Voting and young soldiers

Today, the BBC News website reports that the think tank Demos has reported in favour of lowering the UK voting to 16 (from 18). I am undecided on the issue (but erring towards opposition to a change) and am interested to hear a clinching argument either way. In amongst the arguments in the report is this passage (in the report’s defence, this is the only mention of soldiers, the BBC chose to focus on the issue):

Being able to join the armed forces at 16 is just one example of an age-differentiated right that lends support to an argument for lowering the voting age to 16. The ‘Votes at 16’ coalition states that some 4560 16 and 17 year olds were serving in the armed forces as of April 2007. Of the first 100 British soldiers to be killed in the ongoing war in Iraq, at least six were too young to have ever cast a vote in a general election.

At first, of course, this seems a striking anomaly: soldiers able to fight and die for their country but not to vote?  The implication is that they were underage when they were serving in Iraq and were killed. This conclusion is reasserted by the report’s author, who states (to the BBC) that

“They are able to take a bullet for their country before they are old enough to cast a ballot for who governs it.”

Clearly, this is unacceptable – in 2003 the Government signed a UN protocol banning the use of under-18s in a war zone (it later admitted that some had been sent ‘by mistake’ to Iraq and Afghanistan). That those in the armed forces can be recruited under the age of 18 is an interesting and potentially worrying, but separate, issue.  The fact is that Government policy and international law stipulate that those in war zones must be over 18.  All those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan were at least 18 at the time that they died. If there had been an election while they were there, they could have voted.

The fact is that there will always be people who are of age but were unable to vote in the last election: anyone born after May 1987 at the moment, i.e. anyone under 23.  Should we withdraw all soldiers from the front line if they haven’t yet had the chance to vote? There have been several men killed in Afghanistan who would not have been able to vote in 2005 even if the voting age had been 16.

Naturally, I do not wish to denigrate the service of those who have fought and died in our modern wars.  Nor, I hope, do the authors of the Demos report (which names the men) or BBC news story, but the fact is that they are making a spurious point about voting age, based on the deaths of servicemen.

The Representation of the People Act, 1918 (which extended the vote to all men over 21 and women over 30) made servicemen aged 19 or over eligible to vote while they were serving. In that case, the difference between the age of voting and the age of military service at the front was large – 18, 19 and 20-year-olds being able (or rather compelled) to serve at the front. Hence those who were serving were given the vote (I’m not sure of the situation in 1939-45. Voting age was lowered to 18 in 1969).

There are strong arguments for voting reform in the fact that thousands of under 18s are in the armed forces, and millions more are in the tax-paying work force (see the pdf 16 reasons for votes at 16). Service in the firing line is not one of them.

p.s. on the subject of the Iraq War Dead, I saw Steve McQueen’s Queen and Country at the portrait gallery yesterday and was again struck by its simplicity and power.


2 Responses to “Voting and young soldiers”

  1. JB Says:

    Reminds me of a similar discrepancy – a couple are allowed to get married at age sixteen, but unable to legally purchase alcohol to toast their union that night. They may also engage in carnal delights on their honeymoon, but are unable to legally purchase the materials required for a post-coital smoke afterwards.

    There’s a general mismatch around what you can and can’t do between the ages of 16 and 18. But resolving the issue of ‘inbetweeners’ – those who are neither adult nor child – its tricky because there is much opposition to moving the age for everything up to 18 or down to 16 in all cases.

    Perhaps the age of responsibility / privilege should be compromisingly set to 17 across the board?

  2. aforlornhope Says:

    Yeah, definitely. That was something I was about including in the post. There is so much variation in (what used to be called) the age of majority in the UK, it is weirdly inconsistent. A single age over which you are entitled to do and consume certain things and also obliged to pay taxes makes more sense to me.
    The planned increase in the age of leaving school to 17 makes that age seem sensible.

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