Bill Jamieson: Give the old and wise more votes

People who have greater experience of life should have more of a say in choosing who governs the country, writes Bill Jamieson
Democracy runs on the basis that all voters are equal but is that really the case? Picture: John DevlinDemocracy runs on the basis that all voters are equal but is that really the case? Picture: John Devlin
Democracy runs on the basis that all voters are equal but is that really the case? Picture: John Devlin

Vote early and vote often goes the saying. Early voting may struggle to win a high turn-out. But voting often is surely an idea whose time has come.

For too long, democratic government has laboured under a profound flaw: that all voters are equal in comprehension, wisdom and ability and that each person should have an equal, single vote.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

This principle of one person one vote has now been extended to include 16 and 17-year-olds in the Scottish and local government elections in May. Following the extension of the suffrage in the independence referendum, widely hailed as a success, the bill to authorise this extension to future Scottish elections was passed unanimously at ­Holyrood.

Who dares to dissent publicly from the loud opinion of the crowd? But I feel compelled to do so, and I cannot believe I am alone. What now lies in store for us with Scotland’s “new politics” in May other than angry, disputatious noise - more raucous campaign rallies, more heckling youngsters, more audience hooting and yelling in TV studio debates and an onslaught of social media venom and bile?

All this goes – laughably - by the name of “voter engagement”. But as a succession of misleading polls has exposed, what is presented to us as public politics today is not at all the same as the true state of broader voter opinion and behaviour. It is the product of obsessive attention to activism while, as the pollsters themselves admitted, older people were poorly represented in their surveys.

I have a radical solution to this. It is the introduction of multiple voting. Under this, those whose experience, wisdom and material contribution to life as we know it is currently under-represented could stand to gain up to seven votes.

Let’s welcome the fact that 16-year-olds can vote. It encourages interest in politics and public affairs at an age when such engagement can make a positive contribution to the process of education.

For the purposes of this welcome we need to be stoic in the face of this week’s OECD report that found many aged 16 to 19 have only a basic grasp of English and maths and that around one in five university students struggles with anything harder than basic reading. This means they can do little more, the report finds, than “read the instructions on a bottle of aspirin or understand a petrol gauge”.

As this survey pertained to England we can console ourselves that in Scotland it’s different. But only up to a point. Last year brought worrying assessments of literary and numeracy standards in our secondary schools.

However, even setting these concerns aside, we should not fool ourselves that 16-year-olds have the wisdom and experience of a 45-year-old, still less a 65-year-old. The passing of every year adds to our education and understanding of how the world really works. That is why advocacy of equal voting power for all regardless of age is one of the greatest follies of our time.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

So, to correct this gross oversight, I would advocate an extra vote for every multiple of the age of 16 – that is, an extra vote on reaching 32, another extra vote at the age of 45, and a further additional vote on reaching 64. What a fair reward this would be for the accumulation of experience and learning, a recognition of the wisdom that time bestows and a wholly overdue corrective to the ageist bias of modern polling.

Some might argue the case for the return of the University Vote - up until 1950 people affiliated with a university were allowed a vote in both a university constituency and their home constituency.

But today too many students are leaving university deeply marinated in the doctrines of Marx and their many variants to have a grasp of the real world. In my own case I left university knowing more about Gramsci than Schumpeter. I carried round the tomes of Herbert Marcuse, the pre-eminent theorist of the New Left and the student movements of Europe who became the must-read guru of the age. No tutorial was complete without earnest readings from One Dimensional Man and his essay on Repressive Tolerance. Did these works survive the fashion of the time? Frankly, a Lothian Buses timetable would have had a longer shelf life.

There is, however, a compelling case for the award of an additional vote for higher rate taxpayers. As many in Scotland pay no tax at all, but enjoy a vote, it is hardly surprising that there is an undue bias in the system and that the burden of tax has inexorably risen. Indeed, many support even higher taxes on those who have worked hard to earn more.

If only to redress this imbalance it is surely fair that those who bear the greater burden of tax should have an additional vote to reflect the greater contribution they will be making to the Scottish Exchequer.

There is a further additional vote I would recommend. For those who own property and have carried the burden of a mortgage, property insurance, responsibility for home maintenance and repairs and additional council tax for improvements that they have made - all this without troubling anyone else with their housing and shelter needs - an additional vote would be a well-deserved recompense.

Private home ownership greatly relieves the burden of the state in the provision of shelter and an additional vote would enable the government to continue to make social housing provision without any diminution in the financial contribution from those who have made no call on it.

This would take the maximum multiple votes to six. Some may say this would stymie reform and slow the pace of change. But better, surely, an electoral constitution that works to curb our excesses; that gives pause before embarking on grandiose and costly government endeavours and which sensitises us to the dangers of the unanticipated and unforeseen – ruinous in effect and hugely expensive to put right - assuming that we ever can put them right.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Finally, it may be argued that such a system would give undue weighting to the “conservative old”. But many reach their later years with their radicalism intact. Trotsky was still urging world revolution at 61 before Stalin’s ice axe rudely interrupted him. Marcuse was still rattling his repressive tolerance chains at 81. And look at Jeremy Corbyn – at 66 the Leftiest Labour leader for generations.

There is one final additional vote with which I am sure few would quibble. Those who have survived to the age of 80 should be rewarded for their many years of taxed work and the blizzard of additional charges, fees, levies and penalties over a lifetime that governments have imposed. Let’s call it the Citizens Endurance Vote.

It would be a wholly fitting and hugely popular tribute to those who have made it through all the depredations of modern “democratic” life. Who could possibly resist this fairer electoral system – The Multiple Vote Seven Up?