North Korea – see any parallels?

I feel as if I’ve woken up in North Korea this morning. All the radio stations are carrying deferential reports of the grandiose military funeral for a former prime minister who divided opinion and never achieved a majority of Scottish votes. We will all have to contribute to the estimated £10m cost of her funeral, which is said to be the most expensive in British history.

This politically ostentatious funeral has been planned by a government that achieved power having failed to achieve an electoral majority, winning only 36 percent of the vote and just one electoral seat in Scotland.

The most expensive funeral in British history takes place at a time of austerity and economic precariousness

The most expensive funeral in British history takes place at a time of austerity and economic precariousness, when the government is making cutbacks to all areas of public life (except to the grant we pay to the Queen, which is being increased by more than £5 million).

It’s not surprising that some commentators believe England could be on the verge of social unrest.

I believe electoral reform is vital. We need politicians who actually represent the voters so that people can engage in the political process again.

Kings by Steely Dan seems an appropriate song to play.

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The dangers of disenfranchisement

What does Margaret Thatcher’s funeral and boring pop music have to do with democracy, you might be wondering?

First of all, Margaret Thatcher was Britain’s longest-serving prime minister in the 20th century. Yet if only Scottish votes had been taken into account she would never have been prime minister at all. The last time the Conservative Party had a majority in Scotland, and the only time since 1945, was in 1955.

If only Scottish votes had been taken into account, Thatcher would never have been prime minister.

Scotland has been ruled by governments that the majority of its population did not vote for, for more than 34 of the 68 years since 1945.

The “first past the post” system that is used to elect the UK government effectively disenfranchises significant sections of the British population. Under the “first past the post” system, voters can vote for only one candidate, and many votes are “wasted”. Location is very important in determining whether your vote counts, and smaller parties have little chance of making an impact.

The additional member system (AMS), a combination of first past the post and proportional representation, is used in elections for the Scottish Parliament and for the National Assembly for Wales. Voters get two votes, the first one for a constituency MSP, and the second for a party. Scotland is divided into 73 constituencies, each electing one MSP. In addition, there are eight parliamentary regions, and each region returns seven regional MSPs. These 56 regional MSPs are known as “additional members”.

AMS offers an increased chance for smaller parties to achieve representation in parliament. The first vote, for the 73 constituencies, is conducted using the first past the post system – ie, the candidate with the most votes wins. They do not need to get more than half of the votes in order to win.

The second vote is carried out using a proportional system that takes account of the number of seats that a party has already won under the first vote. The number of regional (second) votes gained is divided by the number of seats already won in that region, plus one. The party that has the highest number of votes under this calculation, gains an additional seat. This calculation is repeated until all the seats have been allocated.

The Electoral Reform Society has more information on various types of voting systems.

The AMS system gives voters the opportunity to vote for two different parties. Under the AMS system, votes for smaller political parties are less likely to be “wasted”. If smaller parties don’t achieve any constituency seats, they could be in with a chance of picking up seats in the regional voting rounds. And with each voter getting two votes, if they think a vote for a small party would be wasted in the constituency vote, they can use their first vote for a mainstream party and their second vote for a smaller party. This enhances the influence of each voter and gives smaller political parties a greater chance to make an impact and grow. It means that “safe seats” become a lot less safe, because voters can afford to take more risks with one, or both of their votes.

I believe this more representative system has allowed and encouraged the Scottish Government to enact policies desired by the majority of the electorate, such as free prescriptions and tuition fees, instead of being bound by the influence of lobbyists. This is one of the main reasons why I support independence for Scotland.

I also believe electoral reform for the rest of the UK is of crucial importance. Politicians are increasingly losing the respect of the electorate. “Voter apathy” is often said to keep people away from polling stations, but I think “voter apathy” should really be called “voter disenfranchisement”. Many people have given up on the electoral system – they think, often correctly, that their vote won’t count. Another common complaint is that people think none of the politicians represent them.

When lots of people feel politically impotent, it can lead to social unrest.

I think this is changing in Scotland, mainly as a result of the proportional representative voting systems – yet many Scots don’t even realise how different the electoral system for the Scottish Parliament is from the Westminster electoral system. That’s because they’ve given up. They realise that time and time again, the party that they vote for in UK elections does not get into power, and that the policies they vote for are not implemented. When lots of people feel politically impotent, it can lead to social unrest.

Instead of trying to manipulate people’s minds by trying to control the media, political parties should be listening to people and helping them to get more engaged in the political process. It’s worked for the SNP in Scotland, despite some of the other political parties trying to portray their success as Alex Salmond having somehow brainwashed the Scottish people.

They do this at their peril. The electorate isn’t as stupid or as childlike as these politicians seem to think.

Pop music in a coma

Music has power. It can bring joy and it can move people to tears. Drums have been used in war since time immemorial to rouse people to fight and strike fear into the enemy. Other types of music are used to have a calming effect, even to hypnotise. “Muzak” is used in shopping centres to relax people, in the hope that they will spend more money.

