Nationstates

Across the Arab World, people of all ages and backgrounds risk their lives in demonstrations against corrupt governments. Meanwhile, our close European cousins risk the chill of the North Sea winds in naked protests against the lack of a government. In the topsy-turvy world of Belgium, never knowingly simple to understand, the longest period of time without a national government continues apace and nobody sees an answer in the short-term.

There is a serious economic side to the otherwise eccentric story that has developed in Belgium since elections last year. The country has severe national debt and the risk of investing with the centre of the European Union has been thrown in serious doubt. Whilst local government continues offering services at ‘street level’, the national scene is one of chaos and confusion. The King of the increasingly polarized Belgians has almost reached the limit to what he can provide in leadership. Away from the high-level talks along the corridors of uncertainty, ordinary Belgians want resolutions. History suggests they will be waiting for a long time.

In short, Beglum (not known as a “made up country” for nothing, in all fairness), is a compromise with a flag and borders. Political parties have split and divided to satisfy the often completely contradictory demands of Francophone and Flemish populations. The small German enclave in the east acts like an unexpected flavour in the bowl of contrasting ingredients which Belgium has become, a failed dessert overcooked and overstirred. Brussels is a Francophone exclave surrounded by the Flemish Region which has been flexing its none-too inconsiderable muscles, the capital city of the EU’s beating heart, watching the fabric of the country flicked and charred by the flames of dissent, exhaustion, frustration.

It was after their most recent election that the Flemish population pushed hard enough to unsettle the columns of compromise that held the state up for decades before. The sight of people marching for the formation of a government must seem like Wonderland stuff under the context of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain; placards and posters uniting citizens under one flag, only for different ends from their means, the flip-side to North Africa’s pleas for representative democracy and economic reform. Belgium, oddly to observers, is a divided country demanding the ties of compromise are brought together tighter.

The southern, French-speaking Wallonia is statistically poorer with double unemployment levels to the right-leaning, Dutch-speaking north. Politicians from both sides spend so long balancing political compromises to the detriment of economic solutions. Resentment of the north by the south permeates across and through all Belgian society. In an example from the fringes, Belgium has alternated French and Dutch-language entries to the Eurovision Song Contest ever year, to keep both sides “sweet”. When, in 1999, the Flemish broadcaster chose an English-language song, tempers flared and questions were raised in Parliament.

Not having a Government for nigh-on 300 days must seem like bliss to demonstrators in the UK from both sides of the political debate. To those under the “UKUncut” umbrella, demonstrating against the Coalition government’s spending proposals from a largely left/leftist perspective, such apparent freedom from a formal government structure must seem like a dream come true. After all, Belgium has not fallen apart, its two sides not torn asunder. If all Belgium has is local government delivering services on a tight budget without central government, without crumbling away to nothing, then why not here? They’ve got a monarchy, so have we, where’s the harm?

From the extreme-right in the UK, demonstrators wanting an England of their own invention, pure of race and colour, march under the St George and Union flags, self-styled ‘Defence Leagues’. It must be attractive to them, too, seeing how a country with two different peoples struggling to survive under one flag. Observe the contrasting sociolinguistic and geopolitical struggles, watch the tension, see how they run. Without a government the two sides are running their own affairs, and even with a government and titular Head, the populations speak their own language and enjoy their own culture. We’ve been force-fed multiculturalism and the diluting of culture for too long, why should this be tolerated further?

England (and I specifically use England, not Britain) has all the makings of another Belgium. My politics, my conviction, is not nationalist, is not flag-waving jingoist. I don’t want or desire a break-up of England anymore than I would like the break-up of the United Kingdom itself per se. Let us look at recent coverage of the Coalition’s plans to reduce the number of MPs by 50; the good burghers of Cornwall signed a petition in their thousands against any new constituency crossing the Tamar. One Mebyon Kernow supporter went on hunger strike. Ask a man from Northallerton where he lives, and he is likely to say Yorkshire before England, and long before Britain. North/South divides in England are almost Belgium reversed: an over-inflated south-east and economically compromised north, pulling in different directions for generations. Can you imagine an England split in two? Would the on-going demonstrations by both left and right result in an England we all wanted to live in?

