Today’s breakfast TV round was just another brick in the wall for Gillian Keegan. The Education Secretary was asked by Sky’s Kay Burley as to whether she thought 16 was too young for someone to be deciding their ‘gender identity’ – the context being the Government’s decision to block Holyrood’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill, which aims to streamline the process and reduce the age at which one can switch from Adam to Eve (or vice versa).
Rather than say she thought 16 was too young – which is, one notes, the official position of Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer – the Education Secretary did not hesitate. ‘No, I don’t actually, I think 16, I was working at 16, I was paying tax at 16, I was making decisions for myself at 16.’ She later backtracked by saying that ‘all 16-year-olds are different’ and that she was speaking for her own experience – her truth, no less – of having ‘grown up quite quickly’.
Now, I have every sympathy with Keegan. I find it refreshing to have a Cabinet minister who left school at 16, especially when she is a likable Conservative, and not a potty-mouthed class warrior like Angela Rayner. Nevertheless, by blundering into the age-old age dispute, she raises the terrifying spectre of our patchwork system of age-based responsibilities.
This is a stock topic at school debating competitions. I attended a lot of those aged 16; we had to find other outlets of excitement without the opportunity to change our genders. The line of reasoning of those advocating for, say, votes at 16, runs like this. At 16, you can leave school, have sex, apply for a passport, work full-time, join the army, get hitched, and, er, pilot a hang glider. Surely, if you are considered responsible enough to do all that, you are responsible enough to vote – and now, apparently, do a Lola.
The trouble with this is that the vast bulk of those can only be done with parental permission. Parents remain legally responsible for their child’s well-being until they are 18. You must also remain in some form of education until you are 18, meaning an apprenticeship or job training scheme for those working. You cannot fight in the army. And even if you can freely go hang gliding, you may wish to let your Mum and Dad know, for when they need to fish you out of a tree.
So to misquote Stan Lee, with a little power comes a little responsibility. That is thrown into starker relief by all the stuff you can’t do at 16. Motorists are spared an extra year’s worth of sixth-formers clogging up the roads in L-plated Polos. 17 is also the last age at which someone is treated as a child in terms of arrest. They must wait another year to buy booze or cigarettes, be shot at, tie the knot without mummy’s approval, and, most threateningly, vote.
All of this offends the rationally minded. And, coincidentally, the SNP. In their efforts to gerrymander the Scottish electoral system to maximise support for independence – or give 16-year-olds the vote, as some term it – they are attentive to the claims of some young Scots that lowering the age at which one can change their gender is the great crusade of our time. Perhaps they also still feel bad for Scotland decriminalising homosexuality 13 years later than England.
Sunak disagrees, and so Keegan found herself in trouble. Yet in misspeaking this morning, the Education Secretary did hit upon a crucial fact in this whole debate. ‘Obviously,’ she said, ‘everyone has a different view.’ Clearly, this wasn’t intended as a great paen to individualism, clearly. But it does show why our current hotchpotch of different ages for different rights might be the wisest course available.
Different people mature at different speeds. Some who learn to drive at 17 will be archetypes of Christian motoring. Others will find themselves overturned in a field the night of passing their test. Some who get married at 18 will stay together forever. Others will return home to their parents in a few months, rueing their naivete. One size does not fit all.
In choosing the age at which these freedoms are granted, we should aim to do the least harm to the greatest number. Whether that means our current arrangement is perfect is a complex question. That is especially as studies show that adolescence lasts much longer than previously thought – and that girls can mature at a significantly faster rate than boys. Hence why, in all fairness, Keegan and Rayner could be in full-time work or raising children at 16, and I’m barely shaving at 23.
It also makes addressing such sensitive topics as the desire of some teenagers to change their gender painful. Many of us will agree gender ideology has gone too far, and that some young people need a few more years to consider things before being allowed to take such a huge step. But we should acknowledge that this choice upsets many – even if, on balance, safeguards are for the greater good.
One last point. If our childhoods are now lasting longer, the case could well be made for granting freedoms later, as well as earlier. Young people are leaving home, getting married, and settling down much later than previously. The average age at first getting married is now 31, compared with a 20th-century low of 23 in 1970. The reasons for that are obvious. A decline in religiosity, higher numbers in full-time education at 21 and beyond than ever before – and our dysfunctional housing market.
Adulthood, and the taking on of personal responsibilities it requires, is being put back. So should the voting age be raised to take that into account? We were the first Western European nation to lower it to 18. Should we be the first to put it back up to 21? Our Deputy Editor did say Sunak faces a Kobayashi Maru scenario at the next election. The solution to that – as Captain Kirk found – is to cheat.
The other answer, of course, would be just to make it easier for young people to buy a house, move out, and start a family. And, on that bombshell, the Town and Country Planning Act must be destroyed.