The abstainers

I didn’t see the episode of BBC Question Time (BBCQT) where Cat Boyd ‘confessed’ to having abstained in the EU referendum. I regularly abstain from watching BBCQT. Although this isn’t really abstaining in the same sense as declining to vote. By not viewing a particular TV programme, as by not purchasing a particular newspaper, one is actually ‘voting’ against it in the only way one can. By not consuming something, one is actively denying it a unit of the support in the marketplace by which such things are judged either as winners or loser. Boycotting a product is an effective way of voting against it.

It’s different in politics. By abstaining, you don’t declare yourself against anything other than your own democratic power – limited as it may be. Not voting for either, or any, of the options on offer cannot be construed as a vote for something that is not on offer. In the market-place of media there is only accept or reject. In the market-place of politics there is only decide or allow others to decide. By abstaining, you forfeit your democratic power to others.

The idea of “positive abstention” is an obvious nonsense. Abstention is, by definition, a null action. By not voting, you leave a vacuum. Even if it were logically feasible to abstain positively – which we must take to imply abstaining for something – there is no way to control how your abstention is defined. The thing that you are supposedly abstaining for is not specified in the context of the electoral market-place. Anybody can lay claim to your non-vote and interpret it according to their agenda.

Abstaining in an electoral contest cannot be the equivalent of ‘voting’ against a TV programme by not watching it. It can only be the equivalent of giving somebody else the remote control.

But even null actions can have consequences. Things happen, not only because of the choices we make and actions we take, but also because of the choices we decline to make and the actions we fail to take. Power is relative. The power you eschew doesn’t just disappear. It is not destroyed or wasted. It accrues to others. By not voting, you help to empower those who would otherwise be lost in the mass of voting. Almost by definition, those towards the fringes of the political spectrum will tend to be more certain to vote. Simply as a function of their commitment and engagement, extremists will always use whatever means they have to influence electoral outcomes. They will gladly seize the democratic power that non-voters discard.

Logically, non-voters will tend to be those in the middle. They will be the disenchanted and the disaffected and, in very large part, the simply apathetic. By not voting, you become part of that amorphous mass. You become indistinguishable from the apathetic. However effectively you may convince yourself that you are practising “positive abstention”, to the system you’re just another non-voter. You’re no different from the physically idle who can’t be arsed dragging themselves to the polling station. You’re no better than the intellectually indolent who resort to the inane mantra of ‘they’re all the same’ rather than essay the small effort to analyse and make distinctions.

So spare us the pompous posturing, Cat! You haven’t struck a blow for anything with your “principled petulance”. You’ve slouched off with your hands firmly in your pockets leaving the field to the frantically flailing fanatics.

And it’s not as if there was not a choice to be made. It’s just that Cat Boyd only identifies the choices visible from the perspective of her righteous radicalism. I’m not saying she fell into the simplistic folly of imagining Leave was the realm of racists, xenophobes and sectarian bigots while Remain was reserved for those mired in the orthodoxies of neo-liberalism and/or ardent advocates of a European super-state. Well, not entirely! But she certainly appears to have missed the fact that, while there was little about the Leave campaign that could be described as subtle, the Remain case was very much very much more nuanced than she seems to have appreciated.

There were both negative and positive reasons to vote Remain which have nothing whatever to do with the facile caricatures of either camp. It was, for example, always abundantly clear that the Mad Brexiteers had neither a plan nor the faintest inkling of what a a Leave vote implied. They were, and still are, completely clueless. But Leave voters were committed, in the sense described above. They were always going to vote. Either in blissful ignorance of or reckless disregard for the consequences. By voting Remain, Cat Boyd could have helped defeat that fanatically anti-EU faction. She chose instead to afford them the democratic power she declined to exercise.

Even if Cat Boyd’s evident detestation of the EU is justified, surely no rational person would seek to destroy – or, by inaction, allow others to destroy – something which is so much a part of the fabric of the nation (whether the UK or Scotland) without having at least some idea of what was to replace it. As an analogy, I am very much in favour of abolishing the House of Lords and the monarchy. But I will stubbornly resist any attempt to do either of these things that doesn’t come with a viable plan for the alternatives.

In short, there was an overwhelming case for voting Remain simply on the grounds that voting Leave could not possibly bring any benefit nor achieve anything positive. A leave victory could only ever mean precisely what it has turned out to mean. A political and economic guddle of massive proportions.

Voting Remain was never an absolute endorsement of the EU. It was only ever an endorsement of political and economic sanity. It was not a choice between being in or out of the EU. It was a choice between the EU and an indefinite period of unprecedented upheaval that was almost certainly pointless because whatever we end up with will not be in any meaningful way different from what went before because we haven’t actually voted for anything different we’ve only voted against something because we lack the moral and political and personal will to change it.

Cat Boyd likes to imagine she escaped the “lesser evil blackmail”. She didn’t. She merely persuaded herself that abstaining was the lesser evil.

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15 thoughts on “The abstainers

  1. Sandy

    You’re right, if you don’t vote, you don’t count. Spoiling your ballot paper should be a more effective way of saying ‘none of the above’ – at least you weren’t just apathetic, you actually turned up at the polling station to register protest.

