NEXT week, David Cameron is expected to announce that 16- and 17-year-olds will be allowed to vote in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence in exchange for Alex Salmond’s proposed third option on the referendum—“devolution max”—being dropped. This sees the Scottish leader’s referendum chances plummet. Polls suggest that devo-max is more popular than both independence and the present state of devolution. A vote for it would have been a political triumph: the Scots would be shown to support a move towards independence, with enough power being retained by Westminster for Mr Salmond to continue to use it as a scapegoat—a key part of his political appeal. Now he faces being rebuffed by his own people: when presented with just two options, there is a near two-to-one split in favour of the status quo, even before the success of "Team GB" at the Olympics.
This will not be balanced out by opening up the referendum franchise to 16- and 17-year-olds. The SNP have a longstanding view that the young are pro-independence. The longstanding nature of this view is its problem. It was (and remains) true for those who were young in the 1990s—what Ben Page of Ipsos MORI calls the "Braveheart generation". But their successors are differently inclined. Those aged 18 to 24 are less supportive of independence than any other age group, and this trend looks set to continue: just 26% of those who will be 16 or 17 in 2014 currently support independence, according to a recent survey.
It is easy to overestimate the gratitude of the enfranchised. Benjamin Disraeli’s Conservative government gave urban working-class men the vote with the 1867 reform act, and was duly turfed out of office two years later. A century on, Harold Wilson’s Labour government reduced the voting age from 21 to 18, only to lose unexpectedly to Edward Heath in 1970—and, pollsters found, the new voters were no more left-inclined than those in their twenties.
Perhaps Mr Salmond is playing the long game. The Scots...