The Liberal Democrats' support for votes at 16 is remarkably similar to their legendary "100 years of support for Home Rule" - they're terribly passionate about it in principle, but are rather disturbed, and frankly not a little offended, by the suggestions that this should extend to doing anything at all about it in practice. In particular, the notion that Liberal Democrat government ministers should actually be implementing the party's supposedly long-cherished policy is considered fatuous beyond words. You might remember the exchange I had with Lib Dem activist MrsB back in January, when she patiently explained to me that she of course supported votes at 16, but that it was utterly impossible to extend the franchise for the independence referendum. Unfortunately, she became considerably less patient with me when I pointed out that her support for Michael Moore's plan to specifically ban Holyrood from introducing votes at 16 for the referendum meant that she wasn't so much in favour of votes at 16 as...well, opposed to it. That was simply an example of me being "difficult", apparently, and I needed to grow up and accept that there were insurmountable logistical issues standing in the way of 'what we both wanted to happen'. Logistical issues such as Michael Moore's proposed ban, presumably.
It's a great pity that MrsB is no longer anywhere to be found, because I suspect the cognitive dissonance brought about by the events of the last few days may well have been a sight to behold. A UK government spin doctor has evidently been busily briefing the press that the Tory-Lib Dem coalition have dropped their objection to votes at 16 for the referendum, and that this new enlightened attitude will even apply in the fantasy scenario of a Westminster-conducted referendum next year. Hmmm. Amazing the speed with which utter impossibilities and insurmountable logistical issues can melt away when there's yet another wizard 'stop the Nats' tactic to be cooked up. But we shouldn't be churlish - it's a rare delight to see the Lib Dems actually supporting one of their own constitutional reform policies, and we can't realistically expect them to be doing it as a matter of principle.
In truth, the excuses for not extending the franchise for the referendum were always pretty thin. The practical objections were comprehensively addressed by the Scottish Government in their consultation document, while the principled objection that there is an international consensus to exclude "children" from the franchise simply didn't stack up. It's not just that established democracies such as Brazil and Austria have already reduced the voting age to 16, or that the British Crown Dependencies (Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man) have done the same. What really drives a coach and horses through this argument is that 17-year-old "children" routinely help to elect the most powerful person on the planet, by voting in US presidential primary elections. Ah, the objectors say, this only happens because those voters will be 18 by the time of the general election. Er, so what? If you think "children" are too immature to vote, self-evidently what matters is what age a person is when their vote is cast, not when that vote "takes effect".
From my own perspective, if I cast my mind back to when I was a teenager, I can see plenty of differences between the 14-year-old me and the 18-year-old me, but not very many between the 16-year-old me and the 18-year-old me. Society has presumably reached the same intuitive conclusion - how else can we explain that 16-year-olds are legally permitted to consent to sex, marry and have children? It really is hard to understand why people think that the sun will fall out of the sky if young adults who are already deemed responsible enough to be entrusted with all of those decisions are simply allowed to vote.
Unless of course the fear is that they will vote "the wrong way". Yes, that's probably it.
* * *
I went back to the Edinburgh Festival on Saturday (although there's not much point in launching into another batch of reviews, because the Fringe ends today) and among the many eager leafletters was a Geordie woman whose pitch was "keep the UK together, sir?"
Sounds a rum kind of show to me.