On Politics and Weddings

Friday’s Royal wedding was a necessary spectacle, argues Joseph PottsFor the benefit of those of you who may have spent last week holidaying in an alternate reality, have been in a coma, or were too busy trawling the ‘dinner party circuit’ in search of a spouse, last Friday was the Royal Wedding. And gosh wasn’t it lovely? The 24 hour news media launched itself into a frenzy of increasingly bizarre reporting techniques to capture every detail of a much needed public spectacle amid all this boring talk of rising unemployment and voting reform.My personal favourite was the lip reader employed by some publications to analyse the footage of celebrities entering the Abbey and delve further into their thoughts. Apparently the Queen thought John Rutter’s new anthem was ‘lovely’, William told Kate she was 'beautiful', and the Beckhams weren’t sure where to sit. In equally shocking news David Cameron, it can now be revealed, commented to Nick Clegg that his trousers had needed ‘letting out’, presumably because the Prime Minister has put on a little weight or – as some commentators asserted – he had just caught sight of Pippa Middleton.It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that there has been criticism of this lavish media attention in the midst of presumably more important things, such as the economic recovery or Middle Eastern uprisings. Take this and the fact that the wedding’s four day bank holiday has been estimated at costing up to £2.9 billion for the UK economy (£20 million alone going to policing the event) and the party poopers have a point. On the other hand, we don’t spend money on parties because they are sound financial investments, we do it to have fun and make ourselves more popular. Anyone else who delighted in last Friday’s legitimisation of 2pm drinking or who spent the day in a wedding dress fulfilling their marriage fantasies can surely agree that it was indeed a lot of fun. As a testament to its popularity, Obama supposedly delayed the capture (I mean execution) of Bin Laden so as not to clash with the wedding, and he’s pretty cool so I’m sure that makes us popular.On a more serious note, this was a public national celebration, a much needed injection of pomp and circumstance and stirring chorale music in an otherwise depressing climate. The marriage of our future King does matter, and certainly warrants our attention, as the Monarchy plays an extremely useful unifying role in the national psyche. I accept that most people might reject the belief in the divine right of Kings, but this man is still our future head of State, the head of our armed forces, the man who calls our governments and the most powerful diplomatic tool in the UK’s arsenal. Besides which, for the most part, the wedding made people happy. Frankly a bit of escapism is worth some public expenditure and a hung over Saturday.Compare this to yesterday’s referendum and regional/national elections. A poster for the ‘No to AV’ campaign was particularly offensive, depicting a vulnerable premature baby with the statement ‘she needs a new cardiac facility not an alternative voting system’. We’re apparently being led to believe that a new voting system will mean more dead babies, presumably part of Nick Clegg’s evil master plan. I do believe in politicians and their genuine desire to improve our lives, but as long as we the public are patronised and left so bereft of genuine conviction, you can hardly accuse the Royals of wasting our attention. Free our politicians from the constraints enforced by a media ready to hound them on any mildly interesting or controversial action or statement, and then we might have a source of inspiration to rival Royal romance.Besides, Princess Beatrice had a really silly hat and that was, like, totally lolz. Joseph Potts

The Place of Politics Today

When I arrived home for Spring Break, I found a polling card lying around on the kitchen surfaces. Alarm bells starting ringing. Hadn’t we just had the general election? ‘What’s this for?’ I asked my mum, waving it around in her face as though I was still seventeen, without any obligation towards life responsibilities. Then I noticed it was addressed to me.‘It’s for the referendum. You need to decide how you’re going to vote; by post or proxy,’ she informed me. Before my brain had time to dredge up any dregs of memory on current affairs, I garbled, ‘What referendum?’ – pretty shameful coming from an A-level Politics student.With no politics course in St Andrews, there’s a reasonably limited exposure to national and international issues – especially if you’re not one of the multitude studying IR.  Let’s face it: if I do decide to visit the gym (it’s happened once, I think, in a moment of madness), watching Sky News isn’t going to give me motivation to put myself through that torture we call exercise anything like the music channels are.  Though I do occasionally make an effort to buy a copy of The Times, I’m so behind on what’s happening in the world that there are huge holes in my understanding, so those long, in-depth analyses of the Gaddafi situation in Libya get skipped over without so much as a scan. Back in 2008, DRA hosted a US election party. My vague memory recollects it involved waving mini American flags around in an over-enthusiastic manner and watching the results of the Electoral College come through on giant projected screens through the night. I have a worryingly hazy memory of voting in the General Election last year – it involved a trek down to the Badlands, which was probably more of a reason that it had any resonance, than for any particular passion for the political situation at hand. So when it comes to situations such as the looming referendum, in which all of us UK citizens are registered to vote, us bubble-wrapped students don’t know where to begin.Because apparently, though it had evaded me until a week ago, a referendum on the voting system used in the UK is indeed taking place on May the 5th. I strained my brain back three years – no, four – to my AS level politics classroom, where we learned the pros and cons of the various voting systems employed around the world (we also discussed the degree to which Monica Lewinsky could be considered attractive). All my weak memory washed up was my general distaste for the subject: it was mostly numerical (I’m what I like to call “mathslexic”; numbers just don’t compute) and I wasn’t, therefore, very good at it. ‘First-past-the-post,’ I remembered, physically squinting in an attempt to resurrect something intelligent. The List System, I panicked, and that French baddie, Le Pen – didn’t he almost succeed because of the French voting system? My knowledge was proving to be reasonably limited (sorry, Mr Cross) so, as a woman who takes pride in her right to vote – Suffragette City and all that – and since I had some free time on my hands (mindlessly bored during Easter holiday), I decided some revision was in order.Stage One: Crack out the old Politics textbooks. Obstacle One: I no longer have any of my old Politics textbooks. That, I thought to myself, is commitment. The only tome I could find, sitting virtually unreachable on one of my highest shelves, gathering dust, was ‘US & Comparative Government & Politics.’ It was from the wrong year, and pertained to the wrong syllabus, which was a shame – I’d always liked this textbook. It contained lots of diagrams and tables. But, against all odds, I did find a section on the merits and demerits of the First Past the Post system.In summary:

