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Monday, 19 January 2015

Votes at 16 - soon to be reality

I am very proud that the Scottish Lib Dems have committed themselves to reducing the voting age to 16 - it is one reason of many that I am a liberal.

There are a number of reasons why extending the franchise makes perfect sense. The most obvious of these is that it seems absurd to empower 16 and 17 year olds to exercise their democratic right in a referendum on Scotland's future, but not in a General Election.

The Lib Dems, the SNP and many Labour politicians have been advocating change. It's one small step in the right direction and one we should embrace.

Secretary of State for Scotland Alistair Carmichael has confirmed today that a Section 30 order has been agreed to be put before both the House of Commons and Holyrood tomorrow, which will empower the Scottish Parliament to make a decision on reducing the voting age prior to the Holyrood elections of 2016.

Mr Carmichael said: "I'm delighted to confirm a timetable has been agreed for 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in future Scottish Parliament elections. I've always been a firm believer in votes at 16, with the sheer number of young people participating and voting in last year's referendum I believe the case has become undeniable. Today marks the next phase in our commitment to people in Scotland and the start of a landmark week for the future of our country. Later this week we will publish draft legislation ahead of Burns Night meeting our promise to bring new powers built to last for the Scottish Parliament."

This move is part of the implementation of the Smith Commission's proposals. While welcoming of the announcement, deputy first minister John Swinney said: "The publication of these proposals creates the opportunity for people and organisations across Scotland to have the opportunity to shine a light on what is being offered. Whilst Smith did not recommend all the powers I would want the parliament to have, we will use what powers are made available, as far as possible, to increase equality, to tackle poverty and to grow the economy. We will lead the debate to ensure the Scottish Parliament is equipped with the powers our people believe it should have to tackle the fundamental challenges in our country."

Scottish Lib Dem spokesperson Liam MacArthur added: “Young people carried themselves with dignity and dynamism during the referendum debate. Liberal Democrats are delighted that the UK Government is kick starting the delivery of the Smith Agreement in such a fitting way. The transfer of powers to enable 16 and 17 year olds to vote in the next Scottish Parliament elections is a positive move which delivers on the Vow and for the democratic rights of young people.

“This is the beginning of a historic week for Scotland. Some people doubted that all five parties could come together to deliver these bold new powers, or doubted that young people were ready for the responsibility of the right to vote. On both charges those doubters have been proved wrong. This is a good week for Scotland, for home rule and for the Liberal Democrats.”

The wider debate about the Smith proposals is pertinent, but it is also positive to focus on the achievements. A referendum we Liberal Democrats never wanted has helped to bring about one of our principal objectives. The lessons of that referendum, at least so far as democratic engagement are concerned, appear to have been heeded.  For all the cynicism surrounding the SNP's initial proposals to lower the voting age, it is welcome to see that such cynicism has not only largely subsided, but that the extension of democratic rights to 16 and 17 year olds is likely to become reality very soon - at least for elections to the Scottish Parliament.

Scotland can now be an example to the rest of the UK in how to "do" democracy, how to better engage electorates and how to involve more young people in political processes. This extension of democracy always was, and still is, worth fighting for. Alistair Carmichael is right: the case is "undeniable". But the strong case is as applicable to Westminster as it is to Holyrood. While on the one hand democracy has been enhanced, an anomaly has been created by which a 16 year old may not vote in a General Election but does have a say in a Scottish Parliamentary election.

When some victories are won, it doesn't matter who gets the credit. I mentioned previously that I was proud to belong to a party that has championed votes at 16. But I am equally proud to live in a Scotland that is soon to make it a reality, and therefore thanks to everyone involved are in order. So thanks to each and every person who has stood up for this.

The challenge now is to bring this overdue reform into elections for the so-called "mother of parliaments". I suspect the Tories and UKIP may prove resistant, however...and so the fight will go on. Where Scotland leads, I am sure the rest of the UK will follow...eventually.

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