrator and the victim; whereas making the wrong choice at an election is a matter of personal judgment and perhaps conscience. We wouldn’t countenance allowing people to vote at age 12, yet we think them solely capable of making potentially life-changing judgments and taking full responsibility for them.
Perhaps, to make sense of it all, we should look at it in a different way and not ask “at what age do we become responsible” but instead ask “what has age got to do with responsibility?”
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