ALASTAIR CAMPBELL on what the UK could learn about strengthening the ‘quiet centre’ from Australia’s compulsory voting system.
It was nice to escape the awfulness of the election for a few days, to head overseas for the wedding of Philip Gould’s daughter, Grace. As she was marrying an American, they chose neutral ground, Jamaica. There are worse places to go to get away from Boris Johnson’s lies, Matt Hancock’s buffering, Priti Patel’s smugness, Jo Swinson telling us she will be prime minister, Labour frontbenchers being “absolutely clear” before creating more confusion, “PR guru” Roland Rudd’s wrecking of the People’s Vote campaign, needed ever more with the opposition parties failing to get their anti-Brexit act together.
My comedian daughter Grace – named after the bride, whose dad was both my closest friend in politics, and a great colleague through Labour’s winning years – did a comedy turn at the reception, and got decent laughs on the theme of which of our countries have the worst political leaders.
There was plenty of discussion as to what was worse – America with Trump or the UK with Johnson and Brexit. I fear we nick it. Trump, for all his awfulness, will definitely be gone in five years max, and impeachment, the electoral process or death could take him earlier. Brexit, assuming the Johnson-Farage-Brexit-Lie Machine alliance is successful in delivering a Tory majority on December 12, will be with us for a lot longer than Johnson or Trump, and the consequences for our country far more consequential than eight years of The Donald for the US.
I know that in these populist, nationalist, post-referendum days, we are not supposed to care about things like how the rest of the world sees us. So what if a bunch of Yanks at a wedding think we have lost the plot? So what if Asia and Africa see us shrinking in front of their eyes? So what if the rest of Europe thinks we have taken leave of our senses? They’re just jealous. They’ve never got over the fact that we won two world wars, we had an empire, we’ve got the Queen, we’re Great Britain ffs, not just Britain, but Great Britain.
Anyone would think the adjective was given to us as some kind of international recognition of our superiority as a nation which, thanks to June 23, 2016, we are all set to rediscover and re-establish across the globe. In fact, Great Britain is nothing more than a recognition of the fact that the single landmass covering England, Scotland and Wales is the biggest – i.e greatest – of our islands.
At the risk of being labelled a ‘citizen of nowhere’ – copyright Theresa May – one of my biggest drivers against Brexit is that the more I travel, and hear the views of others around the world, the more I worry that we really are about to engineer huge historic decline. They can’t all be wrong, can they?
Just before heading off to Jamaica, Grace (daughter not bride) and I interviewed Julia Gillard for our weekly podcast, Football, Feminism and Everything in Between. The former Australian prime minister is something of a heroine in our feminist household, not least because of her memorable assault on the misogyny of her then opponent in parliament, Tony Abbott. She is also someone whose fondness for the Mother Country goes deeper than that of most Aussies, as she was born Welsh, moving to Australia aged four when it was clear she had bronchial issues, and the Welsh weather was unlikely to help. Her fondness extends, out of courtesy to the Visit Wales tourism body, to insisting, unconvincingly, that the decision was more economic than climatic.
It was lovely to talk to her about her childhood as a shy, studious girl who rose from her beginnings in a migrant hostel to the highest office in the land; interesting to hear why she never felt the drive to have children, and reflect that had she done so, she might not have made it to the top; fascinating to listen to some of the stories of what is an even more brutal parliamentary system than ours. Have a listen if you get the chance – she is a great talker. But oh my, feel the energy drop when we get onto the state of the UK and the Brexit debate. When the B word was first raised, her shoulders sagged visibly, and she just sighed. ‘Sadness in her eyes,’ as another recent podcast interviewee, Kay Burley, might have said.
“I worry what it means for the UK economically, and I worry also about the opportunity cost,” she said. “There is only so much time and so much talent in any country. All the other things – housing, education, jobs, health, racism, gender equality – they’re getting no attention.”
And though she was keen to talk up the historic and cultural links, the sharing of intelligence, a shared monarch, she was brutally frank that when it came to trade: We were kidding ourselves if we thought what was being lost through Brexit could be reclaimed by rebuilding links with faraway Commonwealth countries. China is not the only country that matters a lot more than we do.
She had some interesting observations on the state of the main parties in the UK, and while she shares the frustration of many Australians that their three-year parliamentary terms do not lend themselves to ‘strong and stable’ government – another May favourite – there is one fact of Australian life she thinks would benefit our politics greatly, namely compulsory voting. Reflecting that UK Labour was well to the left of Australian Labor, and Boris Johnson’s Tory Party well to the right of Scott Morrison’s Liberals in its apeing of the Brexit Party, she said compulsory voting helped prevent the extremes taking over.
“In voluntary voting systems like you have in the UK and the US, where the media exacerbates the tribalisation, there is a seduction to play to those who are highly motivated at either end, and the quiet centre is forgotten. That is what is happening to your political parties. In our system because everyone has to vote, that converges around the centre.”
The quiet centre. Now there’s a thought. As I wrote last week, millions are looking into the election wishing the choice was other than it is. Let’s hope the quiet centre is quietly looking at the best way of ensuring that nobody wins, least of all Johnson, and that as the lack of clarity continues on December 13, parliament finally sees that a referendum is the only way to resolve this mess, which is damaging us so much in the eyes of the world.
Julia Gillard hopes to see a referendum in Australia some time soon too – on the Monarchy. Though unstinting in her admiration of the Queen, she thinks that when she passes away – while recognising “she may well outlive us all” – that may be the time Australia chooses to become a republic. It won’t be easy though. Because in their system, she explains, the change has to be passed “by a majority of votes in a majority of States”. What a shame that David Cameron had never thought of that.