History, Democracy, and the Vote

I’ve recently been pioneering a new sport, it’s called ‘Middle Class Chicken’. Here’s how it works.

Next time you are in a normal, middle-class social scenario – a dinner party, perhaps, or hanging out at the elderflower pressé stall at your local farmers’ market – you simply wait for the subject to flow naturally onto the general election. Then, when everyone is getting into it, you set off the bomb.

‘I’m not planning on voting’, you casually drop. ‘Why not?’, your shocked companions will splutter into their craft beer.

‘Can’t be bothered’, you say, ‘Genuinely just can’t be arsed.’

At this point, and here’s the really skilful part of the game, you have to get up and run to the nearest exit and escape, before your fellows have leapt angrily from the table and murdered you with their bare, well-moisturized fists.

You see, now the election is upon us, we’re going to get bombarded with people telling us to vote.

There will be sanctimonious social media posts about our ancestors dying for democracy; there will be handwringing concern that young people aren’t voting; eventually, on the day, people will start cracking the ‘vote early, vote often’ joke, as they always do, hoping that this time it will be funny.

Anyone who doesn’t exercise their democratic right to vote will be decried as a deviant, an insult to the memories of war heroes, and personally responsible for UKIP.

Now, naturally of course, this voting business is quite important.

Even if you feel little inclination towards any of the main parties. Even if you live in a seat so safe that Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi would still win it if he wore a blue rosette.

Even if, quite frankly, your voting will make bugger all difference to anything, it certainly feels nice.

It’s empowering. For that brief, wonderful few moments when you put a cross on a piece of paper and put it in a black box you can certainly kid yourself that those in charge work for you. That you’re the real boss. It’s a bit like shaking your fist and swearing at a driver who’s soaked you with a puddle. It feels brilliant.

And people did struggle for it. The Suffragettes and the Chartists would be mightily peeved if they knew how few people voted these days. Even Gandhi would probably permit himself a little swear.

Suffragettes

And in those constituencies where it’s a bit closer, you’ve no excuse at all. Really, none.

But is voting all we should be doing? Or, more seriously, does all the middle-class lather we’re going to get about making sure people vote actually quite dangerous? Do we fetishize voting to such a degree that we forget what democracy really means?

I think we do, and I think that history teaches us there is much more to political engagement than just voting. Democracy didn’t just spring up when people started voting – it had lots of other bits too. In fact, the long history of democracy in this country is much more than the story of how people got the vote.

There are, I think, three things which are just as important.

1. We should take an interest in our constitution: its history, where it came from, and how it works today. The Americans, of course, have made this nice and easy for their citizens by writing it down in a nice bitesize document, but we in the UK haven’t. We’ve let our constitution evolve over the centuries: clarifying the role of Parliament, limiting the monarchy, deciding which bits get left to the judiciary or the European Union. The UK constitution is a complex old bugger, and so few people actually understand it. Yet, in the 17th century, when MPs were challenging the absolutist power of the king, they did so by understanding the constitution as it stood. If we truly want to understand our politicians and make them work for us, we need to get our heads around the rules we’ve created. And no, this doesn’t mean reading Magna Carta, which is so irrelevant that even Oliver Cromwell (it is alleged) used to call it ‘Magna Farta’.

Attempted Arrest of the Five Members, January 1642
Attempted Arrest of the Five Members, January 1642

2. We need to be informed. Historians have long debated when and where a ‘public sphere’ developed. The most famous argument links it to the rise of the coffee house in 18th century England, where people sat and debated the issues of the day over a Soya Milk Caramel Frappuccino. Others suggest it went back to the 17th or even 16th century, with people reading the first newspapers, or arguing over religion in taverns. But whichever way you look at it, people were discussing politics, engaging with the issues, well before many of them could vote. Today there are so many outlets for being informed about politics that we have no excuse. In the 17th century it cost the equivalent of half a day’s food to buy a newspaper  – today we can have most information for free. And yet we spend our lives getting offended by what someone said on Twitter and arguing about nonentities like Jeremy Clarkson.

Thomas Rowlandson, A Mad Dog in a  Coffee House (c. 1800)
Thomas Rowlandson, A Mad Dog in Coffee House (c. 1800)

3. We need to be active. In the past, when most people couldn’t or didn’t vote, when elections were rarely contested, this doesn’t mean they weren’t political. They expressed their political aspirations in other ways. They joined associations, got involved in voluntary institutions, went on protests. Most important, perhaps, they held office. In 17th and 18th century England, most men would have held political office at some point, even they largely couldn’t vote. They acted as constables, as overseers of the poor (dealing with the welfare system), or sat on juries or as parish administrators. So widespread was this political activity that one historian has called England an ‘unacknowledged republic’, where people didn’t usually vote, but they did govern. We’ve lost this, I think, as the state has become centralized and bureaucratized, but we can still be politically active in other ways; we can get involved in charities or become governors of schools, we can go on protests, write letters or blogs. There is so much we can do today that makes us part of the political conversation: a voice to be listened to every day, not just during elections. It’s why, even though he reminds me of Series 4 Gaius Baltar, I actually quite like Russell Brand. Because he gets involved. We should all do the same.

So vote. No, really, do. It’s important. But once you have, don’t then sit on your political arse until the next election.

The thing is, democracy is probably the coolest human invention ever, apart from the sausage. We’d be stupid if we only used it once every five years.

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9 Comments Add yours

  1. Peter Steere says:

    Ah dear departed Galactica. Will we ever see its like again?

  2. edpodesta67 says:

    Very interesting, I wonder how much weight you would place on the lack of opportunity for personal gain being one of the reasons why people are less likely to seek such posts? I’m Interested in how much office holding reflected democratic or other higher values or how much it was a chance for lining one’s pocket or increasing access to other opportunities?

    1. A fascinating question! As it happens, in the past a lot of these offices were pretty onerous, so people sometimes tried to avoid them, but were obliged to serve by law. A bit like national service, I suppose, but in administration rather than soldiery. Such offices were limited to males, and usually to the ‘middling sorts’ rather than the poorest, so it’s hardly a perfect model for our times. But it’s interesting that we think of ourselves as great democrats, perhaps we can learn something from our forebears.

  3. Monia Smalley says:

    This is all terribly true. However, you were only saying you won’t vote to get people’s attention. Once you’ve got it, you can then launch into your soapbox speech, correct? But doesn’t that say something about the culture we’ve created; that we have to shock people for them to listen to us.

    1. Yes, true – guilty. It’s a fairly well-established trick of the writer’s trade though!

  4. Lauriana says:

    The debate about voting here in the Netherlands isn’t the same as in the UK but of course, there are overlaps.
    For a year or so, I’ve been playing a different game in this discussion: Claiming the country should go back to limiting the right to vote. More specifically, to making all would-be voters to a do an exam about the basic tasks of the institutions they vote for and the political system in general.
    To be honest, people usually can’t be bothered to react which is a shame.
    Of course, I don’t think it will happen or even should happen. I’m just tired of the lazy complaints about ‘the system’ and how ‘they’ never listen from people who can’t be bothered to do more than turn up for one election every four years.

  5. cat9984 says:

    It is true that the U.S. Constitution is a simple, straight-forward document. Too bad the majority of the public hasn’t read it and the politicians who have don’t seem to realize we no longer live in the 18th century.

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