The dawning of a new age in politics

26th September 2014 at 01:00

The Scottish government faced widespread scorn when it floated the idea of letting 16-year-olds vote in the independence referendum. Back in 2011, the notion was decried by some as a ruse by the Scottish National Party to mine extra Yes votes from an easily manipulated sector of society. In the wake of last week's vote, however, momentum has been growing to extend the franchise across all UK and Scottish elections, amid near-universal praise for the way the campaign roused a supposedly apathetic generation.

One remaining task on Alex Salmond's to-do list as first minister is to get the voting age lowered for all elections - an issue that featured prominently in his first post-referendum speech at Holyrood. Westminster Labour leader Ed Miliband revealed his support for such a move last September and Conservative opposition now appears to be softening, too.

The reluctance of most local authorities to let schools hold debates in the weeks before the referendum was disappointing ("Schools grow wary of debate as vote looms", 29 August). One of the few that did, East Lothian's Musselburgh Grammar, showed the impact of lowering the voting age. More than 200 pupils turned up voluntarily to quiz four MSPs. Afterwards, I chatted to students whose grasp of macroeconomics and constitutional chicanery would put many of their elders to shame.

This week, we hear that modern studies teachers have never seen pupils so excited about politics (see pages 8-10). Teenagers headed to polling stations in large groups on 18 September, relishing a rite of passage rather than performing a mundane democratic duty.

Despite opposition parties' misgivings, early polls suggested that under-18s were wary of independence. By the time of the vote, however, they appeared to be heavily in favour. These young people do not share the tribal loyalties of many older voters. They listen to arguments and their views are more fluid.

Rarely has Respect MP and former Labour firebrand George Galloway appeared so rattled as during a televised referendum debate attended by some 8,000 pupils. Mr Galloway, usually a master of robust rhetoric, seemed cowed by the young audience's political surefootedness and cussed attempts to find facts beyond his bluster. On social media, teenage disdain went viral.

These new voters are a potent, sceptical and unpredictable force. Some teachers suggested to us this week that their pupils were featuring prominently in the surge of new members among pro-Yes political parties. Such parties cannot rely on young people's blind allegiance, however: they will have to make a fresh, compelling case in each new campaign.

Too many teachers were shackled by their employers' timidity when it came to discussing the referendum, but their pupils' new-found passion for politics is here to stay. Next time it should not be batted away - it should fuel classroom learning right across Scotland.

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