Sixteen year-olds are going to be allowed to vote in the referendum on Scottish independence in an attempt to maximise nationalist support for the break-up of Britain, the Scottish Government confirmed last night.
The current age limit for voting in elections is 18, and it is controlled by Westminster. But the proposed referendum on Scottish independence is being organised by the Scottish Executive and it can set the rules for every part of it, including the franchise.
Alex Salmond has made it clear that he intends to use his majority in the Scottish Parliament to drive through a new, lower voting age for the referendum because he knows that younger Scots are generally more nationalistic than their older counterparts.
The plan to extend the franchise to potentially another 125,000 voters – adding 3 per cent to the Scottish electorate – is just one of a number of schemes the SNP leadership is working on to maximise their chances in the referendum. Other moves include the decision to appoint a senior civil servant in the Scottish Government to focus on the push for independence and demands for new powers from Westminster.
Critics have complained that the SNP's record on domestic issues has been marked by a lack of ambition but this approach just appears to be part of the Nationalist strategy of doing nothing potentially divisive ahead of the independence poll. Mr Salmond wants to go into the referendum having cultivated a reputation for sensible, uncontroversial management of the economy. So far at least, that strategy appears to have been successful with polls showing a rise in support for independence – a trend Mr Salmond is sure to highlight when his party gathers for its annual conference in Inverness later this month.
A year ago, independence was supported by about 30 per cent of the population. According to the most recent polls, independence now commands the support of between 35 per cent and 39 per cent of the population, while support for the Union is down to 39 or 38 per cent. Mr Salmond is confident that small gap can be closed by the time the referendum is held – probably in late 2014 or early 2015.
A recent TNS poll actually put independence ahead by just 1 percentage point, by 39 per cent to 38 per cent. Crucially, though, it showed support for independence running at 40 per cent among 18-24 year-olds, with just 32 per cent in favour of the Union. Mr Salmond's spokesman said: "All sections of Scottish society will come together to choose Scotland's future and independence in the referendum, and it is only right that young folk – who can legally marry and join the armed forces – should have their say."
A senior UK government source confirmed Westminster could do nothing to stop the SNP lowering the franchise. He said: "If the Scottish Government brings forward legislation to hold a referendum on independence then it would be for the Scottish Government to decide on the franchise."
* If 16- and 17-year-olds are allowed to participate in the referendum on Scottish independence, they will be among the youngest voters in the world. Three British dependencies – Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man – reduced their voting ages to 16 between 2006 and 2008, and 16-year-olds can also go to the polls in a handful of states including Austria, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua. A few more countries, including Indonesia, North Korea and Sudan, allow voting at 17. However, 18 remains by far the most common voting age. Young people in Malaysia, Lebanon, Oman, Singapore and Saudi Arabia are among those who wait longest for the franchise, which comes at 21.