An unexpected outcome of the negotiations around the Scottish Independence Referendum is that votes for 16 year olds has suddenly popped up again. A round of huffing and puffing has commenced, with varying degrees of legitimacy.
There is justified concern that this is not really the way to go about revolutionising our constitution – who is allowed to vote should be a matter for Parliament, not something to be agreed in a bout of policy Border Reiving by Westminster and Holyrood.
The mechanism by which it is being introduced is unattractive, but the idea of votes at 16 is a good one in itself.
Deciding when an individual goes from legal childhood into fully responsible adulthood is always tricky. Any rule will inevitably be arbitrary. No matter how much Great Aunts may ask “how does it feel to be older?”, the answer is of course that someone is no more competent at voting on the day of their 18th birthday than they were the day before.
But given that arbitrary lines must be drawn for when the State recognises us as adults, we should at least try to ensure they are drawn in a consistent manner.
At the moment the qualifying ages for various kinds of legal and social rights and responsibilities are a dreadful muddle. You can leave school and go into the workplace, paying full rates of tax, at 16 – as long as you continue some kind of training. You can join the army at 16, though you can’t be sent to fight until 18. Of course, you can also legally have sex and have children from 16.
These are all signs that we think of those over 16 as adults, so why do we remain in denial when it comes to the right to vote? It is absurd that a 17-year-old serving soldier, working and paying tax, driving a car, and bringing up a child is currently told that he or she is not deemed mature or responsible enough to vote.
Opponents of lowering the voting age argue that 16- or 17-year-olds wouldn’t make informed decisions about who to vote for. In some instances, that may be the case – but it is certainly the case that there are plenty of 46- and 47-year-olds who may well not read the manifestos before voting, either. Arbitrary systems are like that, and if we removed the vote from every age group which has some wildly irresponsible members then we’d swiftly take the vote away from everyone.
Instead, let’s look to the plentiful evidence that 16- and 17-year-olds are very much capable of rational, responsible behaviour. Our society has weighed that evidence in deciding to allow them to work, pay tax, have babies and so on, but has been unaccountably stubborn on democratic rights. It is high time to equalise the voting age and iron out this anomaly.
I’ve written before about the libertarian case for intervention in Libya, which is very strong in my view. Through the no-fly zone and airstrikes against the military of this murderous dictator we have already saved thousands or tens of thousands of innocent lives.
Now our involvement is moving to a new stage, with the reported plans to deploy Apache attack helicopters to enforce a defended buffer zone around Misrata. In keeping with my earlier article on Libya, I don’t have a problem with this as long as it’s tactically justified – which it seems to be given the extant threat to Misrata and the clear evidence that the city’s residents are opposed to Gaddafi.
What must be avoided, though, is confusion around how this affects our role. There’s an old military maxim that goes “Order + counterorder = disorder”, and without clear terms of engagement our military mission could become confused. Those terms of engagement must be made particularly clear to the public, so that they are involved at each step of this road rather than left in the dark.
The main potential source of confusion I can foresee is that while the Government apparently intends to send in helicopters, which are far more vulnerable to being shot down or crashing through malfunction than the jets we’ve used up to this point, David Cameron and Barack Obama are also committing that we will never “put boots on the ground” in Libya.
I’m not sure that those two commitments are compatible. I don’t think we need an invasion, a land force, an army base in Free Libya or anything like that, but it’s easy to imagine a situation where – God forbid – one of our helicopters goes down in hostile territory. Are we really saying that in that situation we would refuse to drop an SAS force in to establish a perimeter and recover our guys, or go in to get them back from their captors in the style of the Operation Barras rescue in Sierra Leone?
I would certainly assume that we would do those things if the circumstances arose – and I’m sure everyone in the Armed Forces would assume the same, as would the British public. It would be the right thing to do, standing by our own, brave soldiers.
If it happened, there’s no way the Government could countenance just abandoning them to Gaddafi’s thugs, so they would end up having to break this promise and then try to explain retrospectively why it was never a practical one in the first place.
So why take the risk of confusion – and the political damage of having to spin or redefine what “boots on the ground” means after the fact – by making such a commitment?
There’s a typically perceptive piece out today by the BBC’s Brian Wheeler – one of the nice guys in political media – about the Barnsley by-election.
One of the background bits of colour he reports brought a smile to my face; the slightly unusual codename the Labour candidate has chosen for his campaign. It is called “Operation Honey Badger”.
The name has quite a few undertones. For a start, the Honey Badger sounds like a lovely creature but is actually notoriously vicious (find out more from the engrossing HoneyBadger.com) with a sweet name, but packing a nasty punch if you get too close.
The thing that it particularly brought to mind, though, was one of the weirdest incidents in the history of war reporting.
Considering that the Labour candidate in Barnsley, Dan Jarvis, recently left the Parachute Regiment, you may not be too surprised to learn that the Honey Badger’s most recent brush with notoriety was in relation to the British operation in Iraq.
Back in 2007, the Army was forced to go the remarkable length of publicly denying a rumour sweeping Basra “that UK troops had introduced strange man-eating, bear-like beasts into the area to sow panic”. What one Basra housewife referred to as a creature “as swift as a deer…the size of a dog but his head is like a monkey” later turned out to be – you guessed it – a Honey Badger. Presumably Mr Jarvis heard the story at the time and it’s stayed with him.
It’s an odd little tale, but whatever his other political sins Dan Jarvis certainly can’t be accused of lacking a sense of humour. Presumably he is hoping that his campaign spokesmen won’t end up having to put out a statement as weird as that the British Army released last time a Honey Badger graced the media:
UK military spokesman Major Mike Shearer said: “We can categorically state that we have not released man-eating badgers into the area.
This is Sgt Matthew Telford, of the Grenadier Guards. A soldier in the British Army since 1991, he eventually gave his life for his country in November 2009 when he was murdered along with four of his comrades by a rogue Afghan Police officer.
The fulsome praise for Sgt Telford from others who worked with him are a testament to his ability and loyalty to his country and his family.
When he and his comrades were killed, then Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth said:
“They were men of courage who died building security in Afghanistan and protecting people in the UK from terrorism. My deepest sympathies and condolences lie with their grieving families, friends, and all those who served alongside them, who will feel the pain of loss most intensely. They are in all our thoughts.”
The Government’s sympathies and thoughts may have been with Sgt Telford’s bereaved wife and sons, but that seems to be where the goodwill ended.
Under the current rules for Army pensions, his family are only entitled to a Corporal’s pension because he had served less than 12 months as a Sergeant. He stepped up to the plate to do that job when his country asked him to, but when it claimed his life his country dodged its responsibilities and downgraded him to a Corporal again.
I understand why this rule is in place – it prevents people getting a promotion then leaving the Army straight afterwards, or being given a deliberate promotion just before retirement in order to cash in. However, surely it could be waived for those who are killed on active service?
Sgt Matthew Telford gave 18 years’ service to his nation, and eventually gave everything he had in that service. Surely giving his wife and sons the pension commensurate to his rank is the very least the nation could do in return?