[ 17:59 thursday 7 june – coffee@brick lane, shoreditch, london ]
democracy is being celebrated today, rather as mass is celebrated each sunday by christians. throughout these isles people solemnly attend public buildings, queue at a booth and write an x in one of several squares on a piece of card (using a soft pencil whose colour has carefully been selected). then the card is folded and posted through a slit into a black metal box secured with a great big lock.
this is the third general election in which i have been entitled to vote and the first in which i have chosen not to. perhaps this will also be the last uk general election in which i am free to make such a choice without thereby electing myself a criminal. we shall see.
it would be easy to deplore my choice and point to all the peoples in the world who are fighting for democracy. it must seem ungrateful that we who have achieved it should scorn its exercise. i do sympathise.
last december in ghana i witnessed a poignant moment in the emergence of a democratic society. after 26 years of rule, flight lieutenant jerry john rawlings decided to step down from the presidency.
ghanaians had heard this before. a couple of decades earlier he’d called elections and handed over to a civilian administration only to take power a year later with another coup. people couldn’t quite believe this time would be any different. in the weeks before the election people were growing noticably tense. rumours of army movements began to bubble around. it was an uncertain time.
on election day i was travelling in the remains of a van from the akasombo dam in the east of the country to takoradi in the south-west, where i spent my first night by the ghanaian atlantic. in every village i passed there was a crowd around the polling booth. i stopped for a couple of hours in the capital accra to sample the mood. the air force was making its presence felt and officials were a little more edgy than usual. but the election seemed to be proceeding smoothly.
as the results came in through the following days i was amongst the fishermen of dixcove and jamestown. people hovered anxiously in groups around the few battery-powered radios they possessed following the announcements and calculating the implications. at first it looked as if the opposition was going to wipe out rawlings’ party. a sheepish euphoria began to rise, rather like children who have done something very naughty but are close to getting away with it. then a trickle of contrary results began and the mood changed.
it looked shaky for a day or two but finally it was clear that rawlings’ party and his chosen presidential candidate had been rejected. power had been transferred from one group of people to another by the choice of a large portion of the population. there had been violence and intimidation and fraud but it had been limited. fewer than a hundred people had died.
unmistakably it was democracy. everywhere i went you could see that people were feeling a new pride in their country. ghanaians knew the world had been looking at them, desperate to see some cause for hope in africa. ghana had just done something good.
meanwhile the most powerful society on earth was playing out the most farcical election in its history.
which sort of brings me back to where i was. out in ghana there was a tremendous sense of urgency about voting. back here in britain somehow it just doesn’t feel so important that i go and write an x in a little square.
the proportion of a society which chooses to vote in an election is an indication of the effectiveness of its system of government. it’s a kind of meta-vote, more fundamental than the support expressed for any specific individual or group. i think we should regard the falling levels of participation in elections throughout the ‘developed’ world as a sign of growing democratic maturity and progress. these societies have outgrown their current crude systems and are in the process of evolving to something more sophisticated. but this is not quite how politicians view low turn-out. indeed it is notable that the main pressure to keep participating in the old ritual comes from politicians which has to makes you wonder.
our system differs from feudal monarchies mainly in the provision of a mechanism for people to remove the ruling cadre from time to time. this is a great improvement but it mustn’t blind us to how little else has changed. we still operate a system where a small group of people has a monopoly of authority over a large group of people. the fact that this large group of people is accorded the opportunity to put an x in a square every five years or so does seem a trifle disappointing as the extent of our advancement.
people argue that pre-democratic systems were operated for the benefit of the ruling cadre, whereas modern democracies are operated for the benefit of the whole society. but i suspect this analysis is a little rose-tinted. modern governments are certainly obliged to put more effort into maintaining the appearance of serving wide interests than did their forbears, but i doubt there has been a clear-cut transformation. humans nature hasn’t changed a lot.
it is also notable that just as the franchise was being extended more widely throughout our societies, real power was starting to seep away from governments to industrialists and financiers. what’s left may be little more than a charade, a habit continued for the reassurance it gives us.
of course there is debate about electoral reform. but it restricts itself to changing which small group will take control as a result of your x in the square.
i have not yet encountered a human community which does not to some extent concentrate decision-making authority. hence i find notions of direct participatory democracy, in which everyone is involved in every decision, utopian.
but it is simply not acceptable to bat away criticism of the status quo with this argument. a million other possibilities exist if only we have the courage and imagination to consider them. if we were not so fetishistically attached to our current systems we might not be so blind to alternatives.
i suppose i could have gone and put my x outside any of the squares, or written a short poem or a limerick on the card instead. but whilst the freedom exists to do nothing at all i think it is a purer expression of my democratic opinion.
[ 00:44 friday 7 june – palissy street, shoreditch, london ]
election results and reportage stream in as i write. my desktop is alive with gleeful proclamations of conservative annihilation. in the bbc’s video feed the sombre commentary is punctuated by computer-animated caberets. this is our grand quad/quintannual supplication to the god democracy. the public demands a triumph and a sacrifice.
let us observe what our revolutions and struggles have won for us. this is a game show.