Vote? Why bother?

In this general election, visiting the polling station seems more pointless than ever, says Felipe Fernández-Armesto

April 30, 2015

I voted once. It was 1979, in UK parliamentary elections. Mrs Thatcher led the Conservatives. Most voters were reacting against the long period of economic chaos and industrial unrest over which Labour governments had presided. In my effort to escape an irksome civic obligation, and to resist my wife’s insistence that I join her at the polls, I affected outrage. “I won’t”, I said, “take part in a system that presumes to put me on the same level as 50 million other people.” My wife knew me too well to indulge my taste for pointless argument. “You will vote,” she declared. “And you will vote Conservative.”

The constituency we lived in already had a five-figure Conservative majority; so I felt that my ballot was redundant. But I did my duty by wife and state. In the booth, I noticed that Patrick Moore, the bonhomous, eccentric astronomer was a candidate for something called, if I remember correctly, the United Country Party. I put my cross by his name. “You did vote Conservative?” asked my wife, with an interrogative intonation, as I emerged. “I voted”, I said, “for a conservative.”

If no one votes on 7 May, will the Speaker remain as the only MP? Will all legislative duties devolve to the House of Lords?

Every time another election comes round, I am astonished at how non-participation evokes disapproval. Educational institutions feel obliged to encourage voting, and in commonplace condemnations the apathy of “young people” seems to be regarded as evidence of the failure of the polity – even though, for those who think that voting is an important exercise of responsibility, it would make sense to discourage or debar the young on the grounds that they are least fitted, in general, by knowledge and wisdom, to behave appropriately. In schools and universities, we can do more for the country and the world by educating bureaucrats, technocrats, judges, media mavens and plutocrats, who have real power, than by telling our students to waste their time casting ballots for the front men and fall guys in the legislature and the Cabinet.

I resume the routine debate with my wife. “If you don’t vote,” she says, “you forfeit your right to criticise the politicians.”

“No. Their immorality and incompetence will survive my abstention, and remain equally worthy of my obloquy.”

“If you don’t vote, you’re betraying democracy.”

“No. I’m exercising my democratic right of conscientious non-participation.”

“You owe it to all who struggled and are struggling for the vote.”

“No. I admire and respect hard work on behalf of causes to which I’m hostile or indifferent. But sincere and laudable sacrifices by members of the National Rifle Association, the League Against Cruel Sports, the Revolutionary Workers League and the Temperance movement, don’t oblige me to buy a gun, abjure bullfighting, join a picket line or stopper my Scotch.”

“Voting with your fellow citizens is an act of solidarity incumbent on you as a member of a community, like going to Mass with your fellow Catholics, or taking cakes to departmental coffee mornings.”

“No. I subscribe to the community you have in mind by paying taxes, obeying laws and talking about the weather in English. Those are things that matter.”

“Imagine what would happen if everyone behaved like you.”

“The prospects are so interesting as to invite the experiment. If no one votes on 7 May, will the Speaker remain as the only MP? Will all legislative duties devolve to the House of Lords?”

“Suppose the outcome in our constituency is decided by a single vote.”

“Our home in England is in David Cameron’s constituency. I’ll take the chance.”

The forthcoming general election seems to me to make voting more pointless than ever. Power has seeped from elected politicians to offstage string-pullers and prompters. The convergence of the main parties has become so marked that even if the next Cabinet really had the power to affect the future, its composition would hardly matter. According to their current rhetoric, the Conservatives will binge on the NHS and be “the party of working people” while Labour will cut the deficit, defend the unity of the kingdom and befriend business. The battle is as momentous as Tweedledum’s against Tweedledee. If, as pundits predict, another hung parliament is going to dangle indecisively, the politicians’ already compromised freedom to make a difference will be feebler than ever.

“I hope you don’t say this sort of thing to your students,” my wife concludes. “You’d be encouraging apathy and je m’enfoutisme.”

A sense of unease assails me. Most of my students at Notre Dame are Americans. If I were to apply for US citizenship, as I perhaps should after committing to life and livelihood in Indiana, I should have to endorse the officially sanctioned wisdom that “the right to vote is the most important right of a citizen”. This seems to me a silly shibboleth in a country equivocal about the rights to life (withheld from murderers and the unborn), to a fair trial (denied to suspected terrorists), and to habeas corpus (unavailable to prisoners in Guantanamo). In any case, there are, as Gore Vidal once said, only two US parties: conservative and reactionary. I cannot be troubled with the difference between Labour and Tory. So how will I cope in 2016, if I go ahead with the citizenship test, and face my wife’s urging to choose between Republicans and Democrats?

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