Why should we have a right to vote?
Reports of research revealing that 5% of UK adults believe that the Holocaust did not happen are truly shocking, and should be a cause of grave concern to politicians and policy-makers alike. The same poll also indicated that 1 in 12 people consider that the magnitude of the killing has been exaggerated. How could genocide in Europe on such a vast scale be airbrushed whilst it is still within living memory? The repercussions of our collective failure in allowing this to happen go beyond the scope of our blog, but amongst other concerns, it raises serious questions about how well informed some people are when they take part in the democratic process.
We have talked in recent blogs about deep-rooted constitutional tensions between the Executive, Parliament and the People. In some respects, a three-way tug of war has been going on ever since the seventeenth century. Ultimately, Parliament gained and retained the upper hand, and is now, arguably, the strongest institution within the United Kingdom framework. However, if the legislature is ultimately in the constitutional driving seat, we are still left with the question of who or what Parliament is. As we have discussed previously, the legislature cannot really be described as the voice of the people in the British model, as the system is, ordinarily, one of representative democracy. Nevertheless, the nature of the representatives who find themselves in the House of Commons is determined by popular vote. In other words, whilst the People do not get to sit directly at the steering-wheel, they do decide who is given the car-keys.
This makes the question of who is entitled to vote a critical one. Originally, the right to vote was based on property, a position justified partly on the basis that this represented a stake in society. It was also generally thought that the rich were more likely to be educated, well informed and able to make sound and rational judgements about the common good. Alongside this, an interpretation of Christianity which saw people as appointed by God to their station in life, lingered into the twentieth century. This is typified by this, now usually expunged, verse of All Things Bright and Beautiful:
“The rich man in the castle, the poor man at his gate. God made them high and lowly, and ordered their estate”.
Over time, of course, society gradually shifted, and more and more people gained access to the vote. In very broad terms, middle class males gained the vote in 1832, working class male householders in cities in 1867, working class male householders in the countryside in 1884, and in 1918 all men over 21, as well as women over 30 achieved this right. In 1928 women were finally given the vote on the same terms as men, meaning that the whole adult UK population had a voice in the democratic process. This was the culmination of over one hundred years of campaigning for reform, and the product of dedication, courage and sacrifice (even to the point of death in the case of some Chartists and Suffragettes).
Very few people in contemporary society would deny that all human beings have equal dignity and an equal right to make decisions about the society in which they live. The right to vote has been hard won. Yet at the same time, it is a serious responsibility. The fact that people may use their vote casually, motivated by selfish, ignorant, racist or other bigoted motives is alarming. The truth is that the votes of the 5% of British Holocaust deniers have the same individual weight as the votes of those in the remaining 95% of the population. What is the most appropriate response under these circumstances?
Unquestionably, only permitting people with what elites might deem “desirable” views to vote would be the antithesis of democracy. Oppressing people and suppressing ideas is not the way to foster a cohesive society in which all members are respected, and have a fair chance to flourish. Furthermore, there is the point that, as Thomas Rainsborough famously argued in the Putney Debates in 1647:
For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it clear, that every Man that is to live under a Government ought first by his own Consent to put himself under that Government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that Government that he hath not had a voice to put Himself under.
In other words, people cannot be expected to respect and participate in a system of government unless they have a voice in it, and as a result the best hope which we collectively have of obtaining good government, is to ensure that the electorate are well educated and informed. We do not claim to have an easy solution, and the ultimate answers lie beyond the realm of lawyers, but when we read of scandals, such as the scale of denial and ignorance over the Holocaust, we have a duty to ask what has gone so wrong with society and our school system that this could have happened. Moreover, those of us who know and recognise the truth have a duty to speak out. We have to challenge the darkness and lies which allow Holocaust denial to survive, and ensure that fewer people are deceived by them.
Whatever our constitutional arrangements, we are part of the same society and share a collective destiny, and we need to equip people to contribute positively.
Holocaust Memorial Day: Shocking levels of denial remain (BBC News 27/1/18)
What was Chartism? (The National Archives)
The Suffragettes on File (The National Archives)