I think I can say pretty confidently that if William Hague had been a pupil at the high school I attended, his return from the Conservative Party Conference in which he’d given a star turn would have been marked by a bit of a kicking. The school wasn’t officially called ‘Hard Knocks’, but let’s just say the phrase probably originated from within those sadistic walls. What I’m hinting at in a roundabout way is that a passion for politics, let alone speaking at a bloody Party Conference that had been broadcast live on television, was not something that would have earned you popularity points amongst your peers. However, had Hague appeared on the podium inhaling the contents of a glue-bag and had then proceeded to head-butt whoever tried to remove him, he’d have been received back at school as a hero.
The last General Election that I was too young to vote at was 1983. Even if sixteen had been the minimum voting age that year, I still wouldn’t have been able to enter the polling booth because I only turned sixteen six months after Thatcher’s landslide. If I’d been eligible, it’s doubtful I would have participated because I simply wasn’t interested. For one of the few occasions of my adolescence, I suspect I shared something with my generation. I didn’t know anybody my age who was interested. Attending an all-boys high school was not the exclusive province of the wealthy back then; single sex schools outnumbered mixed ones where I grew up and being entombed in an environment in which even the most frumpy female teacher provoked lustful daydreams and obscene caricatures (guilty – ashamed to say) underlined what dominated most of our thoughts. That and football, pop music and TV. That’s all we ever really seemed to talk about, anyway.
For me, any kind of vague interest in politics came later; like many my age who were raised in t’north, the Miners’ Strike of 1984/5 served to politicise even those who had previously been wilfully ignorant. For good or ill, it mattered and it wasn’t an event that called for fence-sitting. Roundabout the same time, give or take a year or two, ‘The Boys from the Blackstuff’ aired on the BBC and that also had a huge impact. Although it’s now chiefly remembered as a damning indictment of the devastating effect Thatcherism was having on declining industrial towns, the fact remains that Alan Bleasedale wrote it during the Labour Government of Jim Callaghan. What this proves is that the decline had begun long before the Iron Lady moved in to No.10.
By the time I was actually old enough to vote for the first time, any nascent political views I had were slowly taking shape, though I wouldn’t really say I was worldly-wise enough to judge the state of play in the same way I would be able to four or five years later. I don’t think that’s necessarily unique, though. Teenagers are especially good at things that perhaps over-25s aren’t. They tend to be imbued with a belief that they’ll live forever, that they’re smarter and cleverer than anyone older than them, and that the pursuit of a good time doesn’t include watching the BBC Parliament Channel. The new ‘Baby of the House’ is 20-year-old Mhairi Black, SNP victor of Douglas Alexander, but her astonishing achievement at winning a Westminster seat so young shouldn’t detract from the fact that she’s something of an aberration for her age.
Last year’s Scottish Independence Referendum did make a bit of song and dance about the eligibility of sixteen and seventeen-year-olds in the voting process and it is claimed by many that the presence of so many spotless (and, let’s be honest, not so spotless) faces helped galvanise the event in a way that made most General Elections appear lacklustre. Turn-out was more than 84%; at the previous General Election, it had been 65%. Had 16/17 year-olds been allowed to participate at the last Election, would it have made a great difference to the result? Well, figures show older voters tend to be more conservative (with both a big and small C), whereas younger voters traditionally lean more to the left. They are also apparently more pro-Europe, which is perhaps why the House of Lords, not in thrall to a Tory majority, is expected to press for the voting age to be reduced in time for an EU Referendum.
Not that annoying exposure to Yoof in a supermarket queue or being witness to the Friday night fancy dress parade should necessarily be an accurate barometer as to how disastrous unleashing them upon the nation’s polling stations might be, but I’m not so sure it’s that good an idea. Of course, dimness is an attribute that doesn’t recognise boundaries, either those of age or social demographic; there are numerous idiots in life whose idiocy is often their only common connection. But it’s hard for anyone living in a predominantly student neighbourhood (as I do) to have much faith in the effects of higher education, let alone the thought of lowering the voting age so that all the beneficiaries of Blair’s academic reforms can have a say in who runs the country. Mind you, could they be bothered if you couldn’t do it via a text message?
Yes, I won’t deny I’m generalising; such subjects tend to lead to generalisation. I’m sure there are many highly intelligent sixteen and seventeen-year-olds out there who could make a political judgement with far more shrewd accuracy than their parents could, unencumbered as they are by old tribal party loyalties and in possession of an optimism that has yet to be crushed by the reversal of a politician’s pre-Election promise. But is naivety a desirable quality for participating in an Election? An awareness of political history can help form a judgement when it comes to which party gets your vote, and for me this is something I acquired gradually over many years. I’m glad I couldn’t vote in 1983 because I would probably have opted for the Monster Raving Loony candidate just for a laugh; teenagers occasionally do stuff just for a laugh, remember.
And, anyway, is it that great a wait from sixteen or seventeen to eighteen? I know years seem to last longer when you’re younger, but surely hanging on till you’re eighteen before you can vote means there’s more time to concern yourself with sex, drink and drugs – and even for those not invited to such parties, it means time to study the form-book and decide which, if any, party represents your own belief system. Politics, like most aspects of existence that have a habit of impinging upon one’s thoughts as autumn approaches, is serious; and there should be phases of one’s life that don’t require seriousness. For most, that means childhood and adolescence, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Enjoy it while you can, kids. Those nasty men and women from Westminster have got the rest of your lives to play with as it is.