Often when I listen to music on the radio these days I feel as if I’m being lulled into a stupor. Most of it seems to be clichéd, predictable, lightweight imitations of past hits. It’s not that there’s no good new music being created – it’s the stuff they choose to play on the radio that seems programmed to have us racing for the comfort of memory lane or indulging in whiny teenage angst. There was always whiny teenage angst, but there was also music that would wake you up and even make you think.

I’m not the only one of this opinion – The Artist Taxi Driver puts across similar sentiments in a delightfully crazed foul-mouthed way here.

Is it because I’m middle-aged? Maybe. So what? It’s meant to be the younger generation who are startling us, not the other way round!

I went to see the singer Tracey Thorn of Everything But The Girl discussing her autobiography, Bedsit Disco Queen, at Glasgow’s Aye Write festival last Friday. She was invited to discuss the question “Why is popular music not political any more?” I put my hand up and suggested that political music is being made, but it’s not getting much radio airplay.

As if to illustrate my point, on Saturday as I drove into town I was listening to Tony Blackburn’s Pick of the Pops on Radio 2. He was playing the Top Ten from 1984, but he skipped over “Free Nelson Mandela” by Special AKA. They usually do skip over one or two songs in this show, usually the edgier ones.

In 1984 the producers of Top of the Pops had no such qualms and we happily chanted along and punched the air in our armchairs.

“Ev’rybody sound the same, commercialise the game…” lamented Nas in Hip Hop is Dead (2006). It’s like the world that Aldous Huxley predicted in Brave New World, with drugs being used to sedate the masses. Except that instead of (in addition to?) drugs we have anodyne music being pumped into our brains.

Why I celebrated Thatcher’s death

The death of Margaret Thatcher has caused me to do some soul-searching. I have to admit that I felt happy at the news of her death.

This was – and is – a strange feeling. I don’t remember feeling happy at the news of anyone’s death before. I don’t like violent films. I don’t even enjoy seeing the baddies in films being killed. I practice Buddhism. But it would be wrong for me to claim I did not feel happy to hear of Thatcher’s death.

I wouldn’t have felt the same if she’d had an untimely death. I wouldn’t want to celebrate her suffering. So why did I have these feelings, these thoughts that have provoked so much division and controversy in the last week?

One person I discussed this with reminded me of the quote that “resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die”. However I don’t feel as if I’ve been resenting Thatcher or Thatcherism. Far from it. I have rarely thought about the 1980s over the years. It was certainly not my favourite decade, and I’m not someone who spends a lot of time reminiscing about the old days anyway. There were good times in the 80s, but I generally prefer to focus on the present and look to the future.

When I heard the news of Thatcher’s death, a lot of the negative feelings I hadn’t thought about for decades came flooding back, and I felt a sense of relief that those days had gone, that a powerful and iconic figure of that era had passed on. I can’t deny this. I felt gleeful. I was surprised at the strength of my feelings. I even tried to imagine what it would be like if I died, was buried, and then lots of people decided to have a party on my grave. I’m pretty certain that if I still had consciousness my attitude would be: “Let them have their fun. I’m dead now.”

So what has provoked all this grim celebration, much of it from people who were not even alive when Thatcher was in power? I believe there is one overwhelming reason for this. It’s not because she was Britain’s most unpopular leader. It’s not because she was a woman who achieved power. It’s not because young people today are exceptionally callous.

This upsurge of celebration around Thatcher’s death has been provoked by the proposals to give her a state funeral. The ceremonial funeral she will have on Wednesday will effectively be a state funeral in all but name.

The state funeral proposals were first discussed in 2006. They immediately provoked controversy. Thatcher herself said she did not want a state funeral.

Thatcher was a very divisive leader. Her government never had a majority in Scotland. But her funeral will be a major event, mainly financed by the taxpayer. It is a provocative event. It has been provocative since 2006. This, I believe, is why so many people are so angry and are demonstrating such strong feelings against Thatcher.

Many of these people have very valid reasons for their anger. They do indeed feel impotent, and cut off from the political process. To glibly dismiss them as “lefty scum” is to ignore searing and disturbing divisions in British society. If the funeral had been planned on a smaller scale, I think those who loved Thatcher would have lined the streets, while those who did not like her government would have barely noticed it.

Certainly in my own case it’s the grandiosity of the planned funeral that has ignited, or re-ignited old feelings of anger towards a leader I never voted for. Recognising this has made me feel a lot more detached about the whole thing.

We are living in a time of increased cynicism, when many authority figures are being knocked off their pedestals. It is a time of austerity, not a time for showy displays of excess. I hope people who disagree with the nature of Thatcher’s funeral on Wednesday will try to ignore it, as I will, rather than reacting with anger.

  • About this site

    Our democracy in the UK is deeply flawed. Under the "first past the post" system, which is used to elect the Westminster House of Commons, the majority of UK voters are not represented in Parliament by the party they voted for.
    This website is not calling for anarchy or revolution, but for a fairer and more democratic parliamentary system.

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