School children in the UK will be particularly familiar with elections and electoral politics by the end of term.
By the final stages of the summer holiday we will have had two general elections and one referendum in the space of two years.
What must they be thinking?
Do adults have difficulty making their minds up? Besides, what do elections tell us about ourselves and the people who vote in them?
The recent Turkish referendum, which took place half way through our Easter break, appears to have had Turkey voting for an early Christmas. President Erdogan will soon be able to rule, sultan-like, without his parliament and quasi-dictatorially until 2029. Children will ask why the Turkish people voted for this situation, recently described in the Economist as ‘one generating a state of permanent crisis.’ The rural/urban divide has got something to do with it, as has the secularist/Islamist divide. Putting possible electoral fraud aside, it is clear that many citizens have turned their backs on democracy.
Dutch democracy just about got through its election last March, when the lurch towards the right wing politics of Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom did not happen as completely as some commentators had feared. Nevertheless, he now presides over the second largest party in the Dutch parliament. What is going on?
Meanwhile in France, the voters have now turned their backs on the largely discredited parties of the traditional centre and centre left. Macron might be favourite to win but so was Clinton and so was the Remain lobby. France, too, appears divided. Look at an electoral map of France and you will see that Macron’s support largely came from the west of the Paris meridian line, whilst the support for Le Pen comes from the east. As an Englishman, it’s tempting to refer back rather mischievously to the tensions that have historically existed either side of the Rhine to explain the geography of Le Pen’s support, but it is most certainly much more complicated than that.
Elections will inevitably accentuate what divides us. One question for young people seeking to understand their own societies, regardless of whether they are first time voters or still a few years away, is about the kind of divisions that will be revealed. In many respects, this election will be rather peculiar because there will be a good number of Labour supporters who will want to lose it in order to acquire an opportunity to rebuild and put an end to their own internal divisions.
But as the late Jo Cox MP so memorably put it, what unites us is far stronger than what divides us. I would like to think that, unlike Turkey and possibly Holland and France, we hold our democratic institutions dear and we treat them with the care they require. Today’s cultures of political expression and the rule of law were hard won gains. The moderation that dominates our politics, unlike the politics of some of our neighbours, has been long in the making. Magna Carta established some early principles of accountability over 800 years ago. The English middle classes started to have their economic influence matched by the right to have real political expression just under 200 years ago. The English working classes have been voting for 150 years now. The hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage will be celebrated next year, on the 6th of February.
So our pupils and students will be encouraged over the next few weeks and most certainly between the dissolution of Parliament and Election Day, to observe and to reflect. What will this election tell us about our communities and our country? And most importantly, just how healthy is our hard won democracy?