Since my younger daughter, who is just 16, started A-level politics this autumn, every evening meal has been dominated by a spirited discussion on subjects as various as responsible capitalism (do I really believe in such a foolish, contradictory thing?) to the merits, or otherwise, of an unwritten constitution.
Unsurprising, then, that yesterday morning, over breakfast, we were intently discussing the issue of lowering the voting age, following the decision to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. As Vernon Bogdanor, the constitutional expert, said on the Today programme this week, it may be an unsatisfying, rather ad hoc way to bring about such a major change, but it makes the introduction of votes to 16- and 17-year-olds throughout the UK far more likely.
Now that this possibility is here, I am surprised at my uncertainty on the issue. My 87-year-young father has been proselytising votes at 16 for years, on the sound enough grounds that if you’re old enough to marry, join the armed forces or pay taxes, then why can you not exercise the basic right of a citizen? And the new, worrying burden of tuition fees, taken on by so many teens, including my elder daughter, adds force to this argument.
But I am, in some ways, more interested in the cultural shift that a lowered voting age might encourage. In his recent book on education, Andrew Adonis, the former New Labour minister, makes a powerful case for extending the rights of 16-year-olds to vote on the grounds that it encourages intellectual maturity, debate and leadership skills. He also suggests that instead of schools being closed, as so many are, on election Thursday, when adults go about their important box-ticking business, and teenagers skulk in the park or pub, sixth-formers should hold their own elections. Given the worrying slump in voting among those aged 18 to 24, it makes sense to encourage civic habits as early as possible, while teenagers remain at school or college up to 18, which all will do from next year.
As for the common view that teenagers are too immature to vote, it is helpful to recall the appalling array of arguments put forward against women having the franchise – from their smaller brains to limited life experience – in the late 19th and early 20th century. And anyway, who can truly claim political infantilism is the preserve of the young, listening to so many of the ignorant views flaunted on prime-time radio and TV?
But to vote or not to vote raises bigger questions about how we see the young adults in our midst. It is dangerously unclear, for instance, where the lines separating childhood innocence, burgeoning sexual interest and full-blown erotic maturity lie – or should lie. On the one hand, our rapacious culture sexualises girls from a very young age – with eroticised clothing and slogans available for them when they are barely out of nursery. On the other hand, we appear surprised, and often condemnatory, of thoughtful, mature teens, if still under the age of 16, who seek a sexual relationship.
If we, the adults, are unclear of the boundaries, how can younger women – or men – be expected to work it all out? And it’s not just around sexuality that we tend to hold confused pictures of our children and their capabilities. The vast majority of perfectly sane, if permanently exhausted, middle-aged parents still cook a daily meal or two for their glowingly energetic, long-limbed 16- or 17-year-olds, or put on the laundry for twentysomething offspring: usually, sons.
There seems an unspoken assumption that as long as a child remains under their parents’ roof, certainly before they leave for university, their financial and domestic responsibilities are virtually nil. This allows teenagers sufficient free time and disposable income to make them, according to a survey released this week, among the happiest of UK citizens.
Actually, I don’t begrudge our teens their extended in-house freedoms. I still remember my 1970s adolescence, with its limited domestic responsibilities and long periods of idling time, as particularly happy and productive. And if among those idling times there was some covert enjoyment of sex or drink or rock’n’roll: well, what better way is there to begin to explore one’s own potential for hedonism or, indeed, an early preference for abstention?
I would much rather that than have our children return to the brutish Victorian times in which someone like Charles Dickens grew up: having to fend for, and worry about, his family before he was even a teenager. But true independence is surely a question of context, not chronology. As long as our current teens remain as protected as they are, then the rights of citizenship will inevitably seem rather abstract.
“No taxation without representation” has long been a powerful battle cry of those seeking freedom from a repressive state. “No representation without taxation” is the current, mean-spirited cry of some on the political right, pointing to their poorer fellow citizens who have the nerve to claim the right to vote while paying lower or even no taxes.
Then again, while the busy, middle-aged mother’s cry of “no representation without a bit more washing-up” has not a shred of nobility or high-mindedness, the next time my articulate 16-year-old claims her full citizenship rights, I could ask her to cook the evening meal or contribute to the cost of a takeaway. And then, only then, could we talk politics.
A new edition of Melissa Benn’s ‘School Wars: The Battle for Britain’s Education’ will be published next month by Verso. Her next book, ‘What Should We Tell Our Daughters?’, will be published in 2013