Thursday, June 21, 2012

The broadening political horizons of North Britons

Perhaps because of the contents of my previous post, I've found myself thinking back to what happened the last time I posted a lengthy exchange from PB. I had been a bit startled that Kenny Farquharson went out of his way to tell me on Twitter that he thought I'd lost the argument. When I asked him why he'd reached that conclusion, he said "I just felt that the others' arguments were more convincing than yours". Given that the others had been putting forward arguments that someone with Kenny Farquharson's views was always extremely likely to agree with, and I had been putting forward a contrary opinion, I wasn't entirely convinced that a verdict based on such unspecific reasoning took us much further forward. He did add as an afterthought that he specifically disagreed with me that people in Scotland would be more interested in the Slovakian general election than in the London mayoral contest. That didn't really take us forward either, given that I hadn't actually made such an unlikely claim (I had merely said that I was personally interested in the Slovakian election), but it was nevertheless an insight into the assumptions that are routinely made about the limited horizons of 'North Britons'. It could perhaps be seen as a less sneering version of Tom Harris' dismissal of the notion that anyone in Scotland might feel somewhat Nordic - a case I'd like to have seen him make in Lerwick or Stromness, rather than in his comfort zones of London and Glasgow South.

But bearing in mind Farquharson's strictures about what types of elections we North Brits are and aren't interested in, isn't it extraordinary how much fascination there was at the weekend about an election in a smallish country in the eastern half of Europe, one that isn't all that far away from Slovakia in the overall scheme of things? There are almost certainly now a large number of Scots who can recite off the top of their heads the names of the three largest parties in Greece, and name-check at least a couple of the party leaders. Some of them were probably consciously rooting for either New Democracy or Syriza when the results came in on Sunday evening. Suddenly, it appears that elections in far-off EU lands of which we know little can indeed be exciting for the narrow nationalists of Britain (Northern Administrative Zone).

In a way it's quite inspiring that an election in Greece, of all places, was being billed in some quarters as "the most important election ever", with the leaders of the US and Europe supposedly trembling in anticipation of discovering the verdict of voters in Athens and Thessaloniki. Even if there was only a small grain of truth in that, it's a striking reversal of fortune from the normal scenario of the world's fate being decided by the 4% of its population who happen to live in the US. Of course it's a position of weakness that transformed Greece's political leaders into household names in the rest of Europe, but their new-found fame has in itself strengthened their hand, and by extension made the voices of Greek voters more powerful. The whole of Europe knows just how hard the new coalition had to work to eek out a narrow win against the anti-austerity parties, which means there will be considerably more sympathy for the idea of softening the conditions of the bailout.

But now for the reality-check - it almost certainly wasn't, of course, the most important election in history, nor even anything close to that. Indeed, it's hard to pin down what was really meant by that claim. It's true that the election was unusual in that a far-left party was vying for power, but it wasn't unique in that respect - Greece's neighbour and fellow EU member state Cyprus currently has an elected communist government, while a radical left-wing party is now part of Finland's complex governing coalition. So we can rule that factor out. Perhaps what was meant was that Greece's voters held the fate of the eurozone in their hands? If so, it's far from clear that the voters had such direct power to decide, because no-one really knew what the consequences of each potential result might be - or indeed if the result would make any difference at all to the outcome for the eurozone. A Syriza-led government might have surprised everyone by brokering a successful compromise from a position of strength, or on the other hand the New Democracy-led government might yet fail in its efforts to keep Greece in the euro. And if there's one lesson from the unravelling of the ERM in 1992, it's that markets can sometimes end up making the decisions on these matters, while the voters and even governments look on as spectators. So it would be misguided to automatically perceive either a Greek exit from the euro or a successful resolution of the crisis as being a direct product of the election result.

If Sunday's contest is to have even the slightest chance of being looked back on as literally the most important election in history, it would have to overcome some truly stiff competition. The result of the November 1932 election in Germany directly resulted in the abolition of democracy in much of Europe, the murder of six million Jews, and the greatest military conflict the world has ever seen. There were also a number of pivotal elections during the Cold War, such as the Italian general election in 1948 which looked set to produce a communist victory until the CIA got involved. The Americans weren't so successful in preventing a Marxist being democratically elected as president of Chile - at which point they naturally decided that Chilean democracy itself was surplus to requirements.

* * *

Once again, the most troubling feature of Sunday's election was the distorting effect of the rule which hands 50 bonus seats to the largest single party. It doesn't just distort the way that votes are translated into seats, but also the way in which people cast their votes in the first place. There was plenty of anecdotal evidence that moderate left-wing voters who probably would have preferred Pasok felt pressured into voting for New Democracy to prevent Syriza getting the bonus, while radical left voters felt pressured into voting for Syriza to prevent New Democracy getting the bonus. This effectively negated one of the primary purposes of proportional representation - to allow people to vote for their preferred party without fretting about unintended consequences. Just like first-past-the-post, the Greek system makes votes for New Democracy or Syriza more equal than other votes - the electorate know that, and alter their behaviour accordingly.

1 comment:

  1. ".....he said "I just felt that the others' arguments were more convincing than yours". Given that the others had been putting forward arguments that someone with Kenny Farquharson's views was always extremely likely to agree with, and I had been putting forward a contrary opinion, I wasn't entirely convinced that a verdict based on such unspecific reasoning took us much further forward."

    Farquharson is actually quite dim and that is a fair illustration of what was argued in the Philosopher's Magazine just the other day, viz.,

    " has been found that when people get information that corrects a false claim, they will be even more likely to believe the false claim (provided that they claim matches their views).... it seems that corrective information is generally only accepted when it corrects in a way favorable to a person’s ideology...this tendency also means that people who are wrong (intentionally or unintentionally) generally will not suffer any damage to their credibility among their own faction, provided that their errors match the ideology of said faction....presenting an ideologically ”correct” falsehood (which need not be a lie) seems to be generally a win-win situation."

    The full article is called Are Facts Dead? and it can be read here: