On 18 September 2014 Scotland proudly roared into the political record books. The referendum for Scottish independence, the #indyref, exploded in an unprecedented voter turnout of 84.5%. Unprecedented for the Great British electorate, that is. Over in Denmark, Borgen’s alarm bells would have been deafening at anything less than 85%. But why?
Such an event had not occurred in Blighty for over half a century. It was 1951 when 8 out of 10 cats exercised their vote – thus booking an 81.59% attendance at Polling Stations across the Kingdom. So what is it that creates voter apathy on one side of the North Sea and voter appetite on the other?
Since 1951 UK voter turnout has tumbled to such an extent that the 2010 General Election saw one in every three voters ignoring it altogether. The 61.6%, who did cash in their hard won democratic privilege, woke to a shambolic show of headless chickens, darting hither and dither across the Westminster Village, pretending to know what to do with “No Overall Majority”.
And this had to be sorted NOW! Somehow. Today! Ideas anyone? You see, the Brits have enormous difficulty contemplating consensus government. The sort of government everyone else has. Everyone else except the Americans, that is. Oh, and a motley assortment of dictatorships and Banana Republics even further afield.
When picking your partners for government, spending a week or two getting it as right as possible is recommended. Make that just under two years in Belgium. Which might be a tad extreme, but Belgium didn’t melt into a big blob of goo or anything. They talked about it. In two languages. And then they had a street party and drank some beer. Over 90% of Belgians voted in the following election, so they clearly weren’t put off by the experience.
It’s only fair to mention, at this point, that Belgium does boast the oldest compulsory voting system on the planet, introduced in 1892 for men and 1949 for women. People aged 18 and over who do not vote face a moderate fine or, if they fail to vote in at least four elections, they can lose the right to vote for 10 years. Non-voters also face difficulties getting a job in the public sector. That said, these rules haven’t been enforced since 2003.
But in Britain, unless you can shout down your opponent across the House of Commons despatch box or otherwise trick your way through unpopular bits of legislation by Parliamentary slight of hand, you’re not really governing at all. Discussing stuff and reaching some sort of consensus is for wuzzes.
How different it all looks across the North Sea in Scandiland where eight and a half Danes wouldn’t miss their opportunity to have their say at election time. 85+% voter turnout is the norm. And they don’t have compulsory voting.
So what’s going on?
Why do Danes vote and Brits don’t?
And what made the great Scots vote in their droves last week? One obvious difference that immediately springs to mind between the Scottish #indyref and British general elections is the voting system. In a referendum every single vote counts, shady shenanigans notwithstanding. So if you go and vote, your vote will form part of the final result.
This is a world apart from the archaic British ‘First-Past-The-Post’ (FPTP) voting system. FPTP, coupled with cunning ways of scratching random lines on a map of the British Isles, ensures that only a mere 15% of votes cast actually count for anything. These are the votes in so-called marginal seats, the constituencies where a varied bunch of voters are apt to swing this way and that, depending on the prevailing wind. Their Members of Parliament really have their work cut out to stay on the gravy train. These seats are foisted on newbie candidates, desperate to get on board.
On the other hand, those of us who happen to live in a socalled safe seat, a seat where the majority of our neighbours all vote the same way, we are ok if we also agree. However, if we’re of a different persuasion or if we think it’s time for a change, it would be easier to move Mount Everest. Put bluntly, our vote will count for nothing, so why bother?
As well as Britain, a number of British ex-colonies still run with this system.
Borgen’s voting system is of the more modern variety – proportional representation, a system that ensures that every single vote cast forms part of the final result. Less crude and more elaborate than FPTP, it is also more challenging to manage but makes up for any inconvenience by producing a properly representative democratic government.
So that’s step one, change the voting system and they will come. Last week, faced with an election that really mattered and a fair voting system, Scotland’s voters voted. The ruling elite down south won’t like it one bit as a change to a more inclusive system means that they will no longer be able to manipulate the system as grossly as in the past. But hey, that’s called democracy guys. Get over it.
Step two: Decentralise the government. The UK is the most centralised government in the western world and it was, after all, the heavily decentralised government, the regions and the councils, that kept Belgium spinning through two years of non-central government. Or take a leaf out of Germany’s and Canada’s books, both have successful federal constitutions. The German one was imposed on Germany after WW2 to ensure that central government did not have excessive power.
There’s an irony there somewhere.
Borgen’s governance structure is equally decentralised and similarly handing many of Westminster’s internal powers to regional authorities will bring the debate right into our communities, allowing us to properly participate in decisions we want to see in our neck of the woods.
Step three – possibly the most important step of all, start hammering into our kids’ heads that, if they want to have real rights, they must take real responsibility. If they want nice schools, hospitals, roads, trains, buses, parks and playgrounds they need to do their bit to provide these goodies. There’s no such thing as a free lunch.
As citizens there are two ways in which we can play our part: 1) give our time for free and do it ourselves or 2) let our taxes pay someone else to do it. Simple as that. No ifs, no buts. So start investing community classes in schools with the time and attention they deserve and turn tomorrow’s people into constructive citizens. We get the government we deserve.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it? And it would be, weren’t it for the fact that these three little remedies are like sunlight, garlic and silver bullets to the Westminster vampires. Their lifeblood is an electorate, uncertain of its own understanding of matters political. Uninformed about ‘massively complex’ voting systems (not) and fearful, through lack of ‘expertise’ of losing what it has managed to scrape together so far.
The embarrassingly shameless behaviour of our politicians during the #indyref ‘ProjectFear’ campaign showed us the low level of esteem they hold us in but, having been exposed to a constant diet of political and corporate scandal for years, we are catching on. Given half a chance, we are also highly politicised, as both the Scottish YES and NO campaigns so emphatically demonstrated.
And implement our trio of solutions we must. The UK ship is creaking ominously and our Westminster wallies are not going to race each other to the pumps anytime soon.
So thank you Scotland for having the guts to prize open this feared Pandora’s Box. Now wedge it with a bloody great caber and let’s keep the show on the road.