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Is culture enough for trust in British democracy and elections? A note from a weekend away

Today, 8 January 2024, marks one year of the invasion of the Praça dos Três Poderes in Brasil, an attempt at a coup d’etát by citizens and some members of the military (as it usually is in Brasil). This time, however, that attempt was foiled and democracy continues in the country.

It is also the day I returned from the Standing Group on Parliaments Annual Weekend at Oxford University, my first time in attendance. It is held under Chatham House rules, which basically means I can talk about what happened there but not attribute specific quotes to any specific person.

These two things have converged a bit in my mind as the weekend was bit Standing Group on (British) Parliament, rather than a conversation about parliaments as a whole, which is fine, but some members were particularly keen on describing British politics as overall doing just fine. I’m pretty used to seeing this from Brazilian political scientists and politicians - the good ‘ol “Our democratic institutions are doing just fine” has become a trope among younger political scientists, seeing our mentors fiercely defend waves hand at everything.

But to realise this also happens in the UK was not only interesting, but simultaneously soothing and jarring. Mostly from non-academic members, but also from some of the academics, this extremely solid feeling that 1. British institutions are there for a (good) reason; 2. At best, we tweak them, they do not need any reform.

That they’re there for a reason I completely agree, but a good reason? I remember the look

of shock on my father’s face when I told him I voted with a pencil and paper (not just him, but indulge me in my melancholy) – something I had never done. Even my parents have only used a paper ballot once, before the implementation of the offline electronic ballot box. It never occurs to the politically-minded British public that what they do is not efficient, nor safe.

One of the people present at the event said British democracy needs to do better by its blind public, but their solution is better lighting at polling stations – not acknowledging that blind British individuals do not enjoy secrecy when voting. There are no Braille ballots, so they rely on others to vote for them. The same person thought the system of mandatory polling service would be a good idea – but did not appreciate when I came up to them to say that this is only possible where compulsory voting exists. They stated they knew this, but deftly kept it out of their arguments.

They also disliked postal voting, which is fair, I dislike it too. But in their view, is because they cannot trust people to do it correctly, ‘like they do’. Not only the height of elitism and hubris, this individual is incapable of thinking about people who are disabled, who do not have reliable transportation, who cannot establish their own working hours. Because voting is not compulsory, the onus is put on the voter to fix those issues individually, rather than the government creating structural solutions (wide distribution of polling stations, all with accessibility for physical and mental disability, voting on weekends or holidays, fines for employers who enforce work and prevent employees from voting).

When barely 50% of the population votes in major elections, can we really claim trust? When there is no election calendar and the date of elections is at the hand of a single person, who can establish them at the worst possible time, making preparations for electoral registration and polling stations a scramble, is that fair to the voters? When a system that was designed by rich men for rich men is perceived by modern academics to be acceptable because of cultural traits that have been around for hundreds of years, what is the point in even thinking about change, inclusion, modernisation?

British politics would benefit so much from a little less navel-gazing and grandstanding on 'culture' and a little more looking at other nations, particularly younger democracies, those that have struggled and every day fight to maintain their democratic institutions. Countries that have developed the institutions that are premised on the defence of democracy beyond its hopeful ideals, but its daily exercise.

I’d suggest starting with the Living Democracy exhibition at the Brunei Gallery, by an incredible research team from theSchool of Oriental and African Studies University of London, in London. As soon as I get my expenses claim from attending the Annual Weekend, I’ll make sure to get there to see it.

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