  • FPTP, the voting system used in the UK to decide the results of the 659 seats in the House of Commons (and, for those Americans amongst us, how 48 of the 50 Electoral College votes for presidency and all the seats in Congress are filled).
  • FPTP does what it says on the tin. The winner of the race is the first to pass the winning post. So, in the UK, the party with the overall majority of parliamentary votes is the winning party and forms the government, even if collectively those who voted against that party is a higher number.
  • Generally, it lends itself to:
    • Stable, single-party governments
    • Discouragement of narrow, ideological and extremist parties.
    • Discouragement of coalitions
    • Close link between elected members of the legislature and their constituents (as MPs represent geographical areas).
    • Simplicity
  • However, reasons for potentially changing from this system include:
    • That it’s possible to win constituencies with well below 50% of the popular vote
    • The relationship between votes won and seats gained in the legislature is often poor
    • A significant number of votes are wasted
    • FPTP produces unrepresentative legislatures in regards to women and ethnic minorities.

So what’s our alternative? That would be the appropriately entitled ‘Alternative Vote’ system, in which we (the voters) rank our candidates in order of preference. Initially, only the first preference votes are counted, but if nobody gets a majority with 50% or more, the second votes are counted and added (although the lowest scoring candidate at this point is eliminated) – just like in Student Union Elections. This continues until one party has 50% of the vote. The Conservatives are against a change from FPTP; the Liberal Democrats are in favour of it, and have been campaigning for a remodelling of the UK’s voting system for some time now, though the Alternative Voting System isn’t their preferred setup.So which way will I vote? God knows. In opening the can of worms that is the debate between voting systems, I came to realise, as historian Will Durant once said, that ‘education is a progressive discovery of our ignorance.’ The intricacies of a debate over a system that is so much a part of our country’s history and sense of tradition have left me feeling pretty ignorant indeed (I blame the numbers). But, as a former Politics student and a firm appreciator of the feminist movement, I will be ploughing on through that handy textbook known as Wikipedia until I have an education and an opinion worth voting for. Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am.For a summary on the Referendum and information that’ll help you cast the right vote, visit:•The BBC’s Q&A on the Alternative Vote Referendum: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-11243595•The Electoral Commission’s page on the Referendum: http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/elections/upcoming-elections-and-referendums/uk/referendums Alexandra Davey  

Let’s Take Back Politics

Sam Fowles scorns the elitism and abstraction of contemporary political discourse‘It’s not personal, it’s just politics,’ I recently heard in a heated debate. It seemed to highlight a common and slightly worrying flaw in our public discourse: because politics is fundamentally personal. When we claim that it isn’t it becomes merely a game – academic gymnastics, where commentators try so hard to write a clever argument they forget to ask themselves why they are taking that position in the first place. Worse, it becomes tribal. Activists defend their party’s stance to the last, not because they have carefully weighed the evidence and truly believe it to be correct, but because someone higher up the chain wrote it in a manifesto. This is not holding our leaders to account, it’s not particularly democratic and it’s not great debating.Politics is personal. M.K. Gandhi said, ‘We need to be the change we wish to see in the world.’ The Mahatma’s point was that changes are made by ordinary people; to ignore this is a dereliction of responsibility. The actions of our leaders directly affect our lives and our actions affect the lives of others. Politics is personal for the 25% of young people who will not get a job this year, and it is intensely personal for those of us who will graduate into a recessing market already saddled with nearly £20 000 of debt – debt we accrued by trying to get the same education that those who piled that debt upon us were given for free.But the politics of the personal can have positive influence all of its own. Barack Obama inspired a generation in 2008 because he made his politics personal. We followed his story from a kid in Chicago, to community organiser, to President. Whether or not you agree with his policies, at least we are giving them the time and attention they deserve. I, for one, would prefer to be represented or led by someone who does so because of their convictions, rather than for intellectual self-satisfaction.When politics is treated as an abstract debate it becomes elitist and vacuous. Abstract concepts are for intellectuals, suggesting that only the elite can discuss or have a say in politics, that the rest of us just ‘don’t understand how the world works’. It also brings the standard of debate down because, rather than talking about real issues, we are reduced to intellectual self-aggrandisement.The BSkyB debate is an excellent example of this. Those who defend the decision throw around words like ‘plurality’ and ‘due process’ and cite the fact that Sky News will be controlled by a trust, over which Murdoch will have absolutely no control (except, of course, through funding it). This all ignores the wider and more material issue that the government broke its own competition laws to sell off a frightening share of the media to a company that has no qualms about hacking the telephones of MPs, then offering the investigating police officer a highly paid job after he ‘dismissed’ the case (which has since been reopened under pressure from other newspapers). More academic justifications, which seem to boil down to ‘he still won’t own as much as Lord Northcliffe so it’s ok’, are equally spurious. When Northcliffe was allowed to dominate the British press, the government was also refusing women the right to vote, preventing democratically elected Labour MPs from speaking on the BBC, and shooting political opponents up against walls. It wasn’t a great time for ‘plurality’.However, there is another side to the story. Across the Middle East, students just like us have made politics personal. They have forgone the academic debate and personally stood on the streets to demand change. In St Andrews too, political engagement is alive and well; just look out of your window and see the banners which adorn the three streets. Whether in an international, local or personal context, we may yet be the change we wish to see. Sam Fowles