IF the refrain of Britain’s younger voters is to be believed, today’s general election will be a waste of time rather than a reaffirmation of Britain’s democratic values. Dismissive comments in the pub range from “there’s no point” to “all politicians break their promises so why bother?”
It’s a good job that these sentiments were not heard within earshot of those veterans who fought for this country’s very existence in the Second World War – or those old enough to remember the liberating effect of VE Day 70 years ago tomorrow.
They would despair that their sacrifices had led to an apathetic generation who appear not to comprehend their civic duty of sparing a couple of minutes to go to a polling station and mark a piece of paper with a simple “X” before placing it in a black box.
I suppose that it is not surprising, given that 54 per cent of Britons aged 18 to 25 did not know – according to one poll – the historical significance of VE Day. Perhaps they will think again if they view today’s election in the context of the Second World War and its aftermath, rather than this uninspiring campaign which has tested the tolerance of many – including political diehards – who remember the soaring oratory of the post-war years when leaders has to be statesmen and conviction politicians at heart.
The context is this. Victory In Europe Day on May 8, 1945, was the first occasion in six years that a weather forecast could be broadcast to the nation – wartime restrictions were that draconian. Street parties across Yorkshire were remarkable for the fact that every child was given an orange to eat – citrus fruits were restricted under rationing. And it was the one occasion when a young Princess Elizabeth was able to party on the streets of London, linking arms with complete strangers.
As The Yorkshire Post’s editorial said on this momentous day: “If this war, which was everybody’s war, has left difficult problems, it should have left us also the experience and will to solve them.”
They are wise words, which explain why every adult has a moral obligation to register a vote today – sympathy for those who bemoan the state of the country, and then abstain from the election, is undeserved. My question to the disillusioned would be this: “What are you going to do about it?” And my advice? I would challenge such people to become more involved in the cut and thrust of political debate, whether it be joining a party, becoming more engaged in certain issues or even something mundane as joining the debate on social media and registering their disquiet at future polls if their MP does not meet expectations.
Like it or not, the overwhelming majority of politicians are motivated by the best of intentions. They are committed to serving their community. And, while some can be guilty of naïvety, they’re not corrupt – a term that should be reserved for those who deliberately set out to defraud the taxpayer and who have now been brought to justice.
They’re also the most scrutinised politicians in history. Today’s transparency offers a total contrast to the deference of the post-war years when MPs could operate under the radar. In this regard, it’s a double-edged sword – it is easier to expose hypocrisy and such acts therefore seem more prevalent.
Conversely the advent of the internet, and those websites which monitor the voting record of politicians, means this should be the most informed electorate in history. Ignorance is no longer a defence. Public service needs encouraging rather than ruthless ridicule.
It was the French philosopher Joseph de Maistre who once ventured: “Every nation gets the government it deserves.” Such profound thinking is as relevant today as it was in the early 1800s. One reason why Britain ended up with its first post-war coalition in 2010 was because just 65.1 per cent of eligible voters – marginally less than two-thirds of the total electorate – went to the ballot box. Would the outcome have been different if turnout had been any higher? The country will now never know.
However today’s poll is also one of those rare instances where every vote will be critical. Even in “safe” seats that have been largely ignored, the total number of votes cast could, potentially, be one of the factors that determines whether it is David Cameron or Ed Miliband who emerges from this bruising election with the stronger mandate and greater political legitimacy.
Yet, while I agree with those who so want politics to be more consensual, and less confrontational, than the tribalism that characterises the modern House of Commons, today’s adversarial system is still superior to the alternative which was staring this country in the face just over seven decades ago – Hitler’s Nazi tyranny.
In this regard, we owe it to our forebears to vote and remember the lives were lost, and the blood that was spilled. It is a sobering thought which puts the challenges of today into perspective – they’re nothing compared to the dark days when the Battle of Britain was being waged in the skies. And, because of this, we should be eternally grateful that the attitude of the conscripted was not one of ambivalence. Duty called then and it does so again today.