Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

The impact of the limited

A bit of recycling today in response to A K Haart's thought-provoking piece on Low Information Voters.

It's a problem (though some unscrupulous types doubtless see it as quite the reverse) that has beset political theorists since the ancient Greeks first came up with the idea of allowing everyone* a say in government and a usefully catchy word to describe it.

Now, though, we are entering a new age of democracy where voting, for many, is a word associated with prime-time television rather than exercising a political right and duty. More than ever before, the unthinking and intellectually idle masses are applying the most superficial and trivial standards when choosing who gets their vote; will they apply the same criteria when they enter the polling booth?

(* 'everyone', of course, excluded women, slaves or foreigners; much the same attitude can still be found in certain English golf clubs.)

This post first appeared here in June 2010:

One person - seven votes

'I doubt if history can show, in any country at any time, a more greedy form of government than democracy as practised in Great Britain in the last fifty years. The common man has held the voting power, and the common man has voted consistently to increase his own standard of living, regardless of the long-term interests of his children, regardless of the wider interests of his country.

No despot, no autocratic monarch in his pride and greed has injured England so much as the common man. Every penny that could be wrung out of the nation has been devoted to raising the standard of living of the least competent elements in the country, who have held the voting power.'

Not my words, but those of a character in Nevil Shute’s speculative 1953 novel ‘In the Wet’. Like Orwell five years earlier, Shute sets his narrative in a dystopian vision of the 1980's to make a political point. He presents a radical solution; in his book, some commonwealth countries have adopted a system of multiple votes*.

An Australian explains the system to English friends: “I’m a three-vote man – basic, education and foreign travel”. Everyone, he says, has a basic vote, university graduates get a second one and the third is for working abroad for at least two years.

Another vote is for raising two children to the age of fourteen – though only for couples who stay married. There’s an extra vote for significant business achievement and another for holding a paid position in the church. And finally there’s the Royal Charter – an extra vote to reward exceptional military or other service for one's country.

Shute’s novel has fallen into disfavour – hardly surprising, when the mixed race hero is known to his friends as ‘Nigger'; the book contains enough casual racism and sexism to keep the EHRC frothing at the mouth for weeks – but it would be interesting to hear his ideas debated at large.

After all, there’s something horribly prescient in some of the opinions he wrote nearly sixty years ago.

*As have certain British inner city areas today - unofficially.


  1. I haven't read Shute’s novel, although I've heard of his multiple vote idea.

    I'm cynical on these matters and don't believe there are incorruptible voting systems.

    I think unforeseen events are what correct our mistakes, which is not something to look forward to, but no doubt we'll survive.

  2. " Every penny that could be wrung out of the nation has been devoted to raising the standard of living of the least competent elements in the country..."

    Prescient chap, that Mr Shute...

  3. Recall that I once read the book but remember very little about it. Have been looking at the new online facility for reading old newspapers from the past. It is astonishing to see the amount of serious information, the open discussion etc. for local, national and international news. It is beyond anything today.

  4. I read that novel when the 1980s were a decade off.

  5. Meritocracy - three votes for those who can pass the exam, two votes for those who can pass the simple test, one for everyone else living in the country more than fifteen years.

  6. AKH, No system is fool - or tamper-proof and multiple votes would be less so than most, but it's an interesting 'thought experiment' none the less.

    Julia, prescicent and impressively articulate; what a blog he would have written!

    Demetrius, is that the British Library facility? I wonder if it's something to do with pictures in the media; once upon a time, the words had to engage the imagination unaided.

    LR, I'd be interested to hear whether it strikes you differently now.

    JH, thought-provoking idea - if only to imagine the outcry if anyone seriously suggested it. I wonder if it would make any difference....

  7. I'd need to read it again...


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