A slight detour into the realms of the political for this blog. It struck me that all of my children will be old enough to vote in the referendum in June, so in large part this is for them. I think they probably know all this anyway, but this was inspired by imagining them listening to the debates, reading articles, and trying to decide which way to vote. So, just what is a government for?
This seems to be one of those questions that few of us ever find ourselves pondering, and if we do then it tends to get brushed aside quickly with a, ‘Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? The government is supposed to be running the country.’
The thing is it rarely seems to be obvious in practice. Who gets to be the government and how should we choose them? How is the government supposed to run the country? Whose policies should be followed? Do they slavishly follow manifesto promises or should compromise be reached when it comes to everyday practicalities? Who gets to benefit?
As we endure the run up to the Brexit referendum on June 23rd and the US Presidential campaign I have found myself pondering just how many people ponder this, and what conclusions do they come to? With me so far? Good.
I expect, or at least hope, that if you were to stop the proverbial man or woman in the street and ask them if they think that any government, of any political persuasion, should run the country for the benefit of that government alone and their few trusted cronies that you would receive a resounding No! Government should not be for the few. Apart from anything else, once you have a situation like that then those in power will rig things so that they stay in power, and then you have a diminishing number of options to change a situation and you’re already starting from a point of disadvantage. Coups happen in situations like that, or revolutions, civil unrest and uprisings. All of which are bloody and far from guaranteed to succeed, much less have the outcome you thought they were going to. ISIS in Syria, anyone? Or to quote a fictional example, 1984.
So should governments run the country for the voters? Simply do what benefits voters and no one else? Well, not really. For a start not everyone is eligible to vote. We have what most people would consider universal suffrage in the UK, which means that virtually all adults have the right to vote, but there are still a lot of people who cannot vote. Mostly children, but also some adults who are not registered to vote for whatever reason. You might think that it would be a strange country that would ignore its own children and channel all resources into adult voters, and yet a quick look at various childrens services in the UK will tell you that’s exactly what we do. Childrens Mental Health Services have lagged behind those of adults for decades – a GP told me way back at the turn of the century that the waiting list for children to access mental health services was so long that you would have to wait at least a year even if your child was suicidal. I can’t imagine that things have improved at all since then. Then there are the cuts to support services for families, cuts to child benefits – I could go on, but it is clear that governments will not put money into services for people it doesn’t see as important ie those who can’t vote for them or provide them with a pay cheque.
Another case in point is the District of Columbia. The people who live there have no representation in the Senate, limited representation in the House of Representatives, and very few voting rights. It’s a situation that arose because Congress decided they wanted full control of the surrounding land, to not be beholden to one state or another for its security, but the unintended consequence is that without anyone to speak up for them the residents in the District live in some of the greatest poverty in the United States. Not all of them, true, but there is a lack of integration between the white communities and the black communities and I’ll give you three guesses as to which come off worst and see their circumstances getting worse. Oh, DC residents are still liable for full federal taxes, by the way. They just don’t see much of that money back in terms of social care.
And then there’s the fact that throughout history there has been a pattern of not allowing everyone to vote. It is within living memory that women in the UK were finally allowed to vote no matter what their income or social status. Within living memory. If governments only serve those who can already vote then that would never have changed.
So should governments do what is best for the majority of their citizens? After all, you can’t please everyone all of the time, so why not just go with what will make scarce resources work for the majority of people? This is another No, although I see enough comments online and in the print media to realise that many people wish that this was the case. At least, they seem to think that way because they assume that they are in the safe majority. The problem with this strategy, apart from its inherent cruelty and unfairness towards some of the most vulnerable people in society, is that it is open to such abuse. As soon as you are willing to accept that some people are worth helping, but that others can be safely consigned to the waste bin, then you open the door for those who wield power to change definitions, shift goal posts, and just generally behave in ways that benefit themselves and no one else (remember the governing for the benefit the government and cronies above?) You get people who vote for a party because they think they are the hard-working family that is being talked about in the manifesto and they don’t want to spread thin resources thinner by propping up others who are labelled as scroungers. Except then they discover that they are now labelled as scroungers, because although they are hard-working they are so poorly paid that they rely on benefits to make ends meet. Benefits which are being cut, or taken away entirely.
Or, you might have been a business owner that believed the promises that red tape would be cut for small businesses, rates and taxes would be set to allow you to cling on through the recession, only to discover that you’re not operating in the right development zone to benefit, or your business is considered just a tad too big, and so you get hit with all the extra rates and administrative hassle you thought you might be spared until business had picked up enough to cope with it.
I haven’t even mentioned people considered minorities because they are disabled, or have a different colour skin, or are LGBTQ , or practice a different religion, or weren’t born in this country, because I figured that was obvious enough. The thing is, being different doesn’t mean lesser, and doesn’t mean being less deserving of full participation in the life of the country that you live in, wherever it is.
So no, no governing for the benefit of the majority only. Govern a country for the benefit of everyone, and if you hear anyone proposing anything different then look very closely at what they are really saying. How do you imagine they would act if they actually got into power? So anyway, as the dude in the suit of armour said, ‘Choose wisely.’