18 September 2017
Youth needs to have some life experience before it is ready to elect politicians
William Hague addressing the Conservative Party conference when he was just 16
When I was 16 I believed that shoplifting in big stores was all right because there were no losers, that the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre was wise, that classical music was tuneless, and that if only I had the right makeover, John Kerr, my main crush since I’d seen him in South Pacific, might marry me.
Politics? I knew little and cared less, but I wore two badges — AA (Anti-Apartheid) and CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) — because that was what cool people did.
By 18 I knew stealing was wrong, had dismissed Sartre as a pretentious Marxist bore, had begun to love Beethoven, had grasped that I’d never be a looker and — having fallen in love with someone I actually knew — had forgotten about Kerr.
I had hated racism since I first knew of its existence, but now I could explain rationally why I thought apartheid was immoral.
However, having listened to the arguments of well-informed people, I had concluded that unilateral disarmament was a crazy idea in a world that was threatened by a rapacious Soviet Union.
I don’t know if I would have voted sensibly at 18, but I’m absolutely certain that at 16 I would have opted for anyone with a good line in idealistic drivel.
I’ve known many teenagers well since then — and brought one up — and while there are of course always exceptions, I’ve rarely met a 16-year-old who had enough life experience to make sensible political decisions.
Which is why last week I was in a bit of a punch-up on BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback with Koulla Yiasouma, the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People.
Since she is passionately in favour of giving the vote to 16-year-olds, the discussion was inevitably rather confrontational.
I couldn’t help thinking that her incredulous reaction to my views was a bit over the top.
I was suggesting that most of that age group were politically ignorant, and anyway their judgment was clouded by raging hormones, but I wasn’t proposing mass executions.
The arguments were familiar.
The presenter, William Crawley, produced a most impressive and articulate teenager who organises hustings, and also pointed out that William Hague was addressing the Conservative Party conference at 16, but I can’t see how prodigies affect the general argument.
Koulla suggested that since menopausal women were hormonal, I presumably wanted them banned from voting.
Er, no. Most menopausal women know what’s going on in their bodies and how to ameliorate the symptoms: most teenagers are at the mercy of their wildly fluctuating moods.
Like some of the callers, she felt that since at 16 you’re allowed to join the Army and marry, so why not the vote?
That entering the armed forces or marriage both require parental consent rather weakens that justification.
Teenagers are better informed these days, she said, because at school they’re educated about civics.
Look, teachers, like university lecturers, tend to be on the Left.
They also, not surprisingly, believe that no government spends enough on education, so on the whole are more likely to be talking to their pupils about the importance of having better-equipped schools and abolishing tuition fees than about the need to balance the budget while also strengthening the defence forces. She also suggested that social media makes children better informed.
Mostly they communicate only with the like-minded.
Then there’s the Brexit argument.
As a Brexiteer myself, I find the allegation that children should have been allowed to vote because it was their future that was being decided upon is usually couched very offensively.
Every teenager I’ve heard talking about the evils of Brexit seem to think it’s all about easy travel and haven’t a clue about what goes on in the minds of imperialists like Jean-Claude Juncker.
People voted for what they thought were the best interests of the country and parents gave a lot of thought to their children.
What I didn’t get a chance to say was that these days I would expect a political leader who said that gay marriage and transgender rights were the most important issues of the day to be swept to the top of a poll of schoolchildren.
I wish I knew what Koulla would have thought about that.
Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic, was published by Oneworld Publications on March 22.
The paperback of Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic will be published on April 23.
Ruth Dudley Edwards