JUST over a year ago, Michael Moore, the then Secretary of State for Scotland, told the BBC that 16 and 17-year-olds should not be allowed to vote in the referendum on independence.
A week is a long time in politics and a year is an epoch, but in that time the Edinburgh Agreement has been signed giving 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote for the first time ever and Moore has been sent to the backbenches to ponder his future.
Many people were incredulous that David Cameron agreed to Alex Salmond’s demand to lower the voting age. Surely, they argued, the First Minister, as a master of political strategy, had done his homework and based on acres of sound SNP research, concluded that Scotland’s youngsters would massively boost support for the Yes vote. Scotland has discovered during the past 12 months that Salmond’s reputation as a master strategist was built on sand. Again and again we have seen the First Minister’s claims and assertions undermined.
He assured us that he had taken legal advice on an independent Scotland’s position in Europe and then had to admit that he had done no such thing. A few years ago he told us that Scotland would join the Eurozone and be part of the “Arc of Prosperity” that included Ireland and Iceland. Now he wants us to keep the pound and let the Bank of England dictate monetary policy for an independent Scotland. As a fierce, long-standing critic of Nato he nevertheless persuaded last year’s SNP conference to do a U-turn on the issue, determined that this would secure a few additional Yes votes in the referendum. As a lifelong republican he has now assured us that Scotland will keep the Queen as our head of state.
What can you say to a politician who has made more twists and turns than a fairground waltzer? But despite all of these shortcomings, surely his decision to give Scotland’s youngsters a vote was a masterstroke? Surely these young “Bravehearts” would rally to the SNP’s cause? In fact, as is becoming increasingly apparent, it was one of the biggest political mistakes of his career and one that could backfire horribly, sinking the Yes campaign’s chances even further. It is quite simply another example of the First Minister following a hunch without doing any proper investigation or analysis.
Earlier this year, I hosted a visit to the European Parliament in Strasbourg from eighty 16, 17 and 18-year-olds from schools in Ayrshire. Myself, SNP MEP Ian Hudghton and Labour MEP David Martin held a debate with them and the discussion quickly focused on the impending referendum on independence. I suggested that as all of the pupils would be able to vote on 18 September next year, maybe we could have a show of hands on the issue. “Who wants Scotland to become an independent nation,” I asked. Three hands went up. There were even some whistles and cat-calls from the other pupils. “Who wants Scotland to remain part of the UK,” I enquired and a forest of hands shot up.
This was not an isolated phenomenon unique to Ayrshire school kids. It happens at every school visit I undertake and I have heard similar tales from countless political friends of all parties, including even the SNP. Salmond’s decision to extend the democratic franchise has backfired horribly. And the reason why Scotland’s young teenagers support the Better Together cause isn’t too hard to uncover. Our teenagers are all techno-savvy. They spend hours on the internet every day, trawling through social network sites and talking to friends and contacts in the EU, America, Australia and even China. Their horizons are global. Not for them the narrow borders of the nationalists. They see Scotland as a vibrant part of the UK and the UK as a dynamic part of Europe. Why on earth would anyone want to break up these tried and tested structures, they reason.
Michael Moore was wrong when he argued against extending the vote to our 16 and 17-year-olds and Alex Salmond was wrong when he thought it would help the Yes vote. Our teenagers are a lot smarter than both of these politicians think. «
Struan Stevenson is a Conservative Euro MP for Scotland