Obviously I’m writing this in the days following the referendum on whether the United Kingdom should remain in the European Union or leave it.
I voted to stay in, but that’s really only incidental to this post. I really don’t mind if you voted to leave or remain, as long as you knew what you were doing and why.
What I do mind, and I really mind, is that some people made uninformed choices on Thursday 23rd June, which they are now reportedly regretting. I also mind that nearly 30% of the eligible electorate stayed away from the polling stations. In neither case is this because I think they should all have voted to remain in the EU.
No, it is because I believe our society has failed to ensure that the relevance of politics to every single citizen of the United Kingdom has been made out adequately and failed to make clear to everyone the potential consequences of the actions of politicians and the Government on our society and our future.
I include myself in that declaration of societal failure. I could have done more to increase understanding of the political spectrum, the political process and the significance of a national Referendum. I’m not talking about in the last 3 weeks, I’m talking about over the last 20 years.
I feel fortunate to have studied and worked in areas where an understanding of politics is fundamental to being able to progress. But I’ve spent my adult life in society where sex, religion and politics are all no-go areas for discussion. Except (in the last 10 years or so) sex.
My earliest memory of politics is aged about 12, when a schoolfriend’s dad was running for local council, standing for the Liberal Party (pre-merger with the SDP). She and I waved yellow ribbons around school all day, having not the faintest idea what they stood for.
When I did my A Levels, I chose Sociology as a wild card. I very quickly realised that I enjoyed it and gave it all my effort (to the detriment of History and French, the first of which I dropped out of, and the second of which I was booted off for non-attendance and general lack of application). Going into the Upper Sixth with only 2 subjects still willing to have me, I opted for an intensive 1-year Politics and Government A Level (which was designed primarily for re-sit students as a refresher). I reasoned that to be good at Sociology, I needed to understand the political forces at work on the range of sociological viewpoints.
The lecturer was a committed Left-winger. He referred to the Conservative Party as the “Bloody Bastard Tories”. He was unable to deliver lectures the day after the 1992 General Election through sheer grief that the Labour Party had lost. I thought he was being melodramatic. I didn’t like him, I thought he was “Loony-Left” and I screwed up his crappy A Level big style.
Despite this, I secured a place at Bath University to study Sociology with Industrial Relations. In my placement year, I fluked a job with MORI (now Ipsos MORI), as a Research Assistant to the Political Team. I learnt so much from being in that environment. In that year, I visited the Houses of Parliament regularly (ok, so it was to deliver post) and worked on their 2-yearly MP’s Attitudes survey (well, I photocopied it). But I was immersed in an environment where politics was the focus, day in, day out. One of my jobs was to scour the papers for political stories and/or mentions of MORI to deliver the daily press bulletin to the then Chairman, Robert Worcester.
After graduation, I went to Law School. An understanding of politics was fundamental to at least 2 of the Foundation subjects (Public and Constitutional Law and EC Law – as it then was). I remember drawing the political spectrum Left to Right for a fellow student who hadn’t studied politics to that point.
As an employment lawyer, the inevitable metronome of Right, to Left and back again profoundly influenced the laws on which I advised. Politics inextricably entwined with the law I love so much. Even though I have now left the legal profession, the influence of politics on employment law remains relevant in my new career as an HR practitioner.
I have made it my business to understand politics. I’ve watched the power struggles, posturing, question-avoiding and outright bullshitting by politicians all my adult life. I’ve already lived under 2 Prime Ministers who had no public mandate – John Major and Gordon Brown (to be fair, John Major achieved his in the 1992 General Election and stayed in power for a further 5 years), and here we are about to have a 3rd, heaven only knows who it will be. I’m appalled by the lies, the sleaze, the blame, the infighting and playground tactics. But I will not disengage. My right to vote was hard-fought. My freedom to associate myself wherever I see fit and vote how I like, I don’t take that for granted.
But I haven’t really done anything to engage others with politics. I’m not really sure how I would or could have done this. I’m not sure even now, but I think those of us who are engaged need to have a long hard think about those who are not, why they are not, what we can learn from it, and what (if anything) we can do about it. As I said at the beginning of this post, this is not a sour grapes Remain voter having a go at Leave. This is a reaction to the reports that some voters did not really expect their vote to count or that they regret voting the way they did.
When I stood in the booth on Thursday with my voting slip, I felt it to be momentous. I looked at it very carefully to make sure I put my cross in the box of my choice. I knew that in a Referendum, every single vote would count. I am devastated to learn that some others did not appreciate that significance. We are all responsible for that.
My vision is for these uncertain and difficult times to lead to higher voter turnout and higher levels of political engagement. The last 20 years have involved a lot of head-shaking and shoulder shrugging from the politicians, the activists and the voters “ah well, turnout was low, you can lead a horse to water etc etc….”. Not good enough, society – not good enough.
I don’t know quite what I am going to do about it. I have no immediate plan. But I don’t think I’m the only one judging by the news reports….