Tuesday, 20 October 2009

In praise of idiots

The ancient Greeks used their word for ‘private’ as a derogatory term for someone who took no part in “public affairs”. That word ἴδιος (idios) is the root for our term for a stupid person – idiot. Today – in the Greek sense – most of us are idiots and I think this represents progress rather than a problem. That barely more that a third of Bingley Rural electors took the opportunity to vote last time I stood isn’t a disaster and those people are well aware of the purpose and value of voting - which I guess is why most of them don’t bother.

So let’s look at our typical idiots. Round here they’re probably in their thirties or forties, employed at a middle management level in business and industry. They worry about how well their kids do at school, they concern themselves with making their family safe, they grumble a bit about paying taxes but have enough cash afterwards for it not to really matter. Such folk are ordinary, hard-working and inherently conservative. But they also see little or no link between the act of voting in a politician from one party or another and the significant things in their lives.

To the political classes – and especially those on the left – this apathy is a terrible thing – to the point of demanding compulsory voting. The process of the election sits at the heart of our polity, voting defines us rather than the exercise of choice or liberty. As our good friends at the Guardian put it back in 2004 following one or other survey:

“… most people do not know who their MP is. Most are also mainly ignorant about basic political facts. Just one in seven considers themselves to be politically active. Only 51% say they would vote in a general election, and only half of all potential voters say they are interested in politics. Just 27% have trust in politicians generally (and this in one of the least corrupt and most transparent political systems on the planet). The media, local councils and business are all seen as more important than Westminster and the prime minister. For most people, politics is something that is done by and for others, in a system with which the majority feel little connection.”

Now the good left-wing liberals at the Guardian think this grumpiness, this disengagement, this disinterest is a problem. And that’s where I disagree – the core consideration is the extent to which we are able to live as Greek idiots. Quietly, privately, without bothering our neighbours with our problems – and when such people want change they will get up from their armchairs, walk away from the telly and vote. The idea that not being bothered with voting most of the time makes them bad people is a misplaced idea – they are the good folk.

Above all we should listen quietly to what this “apathy” calls for – it is less bothersome, less interfering, less hectoring and more effective government. Such people want government to be conducted at their level not to be the province of pompous politicians with overblown and lying rhetoric. And they want the language of common sense, freedom, liberty and choice to push away the elitist exclusivity of modern bureaucratic government.

Above all today’s idiots want to be left alone to live their lives as they choose. For me that’s the essence of politics – I praise these idiots and applaud their apathy.


Oleuanna said...

it's the only place I will admit to being apathetic..and now happily so.

Unknown said...

You sound like an idiot Simon...are you!

Simon Cooke said...

Clearly Chris I am not an idiot - merely aspiring to be one (in the Greek sense at least)!

Tom Paine said...

At the risk of agreeing with the Guardian, usually a sure sign of straying from the right path, the apathy is not really so benign is it? It allows "activists" to have a much greater impact on our lives than would be possible if the apathetic did their civic duty. We are losing our freedoms because the apathetic don't care enough to make it clear to the rascals in Westminster of all parties that they will be punished at the polls if they pester us. Not that compulsion is the answer.

Fidothedog said...

Compulsory voting is not the answer, if presented with three turds which do you pick?

juliandobson said...

I'm not in favour of compulsory voting, but I think you're being a bit complacent. If you look at the turnout figures there's a correlation between affluence and readiness to vote; in areas where they don't vote they don't stay away because they're comfortable, they stay away - to a large extent - because they're cynical.

Clearly that generalisation doesn't apply universally, but it's borne out by most research. And cynicism, I'd suggest, encourages people to opt for the kind of political solutions offered by the BNP, which thrives on people's distrust of mainstream politics.

Angry Exile said...

As an ex-pat Brit in Australia I can confirm that compulsory voting is not the answer. For one thing it changes what the Aussies still call the 'right' to vote into an imposed duty. For another it creates 'donkey voting' - those who are just avoiding the fine and wouldn't vote otherwise simply number all the boxes in the order they appear on the ballot paper, drop it in the top box and go home. In the UK people who don't care won't vote in the first place. The other problem, possibly unique to the Australian preferential system, is that the law more or less demands I vote for everyone... and of course most of the candidates I think are dickheads. STV might have it's merits but for heaven's sake don't let the UK copy Aussie compulsory preferential voting.

Anonymous said...

As a left-ish small-l libertarian, I wouldn't support compulsory voting. If it were to be introduced, I would only concede defeat if the ballot included an official 'none of the above' option, which forced all parties to select new candidates.

I do, however, agree with what Julian Dobson wrote above. You do, however, make a good point that in general, little of individuals' lives are influenced by the party in power or their policies regardless of what they say (though it did if you were a miner in the 80s, or a young prospective first-time buyer in the late 90s/early 00s). Politicians, their laws and bylaws set an environment, but it's upto people (aka 'society') to turn that into behaviour.

Anon #1

Anonymous said...

Student union elections have "RON" (re-open nominations). Why not proper elections?