Gordon Brown is a man hell-bent on wooing the general public (note his pastel ties; swoon at his new pearly whites!). Given this, one of his recent policy proposals seems reckless, to say the least: amid his suggestions for electoral reform (a cap on individual party donations, a largely elected second chamber of the House) comes the notion that 16-year-olds should be allowed to vote.
While in many ways this seems an entirely reasonable suggestion, it might also come back to haunt him. Because although the great British public is quite happy for 16-year-olds to leave school, smoke, have sex, get married, raise children, go to work, go to war on our behalf (thanks, kids!) and, naturellement, pay taxes in the process, none of this changes the fact that only 25 per cent of us believe they should have the vote.
The situation should be surprising. However, given our general and deepening cultural cringe towards teenagers, it is anything but. Never has such a wide social group been so reviled. The very word "teenager" is now synonymous with "criminal", "thug" and "hoodie". Our dominant idea of teenage life is depicted in the new film Kidulthood, which follows a group of 15-year-olds in west London as they bully and sexually harass one another, take drugs and get pregnant.
All of which certainly has a basis in truth. The teenage years can be incredibly vicious. And yet, if we take the wider view,
it becomes clear that they are a time of extremes, encompassing
huge rebellion and great moral thirst. At this age, our whole identity is in flux. There is no moral conviction quite as strong as one held by a teenager and, equally, there is no rebellion quite so destructive. These years are a tumult of decisions good and bad, inevitably shaped by those around us.
Unfortunately, as things stand, it seems every one of our social attitudes is designed to intensify teenage alienation. Today's teenagers are constantly told that they are immoral and that the exams they are striving for are worthless, however many A*s they might rack up.
Equally, although fewer youngsters than ever actually roam the streets (retreating instead to the lonely virtual worlds of MySpace and MSN), there are ample measures to deter those who do. These include on-the-spot, £80 Asbos for swearing in private conversation and recently mooted "sonic teenage deterrents": sirens which operate like a dog whistle in reverse. Audible only to the acute hearing of youth, their high-pitched screeching is described as "intolerable" to teenagers, and is designed to send them running.
Given such social attitudes, it's not surprising that most people oppose lowering the voting age. On this evidence, I guess, we imagine teenagers will simply vote for any party that legalises drugs and sanctions a change in working hours to, say, 1pm to 4.30pm. (Here's to a proper lie-in and home in time for Neighbours!)
The reality is quite different. If the past few weeks should have taught us anything, it is just how crucial 16-year-olds are to British politics.
In the past we looked to university students to bolster our national ideologies and campaign on single issues, expecting them to petition on our behalf for the environment, sex education, drugs legislation, anti-war campaigns, and so on. With university life increasingly professionalised however (the abolition of grants and introduction of fees forcing students both to take their studies more seriously and to take up part-time or even full-time jobs), the potential for serious protest has been slashed.
This may answer a question many asked regarding last month's rally in Oxford in support of vivisection: why hadn't the city's students spearheaded this movement? Instead, the driving force was Laurie Pycroft, a 16-year-old from Swindon, whose courage led to unprecedented heads-above-the-parapet speeches by scientists actively involved in animal testing.
In this context, Pycroft's youth was definitely an asset: at his age, his convictions are yet to be tested by adult doubt and therefore he could defend them fearlessly, arguing from a principled standpoint. The same sense of conviction evidently spurred Bethany Cole, another 16-year-old, who delivered a petition to Downing Street at the end of last month, demanding that all secondary schools make sex and relationship education mandatory.
It's a quality that has also been evident in the columns and TV programmes of 16-year-old Peaches Geldof, who has taken such unpopular positions as supporting the war in Iraq and, uh, opposing her own, slightly ridiculous name. (OK, this position wasn't unpopular with the general public, but it may
well have been with Sir Bob, and she does have to live with him.)
By giving 16-year-olds the vote, we would be inviting them into the political debate at a juncture when they have strong views and the wherewithal to campaign for them. It has been argued that 16-year-olds are undermined by their obsession with single issues, but then, that can be said of anyone. We all focus on the issues that affect or interest us the most, and it is both unfair and, again, alienating to suggest otherwise.
With British political life increasingly moribund - or, at best, apathetic and centrist - it might in fact be argued that, right now, we need 16-year-olds far more than they need us.