Telling a pinch from a punch in the mother of democracy

June 1, 2001

Election campaigning has left Vincent Magombe questioning the meaning of politics in Britain today.

I have never seen anything like it. A deputy prime minister anointed with egg, a light punch thrown back in self-defence and a frenetic media circus, as if there were nothing more important to talk about in 21st-century Britain. All this at the start of the 2001 elections in the land that is often called the mother of democracy raises some questions about the meaning of elections and, indeed, democracy itself in Britain today.

The ancient Athenian democratic assembly was an example of a collective dynamic, where all male citizens would discuss and determine the affairs of the state, leaving the government to rubber-stamp and implement their decisions.

In modern times, the so-called democratic states of the world, Britain included, have so manifestly disengaged themselves from the concept of people-centred democracy that the voting public often feels ostracised and almost wholly disenfranchised. The axiom that democracy can be created only by the people for the people has been all but forgotten.

So, should we go back to the ideals of ancient Athens? Perhaps not - its democracy excluded women and non-Greek residents (as a non-English citizen of a Commonwealth country, formerly a British colony, I am thankfully able to cast my vote in a British election). My recent trip to Ghana, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Kenya and Uganda did not convince me that Africa has many lessons for us in democracy. That was one of the reasons I fled my country - Uganda - 20 years ago.

Over the years, though, I have come to question the democratic credentials of my new home, a land that I had learnt about in childhood lullabies sung to me by my wise uncles and aunts around the night fires.

One thing is clear. Like a growing number of the voting public in Britain, I am getting rather fed up with politicians who seek to patronise me. Like their African counterparts, some British politicians seem to think that voters are stupid and cannot tell a pinch from a punch on the cheek.

And so they come prancing to our doorsteps, promising gold and a trip to heaven in exchange for our vote on polling day. "We shall deliver better public services," their well-rehearsed song goes, "and more doctors, more nurses, higher salaries, higher pensions, less taxes, everything you want, you will get."

As interesting is the way that modern-day British politicians want us to believe that they somehow possess that rare virtue of knowing exactly what voters think. For example, we are constantly reminded at election time that the majority of the British voting public nurtures a deep antipathy towards immigrants, especially economic ones, and would thus wish to see Britain transformed into some kind of impenetrable fortress equipped with as many detention centres as possible to house those entrants who may have dodged their way into the land of milk and honey.

Meanwhile, as the supposedly intolerant and isolationist British public continues to be portrayed in this way, the entrants themselves, who have to suffer the ultimate indignity of being denied their basic human rights and freedoms, are kindly reminded by the same politicians that all this important and meaningful talk and strategising is, after all, in their interests.

But how should we the voters take this election-time "I-know-what-is-best-for-you" attitude by our politicians?

A recent Guardian /ICM opinion poll on asylum and immigration might be a somewhat unique media indicator of how some British politicians might have got it all wrong.

According to the poll, the majority of the British public (51 per cent) are happy to welcome into the United Kingdom economic migrants, unskilled as well as skilled, be it on a quota basis or points scheme as is done in countries such as the United States and Canada. In the words of Alan Travis, The Guardian 's home affairs editor: "The results of this poll... turn the conventional Westminster political wisdom about immigration on its head... (and they)... challenge the conventional wisdom of the past 40 years that a politician who promises to open the doors to more economic migrants will pay a heavy price."

But often voters' intentions can be difficult to project in today's increasingly colourful political campaign game. They can rapidly swing this way or that, not because of some ethical or intellectual counter-punch on the part of a politician, but because of the omnipotence of political doctoring and spinology, not to mention the money factor, which excludes wider participation in politics in western post-communist countries.

Another element that seems to influence voters is the slapstick factor. These days, a politician just has to wear a very wide smile on his face, launch one or two left hooks at a voter's chin and, most importantly, wear a funny baseball hat at some cultural gala, and he or she is a winner.

Last but not least, I have always wondered why some British politicians only raise particular issues in a particular way during election campaigns. Might it be that come election time, like prodigal sons, they must return home to eat again?

In a book published in 1966, under the title Song of Lawino , Uganda's best known poet, Okot p' Bitek, wrote: "And those who have fallen into things/ Throw themselves into soft beds, But the hip bones of the voters/ Grow painful/ Sleeping on the same earth/ They slept/ Before Uhuru (freedom day).../ And when they have fallen into things/ They become rare,/ Like a bull water buck/ In its tummy,/ They hibernate and stay away/ And eat!/ They return/ To the countryside/ For the next elections/ Like the kite/ That returns during the Dry/ Season/ When the kites have returned/ The Dry Season has come!" Okot p' Bitek was, of course, referring to politicians in postcolonial Africa. But how real this story seems in relation to present-day Britain.

Vincent Magombe was forced to flee Uganda after an attempted assassination by pro-Idi Amin soldiers. He is director of Africa Inform International, an African media agency based in London.

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