Such Little Accident by Mike Robbins by Mike Robbins - Read Online
Such Little Accident
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“When the people shall have nothing more to eat,” said Rousseau, “they will eat the rich.” But the rich are rather good at getting the poor to eat each other instead. In this provocative novella-length essay, Mike Robbins looks at how the British electoral system, social media, bullying by business, and a growing gap between rich and poor have led to deep fissures in British society. These have been exploited by those with an agenda of their own. As a result, democracy is now fragile. To repair it, we must look hard at the way information cycles through our society, and how our opinions are formed.
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Such Little Accident - Mike Robbins

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1 Introduction

On Friday, March 1, 1974, I got up far too early so that one of my college teachers and I could drive from Oxford to Banbury to take part in the count; the general election had been the previous day. We had volunteered to act as scrutineers (each candidate may nominate these; they watch the count and ensure fair play). Then as now, most constituencies began their count as soon as polls closed, and declared overnight; but Banbury was and is largely rural, and the sealed ballot boxes were driven in the night to the Town Hall and opened in the morning. I was not yet 17, and I am sure I was the youngest scrutineer. Perhaps I should not have been there at all.

The scene that we saw in the Town Hall on that day in 1974 was probably much as it was when the reforms of the 1870s ushered in the secret ballot. The hall was lined by 15 or 20 shaky trestle tables; at each there sat a civil servant — most were middle-aged men, soberly dressed in suits and ties despite the early hour. Beside and opposite them sat the scrutineers for the three parties, all volunteers, who observed the votes as they were sorted, and would stop the civil servant if a vote for their candidate landed in the wrong pile. In fact, we simply watched for mistakes; if a Labour vote fluttered into the Liberal pile by mistake, I politely told the teller, and my companions did likewise. All were friendly; the Conservative scrutineer, an elderly man, was warm and chatty, the Labour man quieter but pleasant enough. Now and then two more civil servants would come to the table with another ballot-box. These were of green-painted tin; I should not be surprised if they too had been made for that first secret vote. One was resolutely jammed shut and it took the efforts of three civil servants and a chisel to prise it open. The count took five or six hours and was declared at midday. Victory went to the Conservative, Neil Marten, a distinguished war hero. Someone (Marten, I think) lit a cigar below the No Smoking sign; there were polite speeches, and handshakes all round. We started for home, bleary-eyed but not displeased.

It was a different world. Politics could be rough then, but there was a basic civility of discourse, and a sense of privilege from taking part in the democratic process. The Brexit referendum of 2016, and the US election, have been an awful contrast. As I write this (in November 2016), the survival of democracy is, in many places, not assured. In Britain, a misled and angry electorate has made a decision on the EU that will certainly damage them, and others. We have also been treated to the spectacle of a government claiming the right to ignore the will of parliament, and three High Court judges who disagreed being subject to a press campaign that amounted to overt intimidation of the judiciary. In the US, democracy has been used to elect a President who appears to care little for it. Across Europe, the far right has been empowered by racist rhetoric.

There has been an assumption that democracy is the ultimate form of human organization. Nowhere was this assumption better embodied than in Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man. (Fukuyama’s arguments may sometimes have been oversimplified.) But it was not a new view; the presumption in favour of democracy as the final form of government had been embedded in Western thought since 1945. The idea that democracy could not be wrong underpinned the Vietnam War and the invasion of Iraq. There has been an innate view that the world progresses towards democracy.

In fact, as the English philosopher John Gray has pointed out, the idea that history cannot go backwards is arrant nonsense. Gray ascribes the idea to the chiliastic nature of the major religions — that is, they envisage an ultimate end and salvation (or damnation) for mankind. Because of this, he argues, we have the notion that history is marching towards a destination. I am not sure I see so direct a link; rather, I ascribe the democracy assumption to human complacency, intellectual laziness and — more recently — the fact that 1945, the Year Zero for our world, is now on the edge of living memory. This last factor is important. We have travelled so far from Hell that we have forgotten we have a return ticket.

This essay is divided into a number of themes. In the next, I will state briefly why I believe that democracy is essential for human progress. In essence, it is the fact that it permits the free exchange of information. If it cannot do so, it may not survive, and is of little use if it does.

In the following parts, I will look at the threats I see to this exchange, mainly in Britain but with the