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The problem with democracy – there are always going to be losers

It’s a law of our natures, to applaud where we already approve, and deride where we don’t

Howard Jacobson
Monday 18 May 2015 16:19 BST

I’d be feeling pretty hacked off right now if I were a young first-time voter. At the start of it all, a comedian with a Jesus complex orders me to sit on my hands. Then, after five minutes in the company of an otherwise unpersuasive politician, he changes his mind.

I am, in the meantime, vilified on all sides for being a know-nothing, a-historical ingrate, indifferent to the sacrifices of men and women who have thrown themselves under horses, set themselves alight, marched to war, and otherwise made their lives uncomfortable to win me the democratic right I can’t be arsed to exercise. And then, when I finally do, at no small personal cost, roll out of bed, drag myself down to the nearest polling booth (whatever one of those is) and put a cross in a box, I am vilified again, this time for putting it in the wrong box, and warned of the savage consequences of a decision I never wanted to make in the first place. Thanks to me, the country will be chopped up into small warring territories; we will leave the EU and face a generation of cultural and political isolation; the BBC will be junked; the Human Rights Act will be no more, and plutocrats will be served the fleshless carcasses of the poor for breakfast.

So what did I, as a first-time voter, do wrong? Didn’t those urging me to exercise my democratic right say it was the act of voting itself that mattered, not who or what one voted for? Now it would seem that all they really wanted was for me to vote as they do. Which leaves me so confused as to what democracy actually means I’m inclined to deface a memorial to the people who sacrificed their lives for it.

“Aw a muddle,” as Dickens’s bemused working-class hero Stephen Blackpool was wont to say. The muddle being compounded today a) by the discrepancy between the polls and the actual result, and b) by the contrast between the torpor of the campaign and its fevered aftermath. Who would have thought that after so many weeks of shit-eating, condescension and evasion from all parties the nation would wake to such annoyance on the one side and such jubilation – no, that’s not right, such subdued relief – on the other.

My dear friend and colleague Matthew Norman was only of course joking last week when he compared the catastrophe of election night to the evening in Turin, 25 years ago, when Chris Waddle mishit his penalty against the Germans – pure hyperbole: no election result, however terrible, can compare to that – but the fact that he even remembers the name Waddle shows how upset he is.

I would not wish a bad night on my friend, but given the exuberance with which, over the years, he has pilloried politicians of every persuasion, it is hard to understand precisely who it is he would have liked to see elected. He mentions only one Labour politician in his elegy, an “android technocrat” whose loss to a 20-year-old – let’s hope she voted – appears to be cause for celebration. Could it be that what ruined Matthew’s night was not the failure of a party he wanted to win but the success of a party he didn’t?

Obversely, could it be that what made the night somewhat less ruinous for others was more the routing of principles they couldn’t believe in than the triumph of principles they could – such lukewarmness being the expression of democracy in an age of disillusionment.

Yet there’s a taste of sour losing in the wind. This result, we are told, bodes ill for all of us. Discord and grievance are about to stalk our land, because estrangement and division are what the Tories trade in. The years ahead, Matthew Norman warns – even before the winners have warmed their seats – are set to be “gruelling”. But isn’t this talk divisive in itself? Matthew speaks of our descent into “carping nationalism” in the very same breath as he exults in the exhilarating prospect of Scotland “striding towards independence”.

Perhaps there’s something I’m not seeing here, but what exactly is the difference, when it comes to fostering togetherness, between independence and nationalism? Isn’t each a species of the other? What makes nationalism “exhilarating” when it’s Scottish but “carping” when it’s English? Absolutely nothing but the will to see it that way. Another month or two of Nicola Sturgeon laying out her demands and “carping” could come to seem le mot juste.

It’s a law of our natures, especially when the political fit is on us, to applaud where we already approve, and deride where we don’t. Thus again, as Matthew Norman spiritedly tells it, the election has opened up a chasm not only between electric Scotland and enervated England but the vibrant young and the exhausted old. Vote for the SNP and you are “bright, passionate, engaged and articulate twentysomethings” bursting with energy and hope for a better tomorrow; vote otherwise and you are “middle-aged stalwarts... in the geriatric ward of international life, clinging for comfort to memories of a more vibrant, relevant past”.

Five Go Mad in Paisley and Renfrewshire meets Where Goneril and Regan Got It Right. I resist throwing in Lord of the Flies as a reminder of what happens when the engaged young get their better tomorrow, because I’d rather not take sides. The young come in many guises, vigorous and passionate, vindictive and mean-spirited. And not every person over 65 is dozing in a retirement home. It’s not only teenagers who think they look good in pre-holed jeans, and I doubt it’s only the superannuated who are amused by Ant and Dec. Let discernment in matters of fashion and entertainment determine who should get the vote, and half the country would be disenfranchised. Fine by me, but that’s democracy for you – everybody gets a crack. You don’t have to like it but you’re no democrat if you complain.

There used to be a thing called being a good loser. But there I go, clinging to memories again.

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