Archived: Why our future should keep you up all night

Originally published as a FB Note, on 5 May 2010 at 21:45

Winston Churchill once said “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried”. Considering it was the very system that he so famously fought to defend, it seems odd to see that he would damn it with such faint praise. And yet, Churchill was nothing if not a realist, able to reconcile the seemingly opposable motivations of idealism and pragmatism – he also said (about Britain’s wartime propaganda) that “truth is so precious she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies”.

Indeed, there’s nothing like a British General Election to showcase the very noblest and most base elements of political activism and this one has been no exception. The content generated by the party machines, media coverage and workplace water-cooler discussions alike has raged from intelligent debate to bitter class-riven tribalism, from wide-eyed idealism to narrow-minded prejudice. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, for better or worse, this is the best – indeed the only – way to elect your government.

So why should you lose sleep on election night? Well, not necessarily in a partisan, what-if-the other-lot-get-in? way (although perhaps you might) but because there is little else that can provide greater drama than watching the immediate direction of the nation unfold before you. Seeing the very tectonic plates of power shifting with all the human reaction at those twin imposters of triumph and disaster reminds you of the power of the people – however we choose to wield it. The very certainty of a voting process provides drama of the highest order, which is precisely why it has become so central to the many forms of Saturday night television in the last decade. Unlike the X-Factor et al, though, the outcome of this talent show really does matter – ‘Britain’s Got Options’, you might say. This always has been and always will be the ultimate reality show.

During the coverage recent Winter Olympics, I and, I’m sure, a good number of others became acquainted once again with the nuances of curling. Before very long, the mists of time had lifted and terms like ‘house’ and ‘Rhona Martin’ began to waft back into the conscious mind. And so it is the same with the process of the General Election. Terms like ‘swing’, ‘boundary change’ and other staples of psephology (the science of elections) begin to re-emerge from the box your mind put them in the last time you took the time to understand them fully.

Except of course, that it is not exactly the same. Olympics are strictly quadrennial, as polls in many countries are. British Elections on the other hand are more like earthquakes, total eclipses or meteorite falls – generally adhering to a pattern over time but not quite following a predictive model. I could go on at greater length about the idiosyncracies of the British electoral term but more important issues should exercise you right now…

In the first instance, I know my primary civic responsibility is to engage in the process, evaluating the merits (and otherwise) of the protagonists and reminding myself of the fundamental, inalienable right a free country has to self-determination. And yet beyond that, I have come to acknowledge in myself that I have also found the process riveting in a secondary role as an observer of the whole process from as detached a position I can find. As a marketer, elections prove an interesting insight into both sampling and attempting to influence public opinion. I spend most of my working life questioning and second-guessing the trends and tastes of the great British public and I have concluded that a General Election may well be the ultimate exercise in brand loyalty.

Along the way then, for many of us, it’s time to return to questions about the very essence of the size and role of the state, the opportunities and security of the individual, the care of the young and the old, the defence of the realm and, inevitably, the scale and method of taxation it all requires. Or do we? Instead, do we just vote the way our parents did, simply choose a leader we like best/dislike least, settle on a convenient minority interest upon whom to endow a protest vote or, worst of all, not bother voting at all?

That is both the blessing and the curse of democracy. The right to vote for any reason, informed or otherwise, frivolous or otherwise. Indeed, unlike Australia, even the right not to vote. Churchill also said the “the greatest argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”. For every voter who studies every manifesto and reads between each line of media coverage, there is often another who ‘cancels out’ the considered vote with a choice based on the fact that their chosen party leader’s eyes aren’t too close together – or some other such observation.

With nothing less than the future of the country at stake, isn’t this kind of flippancy frustrating? Sometimes. Is it acceptable? Well no, it’s not ideal – it only reinforces the view of Joseph de Maistre, the 18th/19th century French philosopher: “Every nation has the government it deserves” – but even a bad government, elected as the result of a country’s momentary lapse of reason will eventually be found out and removed. It may last for a number of years in the meantime, but democracy has wider horizons and is too important to attempt to refine or replace, when it fails to provide the ‘best’ choice of direction. Like evolution and geology, the eventual tendency to produce progress in the longer term is more important than the odd fluctuation along the way. Even democracy must be allowed to ‘fail’ sometimes if we believe firmly enough that it is always to succeed.

The alternative is to find a means of bestowing power some other way. Aside from considering the ridiculous options of dictatorship (it’s been tried elsewhere and has tended not to go well), it is often said of Prospective Parliamentary Candidates that their very willingness to seek election should singularly preclude them from participation, such are their (perceived) excesses of smugness and self-righteousness. Take this notion to its logical conclusion and it advocates that candidates should be like the cardinals who surround an ageing pope, where the quickest way to disqualify oneself from ever being considered a successor is to show any sign of desiring the position. This is all very laudable but rather impractical. Someone has to stand and wouldn’t it be rather better on the whole if they actually showed their hunger and qualification for the office they seek before we grant them it? This part is at least intrinsically honest – even God-fearing cardinals may not always tell the truth about their avowed disinterest, you know. I won’t check but I’m quite sure that it’s no coincidence that the words ‘candid’ and ‘candidate’ are so similar.

