[Update, 26 May, 13:29 BST — This post was written over the weekend of 24 May. Today, the UK’s European Parliament election results were released. Ukip came first across the UK, with 27.49% of the vote and 24 seats. In Scotland, they picked up one seat, with 10.46%, as the Liberal Democrat vote in Scotland melted down. ]
On Thursday, I voted for the first time since my repatriation, in Scotland’s elections to the European Parliament. The neighbourhood’s polling station is the local primary school, and it seemed appropriate that during my absence it has been extended in the modern Scottish style that echoes the Scandic. I thought that I had better toddle along, particularly after Mrs Stroke Bloke’s dad had sent me this riotous Danish public broadcast. I certainly wouldn’t want my next menage à six ruined by political apathy.
Upon reaching Blackhall Primary, all clean lines and weathered wooden slats, signs directed me to the gymnasium, where the — there’s no other way to put this — quaint little polling booths had been set up. They could easily have been constructed by the pupils.
First vote since repatriation. Couldn’t find the lever, but not too worried about hanging chads.
— Ricky Brown (@ricky_ballboy) May 22, 2014
Paw Broon and I were the only voters in the hall as we cast our ballots. Which seemed about right. European elections are notorious for their low turnout. As I write, I hear from one of the members of National Collective that UK turnout on Thursday “was about 41%, up from 35% [in 2009).” Presumably, the figure was boosted by the increase in political engagement north of the border pursuant to #indyref, and the stooshie created by the emergence of Ukip as some kind of political force in the south. [Update: the Scottish turnout was 39%, up 11%.]
I was listening to a slightly more Radio 4 discussion among members of the British public on the issue of voting as I left the school. It was lead by the station’s Public Philosopher, Michael Sandel. Harvard professor Sandel is described as a kind of communitarian, but nevertheless opened the discussion in a fashion that suggested why turnout in presidential elections is also routinely derided.
As always, I must flag my affection for the U.S. of A., its diversity of thought and the level of intellectual engagement of millions of individual Americans with the issues they care about (not least the NSA revelations discussed below). And the relevant issue is one in the British Isles and continental Europe, just as it is in the States. Nevertheless, perhaps as a coincidence of timing and education, I was most exposed to it doing my years abroad. What I’m getting at, is that Sandel continually reframed the motivations for casting (or not casting) a vote solely in terms of the effect on the individual making the decision, and techniques of economic analysis.
Having won my high school’s economics prize and studied Economic Analysis of the Law for my degree, I’m absolutely aware of the utility of this approach (as measured in utils, no doubt), and that we can ascribe economic value to the satisfaction an individual derives from the act of voting and the perceived virtue of performing her civic duty.
Nevertheless, the classification of something as a matter of public or private interest is an important one, and not just for the usual socialist/libertarian reasons. As has been noted by Professor Charles Raab in the debates on privacy in the wake of the Snowden NSA revelations, the categorisation of privacy as a private good (as opposed to the public good of defeating the terrorists/the Russians/the Chinese economic machine/the nonces) makes it difficult for those who support the disclosures to win the argument in the political arena. Yet, privacy is also a public good. As Glenn Goodwald notes in his terrifying account of the revelations, No Place To Hide:
Privacy is a core condition of being a free person, [allowing us a realm] where we can act, think, speak, write, experiment and choose how to be away from the judgmental eyes of others.
This is a vital consideration, not just for the individual but also for society at large. Private goods, however, are more easily ceded than public. So Michael Sandel felt correct — in the click-baiting nature of current public discourse — in equating the benefit an individual derives from a £200 bribe to vote with the benefit that individual derives from the fulfillment of an electoral promise to deliver a £200 tax cut. The direction of the discussion therefore began by undercutting the importance of at least addressing the benefits and drawbacks of considering the welfare of society at large in deciding whether to vote.
A number a members of the audience — clearly extensively educated and sufficiently politically engaged to attend the lecture — grabbed onto the individualist plank of theory, talking of the value of being left alone to clear the garage rather than voting for some tosser.
But maybe we get the politicians we deserve. In light of last week’s post about the importance of recognising the story of the other, I could hardly stay home. In the run-up to the elections, Ukip leader Nigel Farage spoke of the issue of having a Romanian live next door. Because they’re different, aren’t they? Like the pooves, who UKIP councillor David Silvester blamed for the winter floods. And the Scots in New York. And the brain damaged.
I didn’t vote in Scotland through most of my years abroad, through a combination of work pressure militating against jumping through the hoops of securing an overseas vote, the ennui engendered by depression and, most high-mindedly, a feeling that I had no right to have a say in the governance of the locals of Blackhall when the Department of Sanitation for the New York municipality was picking up my trash.
Hopefully, dear reader, none of these issues impact on you, and you’re all set up to vote in whatever elections apply to you this year. Otherwise, how are you going to take up the democratic cudgel against the racists, the sexists and homophobes who would choose to represent us?
Or, y’know, get rid of the queers and the foreigners and the vegetables?