Before I get started I want to make clear from the outset that this is not going to be a for or against rant for one side or the other of the political debate. I have been relegated to the bench by those who control my right to vote in the UK, so my capacity and comments are those of observer and not a participator.
Why do have a right to have any opinion?
I grew up in the UK when having the right to vote was a privilege with the power to change governments, which it could and did. I appreciated the value of that vote – women had died that I might put my cross on the ballot paper and I was not going to let them down. In the ballot box we had an opportunity to change things and have a voice.
My first chance to vote was another referendum, but I won’t say which as that will immediately dispel the façade of my being young and cool. I clearly remember spending weeks pouring over everything in the newspapers, watching political discussions on television, getting all the facts and making a choice. I wanted to be as informed as possible.
Standing in the ballot box, canvas curtains drawn around a rickety table, the ballot paper in front of me and clutching a stubby pencil tied to the wooden trestle table with string, I will never forget the sense of power I felt, that we all feel, for having our voices heard.
There were a lot more elections to vote in after that, during a period in history I now appreciate was a time of radical change, anger, resentment and high drama. Two political parties alternating back and forth – the British people passionately involved in the process.
Even local elections could be electric and it was not uncommon to vote for one party in a local election (because you voted for the person not the party) and vote for the other party to run the country and be the face of the nation.
That is how the ‘People’s Republic of South Yorkshire‘, as it was affectionately known, came about. And before everyone starts howling, ‘how does she know?’ I lived there and it was home during the City of Sheffield’s most tumultuous time in its history, and had in-laws who had lived there all their lives. I figure I’m qualified.
I find it intriguing that the man instrumental in the referendum happening at all, Nick Clegg, is from that fine city. Not a Labour Party man but a Liberal Democrat, the only non-Labour party the affluent area of Hallam will vote for – Conservative is not an option for the dour people of that leafy suburb, there is too much history. Yet it is the only seat in South Yorkshire not held or ever won by Labour.
Moving to America it was a long time before we had the right to vote but as an observer it was interesting, engaging and very different on so many levels to the system I’d grown up in. I loved that local government really was local, you voted for the person not the politics.
We lived in Louisiana – a state regarded by every American outside of it as corrupt, maverick and a political joke. I knew nothing of this when we arrived, but learned fast. Lets just say Louisiana has a rather colourful history politically.
We arrived as the legendary/infamous Edwin Edwards was coming to the end of his fourth term in office, twice as many as any other chief executive. He was the first Roman Catholic Governor of Louisiana of the twentieth century. Bumper stickers during his last (successful campaign) read ‘Vote for the Crook’ so I guess the folks in Louisiana were well aware of what they were dealing with.
You can see why we found politics a source of interest. We met Mr. Edwards socially once (his slim, blonde trophy wife adored my outfit) and I was surprised how small he was, but a man with charisma and air of power none the less. In 2001, he was sentenced to ten years in prison on racketeering charges. The trophy wife wasn’t around long.
American national politics were intriguing and different – we liked the measured way government had been put in place by men who were trying to get it right. Checks and balances, accountability. Think the size of population and it’s awe-inspiring. We are privileged to have that vote and use it.
We also have the right to vote here in the Netherlands although we haven’t used it yet. Well, I haven’t, I cannot speak for the political persuasions of my spouse.
The Netherlands is a country with sixteen million voters who vote under a system of proportional representation. The government runs, when it does run, smoothly and efficiently. The trash is emptied the roads are good, the system of social care is second to none. It is a great place to live – life is well ordered, caring and fair. There will never be social revolution in this country because there is no need. The Dutch impress me.
The reason I do not vote is because I am overwhelmed by the choices and options available. It takes me enough time to figure the best first option without going into the rest. At election time here there are web sites listing all candidates, their political affiliations and policies. The pressure to get it right is too great. I’m sure a large majority of people have no clue after second choice and vote randomly, a huge risk in my book. And you get the extremists in positions of power who under other systems wouldn’t stand a chance. Think Geert Wilders.
What you then have is a coalition government across so many ideologies it takes forever to get anything done. It is slow, lumbering and by the time anything is resolved the voting public have forgotten what it was they wanted in the first place. Think the EU in Brussels slowed down.
Look at Belgium. Do they have a government yet? Even a google search is inconclusive. They have been without a government since June 2010, longer than Iraq. It was reported in the Dutch news last Thursday, May 5, that the Belgium negotiators are not allowed to have sex until there is a new government. Nor do the populace seem unduly concerned, they deal with it using humour. Only in continental Europe.
Amusing maybe, but this is serious stuff. This is politics. It should be measured, fair and the voters engaged in the process. The security of our nations and the futures of our children depends on it.
Having lived in three political systems in the western world and observed the effects of putting theory into practise I do have a few opinions. America has a devised political structure which works for its people. Most of Europe has a system of management and committee – it works but oh so slowly – but its voters are happy.
And then there is the UK.
The existing system of voting is not perfect and nor is any system that may replace it. If it’s changed, parliament will never be the same again – the passion will be gone to be replaced by what?
What makes the country great is the people who have stood up to be counted when things get tough, they have spoken with fervour and excitement, have stirred feelings and provoked a response. They are the great and the good (sometimes not so good), but they have been leaders not managers. And have been accountable to the people.
My biggest fear with change is that we will also have to accept inertia, apathy and most of all blandness, where politicians forget who they work for. I am afraid change will sink a nation of noble historic traditions and great political history in a sea of bureaucracy never to emerge again.
As the Chinese say ‘may you live in interesting times’. Guess we’ll have to wait and see.