In today’s multimedia environment, it’s unrealistic to expect that the whole exercise will not be seen by many to have ‘descended’ to some extent into the ‘beauty contest’ or ‘presidential’ vote that it’s often purported to be. While this may now be true in some ways, it is still also true to say that the electorate is increasingly media-literate and to a large extent, actually demand more media coverage, with all its inherent risks of manipulation. Commentators love to imply that in a media-proliferated world, we now inhabit the era which values the soundbite over genuine oratory, that we deal merely in dumbed-down detail. I’m dubious of this. At any time in history, people have always known what it is that concerns them about their future and it is the amalgamation of such concerns that the parties must continue to strive to address, however they can. The difference today is that there are now more ways for each of us to pursue that interest, to find out more. Contrast that with the days of significant levels of illiteracy, or even the days where there were only three television channels and you may conclude that we may not be marching towards a time that boasts a perfectly engaged electorate but neither are we marching away from one.

And yet there is still a question over the the legitimacy of this noble, imperfect process in practice – an inconsistency at its very heart that threatens its idealism but is supposed to ensure its practical application. The Whip. For all we are exhorted to vote now for ‘our’ MP, the individual who will serve his or her constituents’ interests in Westminster, we are offered a choice of largely manufactured candidates who merely act as a representative for a small number of brands of ideology. Once elected, they will then be pressured into taking the ‘party line’ by essentially a small group of corporate bullies behind the closed doors of the Palace of Westminster. And so ‘your’ MP, if guided by his or her own set of ethics and judgement will eventually fall foul of their partisan paymasters – in the interest of party (or even sometimes national) unity. Whither the high-minded morals of democracy at that stage? In essence, we appear to be able to choose the guests to attend our Westminster Function, but the decisions about the buffet and the choice of music are still made for us.

The other interesting contribution of the constituency is in the vote-counting formula that decides the winner. Without the arbitrary groupings that we know as constituencies, our votes would count equally, unencumbered by considerations such as ‘safeness’ of the seat we happen to be live in. Essentially we would all be voting for one UK constituency and it is the overall share of the vote that determines the winning party. This would be the truest form of Proportional Representation. Or, as is currently the case, we ask parties to demonstrate that they can command a majority in a majority of places accross the country – our ‘first past the post’ system. PR is easier to understand, slightly easier to defend on grounds of moral legitimacy but will inevitably deliver an unclear result, which therefore gives rise to questions about the strength of mandate the winning party has. Flawed as our current system may be, it does tend to allow strong government because it only allows demonstrably more popular parties to prevail, quelling claims that their subsequent acts have no clear mandate. Once again, it’s a decision between the idealistic and the pragmatic – unless you have faith in the notion of coalition.

So why not have faith in coalition? Isn’t this notion of confrontational politics a little outdated? Can’t we embrace the notion of the parties working together a little more warmly? Well, even that is for the electorate to decide – albeit effectively, by the absence of a clear majority, not necessarily because we all think it’s a good idea. Certainly, this sentiment could be gaining support – this may be one reason behind the huge growth of support enjoyed by the Liberal Democrats in our post-sleaze, post-expenses jaundiced political outlook but it’s still an idea that is unfamiliar to many of us. “Look at Belgium” seems to be the main rejoinder of the consensualists. I suspect Churchill would have declined the invitation to look at Belgium. Following the bombing of the chamber of the House, he spurned the chance to re-design its geometry from oppositional to semi-circular, believing in the value of oppositional debate to bring rigour to any argument. Ironies abound here, not just because Churchill led a wartime coalition government on the one hand, but on the other, because he ‘crossed the floor’ not once but twice in his career.

Interestingly, when we consider the structure of the other key area where our inalienable rights were hard-fought and hard-won, the judiciary and all its due process, we appear to be keen to cling to the values of the adversarial system. Exactly how would a consensual system of justice work? “We may all think you shouldn’t have done it but it probably wasn’t entirely your fault”? When the stakes are high and it’s just as important that the wrong decision is avoided, it strikes me that in politics, as in law, it is the strength of the debate that is most likely to reach the right decision – or at the very least, one for which those charged with making are then accountable. While I will remain steadfastly enigmatic about my views about which party should be given the right to govern in this election, I am prepared to argue that a coalition, while it may be a necessary recourse in the short term is not a long-term solution in peacetime. Wars aside, all of the 20th Century coalitions seem to have been short, torrid affairs punctuated by inertia and in-fighting. Did you know that the last time a state of emergency declared in the UK was in 1974 – as a result of increasing industrial action, exacerbated by the weakness of our last minority government. Why would it be significantly different today?

So, there you have it, our collective future, laid bare for all to see. Many will place too much emphasis on it; those participants and activists who use it as a tool for self-aggrandisement or those who placing too much faith in the eventual winners to make every aspect of their life irreversibly better. More still will place too little emphasis on it; choosing the easy option of apathy and unconvincingly defending their right to ignore it. Having said that, the result may not affect you hugely, whichever way it goes. Our choice of may not even affect the country all that much, either. We’d find that difficult to prove because when we come to look back on this fork in the road, we’ll never really be able to say if the other lot would have done much better or worse. But then again, it could mean everything. It’s a time of possibilities and, for the first time since 1992 (the very first election I voted in), it’s genuinely unpredictable. The idealist decided long ago that I would watch it all, throughout the night. The pragmatist made sure I took the next day off work.

Whether you sleep through it or not, I wish you pleasant dreams!