Wednesday, May 05, 2010

X marks the spot: election day is special.

 The average person voting to choose who makes the laws and governs is extremely unusual when you look at world history. The UK is 'the oldest parliamentary democracy in the world' and we only introduced something close to universal suffrage in 1928. That's within my grandparents' lifetime. Voting is part of our key freedoms - freedom of speech and freedom of association. 

We take it for granted that we can vocally disagree with our primeminister and call for the end of his leadership in the most abrupt terms without fear of reprisal. Try asking the Spanish whether that was possible before 1976 under Franco or the Russians under Bhreshnev in the 1970s and 1980s.

I can meet up with others and discuss a completely new form of political system if I want to and go to church on a Sunday without fear of arrest or 'disappearance'. Not something the reformers massacred at Peterloo, Manchester in 1819 or Catholics in the 17th and 18th centuries would do lightly.

It's a cliche that my grandparent's generation fought for the freedoms to vote and speak freely that they'd so recently won, but none the less true for it. Those freedoms really were under threat in the UK first from the Nazi Germany and then the Communists. Modern, civilised countries like Hungary and East Germany  had to wait until the 1990s for another chance to vote freely.

It's therefore a privilege and a duty to vote.

Democracies are fragile. If we don't exercise our vote it imperils our freedoms.

If the link's not clear hopefully this handy homemade flow chart will help.

Not many people vote or hold the government to account
Government doesn't have a strong mandate or legitimacy to govern. (i.e. there's no broad agreement among the population that they have the right to govern.)
Government finds it can get away with stuff because not held accountable, but is still unpopular
Government finds ways other than voting to claim legitimacy i.e. ultra populist give aways to keep people quiet and buy them off / claiming there's a big crisis and so strong unified leadership is needed. The military step into prop up the government.
Government says that dissenters are enemies of the people and the country. There's no longer the democratic space or methods to challenge those in power.
Government uses force, coercion and fear to maintain power. It cannot rely on the consent of the governed.
How far down the chart is the UK?
Democracy works because it provides a way for us as a country to agree on who has the right to rule us. David Cameron didn't assassinate Gordon Brown and seize power by force and precipitate a civil war was because he knows that the rest of the country agreed that the Labour party, by the rules in place, should be in charge of the country for a few years.   If we don't join in with giving that peaceful consent by voting we risk rulers having to find other ways to maintain power - through force, fear and bribery.
Every time I walk into a polling station and mark my X in a box next to a candidate of my choice,  freely and unwatched I marvel at what I've just been able to do. Then I look around and imagine the millions of other people in the country doing the same thing on the same day. Joining in the rare and unusual national act of choosing who will have power to shape our lives for the next five years.
Enjoy election day - it's special.

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