Each Arab World demonstration has the name of the country seared on the hearts and wrapped around the souls of each protester – Egyptians wanted their country back, Tunisians want their country back, Bahrainians demand (and die for) an island for Sunni and Shia. In England, the political discourse swims around the nationalistic question, flirts with it, places more wood near the fire.

There could be a situation to all this from outside the box entirely, of course. When Belgium needed to choose a Eurovision entry in 2006 they forego Dutch, French and English, chose something in an entirely invented, made-up language and got their best result in nearly 30 years. Maybe there’s a political equivilant answer for England in this…

Turnout at the next General Election may fall below 50%…unless the population are required to vote by law….

Liberal that I am, the last thing I want to do is follow Tony Blair’s footsteps in turning our democracy into anything more of a “banana republic” style joke. Democracy is precious, and for all the improvements made to the way in which our system works there are far too many ways in which corruption is now commonplace. I say this as an activist and a voter: postal voting “for all” has taken away the assurance of British democracy being amongst the best in the world.

Understandably the MPs expenses scandal (of which so much more is being played out as we speak) has turned off many more thousands of voters who have tired of parliamentarians of all persuasions. There can only be so many times MPs can promise to be “whiter than white” only to throw a strop when an attempt is made to close the scandal sooner rather than later. Turnout in 2010 will fall below 50%, of that I am confident, as a consequence of the expenses mess and the inability for anyone – most notably Gordon Brown – to do anything constructive about the sorry affair.

As with so many Prime Ministers, the administration of elections – voting systems and the like – flies over the head of Brown as a mere irrelevance. That our democracy is more flawed and failing now than it was 10 or 20 years ago means nothing. That Labour are a Government with less support than any other in living memory is just tittle-tattle. First-past-the-post means winner-takes-all, and that is – as they say – “end of”.

So how about we look at the “modernising for the sake of it” zeal of Tony Blair and the Department for Constitutional Affairs/Ministry of Justice addiction to fiddling about with electoral administration, to come up with something of our own? If it’s alright for Belgium, Greece, and Australia, it could well work over here. Could the United Kingdom be fit for….compulsory voting?

From “a stern letter” to “a month community service”, what to do with anyone who does not cast a vote under compulsory voting is often brought up as a damn good reason not to introduce it here. Certainly no party leader has yet suggested the nation should be forced by legislation to show an opinion at a ballot-box (and I know from experience that opinion can be, in red capital letters, “CORRUPT BASTARDS”). Compulsion does not equal with liberalism, and I agree that following this Government down the route of legislating for everything is not the way to install confidence in the minds of very suspicious voters. However there is a massive contradiction which doesn’t tally up with my liberalism; how can there be so many opinions on politics, expenses, and current affairs, and yet so few people turning out to vote?

How can – indeed – so many people phone X-Factor phone lines or get Facebook to analyse what kind of serial killer/vegetable/famous footballer they are while not walking to the nearest church at election time? Compulsion, with a small fine perhaps after two or three no-shows, would surely promote politics and current affairs at the most local level? It would certainly ensure candidates do knock on every door in fear of being labelled as the one who can’t even get out the vote when there’s a law ensuring it happen…

Of course compulsory voting has not been suggested by anyone for one very good reason, and for that matter why my personal liberal persuasion cannot quite feel totally invigorated by the promise of future telling sessions being a little busier. Compulsory voting would merely sour further the relationship between voter and Westminster. For all my hope that people would be willing to find out more about each party, each candidate, every issue, the reality would be far less ideal; voters would feel angry at the lack of a “none of the above” option, and dismayed that politicians have tried to repair a broken system by seemingly punishing ordinary people. Turnout is falling because of a failure of more than just access to a ballot box on a wet Thursday.

As a liberal, compulsion from “up high” never sits well with me. Belgium and Australia have their systems woven into the fabric of their states, and in Greece there is no penalty for not voting anyway. In the UK our negative opinion of politicians suggests high turnouts, even though this is not the reality: trying to force people to have an actual recordable opinion by means of a ballot paper would be something to aim for…were it likely to achieve anything. For all that it may kill off the purile insult “if you don’t vote, you can’t complain”, I guess it is not something for the United Kingdom’s rather unique electoral system.

Unless, of course, radical reform far beyond the tame introduction of AV is the elephant crouching in the corner of the room. Liberalism never was easy to align with reality…