    I’d disagree, though, on the abolition of the House of Lords (and, to a slightly lesser extent, the monarchy). I believe the HoL should be abolished immediately. Once that’s done, we can have a sensible, rational debate on the function and form of a second chamber without risk that disagreement will lead to a default to the status quo (or worse, letting the HoL have substantial amending powers or veto of any proposals). If anyone wants to retain the HoL, let them argue for it on an equal basis with other proposals. Of course, my real preference would be to get away from the Lords via independence.

    1. Peter A Bell Post author

      I don’t intend to be distracted by a discussion of the House of Lords. But I have to say that it is naive to imagine a “sensible, rational debate on the function and form of a second chamber” would ensue after and as a consequence of its abolition. What would actually happen is that established power would decide the “function and form” of what filled the vacuum. There is no point in getting rid of the HoL just to let the executive replace it with something that better suits its purposes.

      My personal preference is for a ‘Chamber of Delegates’, comprising delegates from qualifying organisations such as trade unions, consumer groups etc. This takes the whole thing away from party politics at the same time as bringing into the legislative process a wealth of specialist knowledge and particular perspectives.

      I see no reason why there should be any limit on numbers. The chamber could be virtual for most purposes, with delegates opting into those areas where they have an interest.

      I agree that the best way to resolve the issue of the HoL is by bringing our government home. For the moment, we must recognise that, unsatisfactory as it may be from a strictly democratic perspective, from a practical point of view the HoL is often the only effective check of executive power. Remove that, and you only further empower the political elite of the British state.

      It’s one of those instances where you have to be careful what you wish for.

      1. Sandy

        Yes, forgot momentarily that this is Britain we’re talking about and ‘sensible, rational debate’ does not apply.

        Still get rid of them first though, otherwise the first 700 members of your House of Delegates would most likely be the existing Lords.

        Enough distraction, back to Independence.

  2. Vestas

    Cat Boyd is in this for one person – Cat Boyd.

    She was one of the cheerleaders for “don’t waste your second vote on SNP, they’re bound to get a majority” in May and she’s one of the reasons I don’t trust The National.

    She’s a waste of space.

  3. Kate

    Cat Boyd introduced herself as an ACTIVIST, & having read and listened to her in debates, I would say she is a POLITICAL activist. And for me, I have to ask, what activist does NOT vote? no matter the political question, especially if you are going to write columns on the subject of what YOU believe is good for your country or not as the case maybe.

    When you question how a government is running said country, & speak at debates on the subject of how YOU believe your country should be run. Then You would be at the front of the queue at the polling booths surely to cast your vote on that very matter.

    Cat made a fool of herself, she did not volunteer how she voted when asked, she sort of hung her head and smirked before saying feebly, I errrr “didn’t vote” I actually was flabbergasted on hearing this, as it turned out so were many in the audience who booed her.

    It was only because of the booing and the questioning from Dimbledum. That she offered up the “excuse” I was actually out of the country at the time of the vote… THAT from an activist!

    When my son is out of the country working, he makes me his proxy vote.

    He is NOT an activist, but he wants change for this country as I do.

    If you want to see change, there is only two ways to get it, fight for it if you can or vote for it.

    Cat has fought as an activist for things she believed in. And she knows how important voting can be, especially in this country. her feeble excuse,of not being innthemocjntry at the time, was pathetic. I know one thing, I would not go out of my WAY to listen to her PREACH her views ever again, nor read any of her columns. If she does not care about what is important for this country, then I sure as hell do not Want to be listening to what is important to her…

  4. Malky

    I haven’t watched it either as I don’t have a TV licence. I witheld the money from a corporation I intensely dislike for a number of reasons. I took a stand and I am paying the price: I now can’t watch ‘activisits’ whose idea of being active is doing nothing very much at all it seems.

  5. Andy McKirdy

    If she is really a radical YES for independence and like the rest on here look forward to an Indyref 2 then voting remain in the EU REF was surely something she should by all logic have done.
    Is she maybe, like Harvey and others on the radical left side of Independence more interested in their own personal agendas????
    Anyway what a disappointment, maybe should just join the Labour Party where abstention is an art form!!!

  6. Ian

    Maybe Cat is aspiring to be a QT Scotland regular, just like her fellow panelist – Merriam Somerset Webb. Cat certainly did indy no favours and that seems like a pretty good qualification for becoming a regular.

  7. alasdairB

    The message coming out of the US Presidential election is crystal clear. Don’t be misled or distracted by opinion polls; make sure you get your vote out; when you have a vote then use it; have a straight forward campaign based on hope, trust & change; social media and the Internet of things now proves to play a crucial roll in shaping opinion and influencing voters. Trump in the last 3 months of campaigning reported spending $70 million per month on social media & the Internet !

    Trump and the Republicans scored heavily on the above managing to hold their vote share at about their 2012 Election level of 61million whilst Clinton and the Democrats shed 5.5 million votes compared to Obama’s 2012 result of 66 million.

    Overall there were some 100 million non voters from a registered total of 232 million.

    The Rust Belt States of Michigan, Wisconsin & Pennsylvania each a traditional Democrat state all failed to deliver for Clinton with Trump cleaning up in all 3 states.

    The non voting % for these 3 states was in the high 30%

    The margins of victory for Trump and the Republicans in these Rust States was……..
    Michigan by 15,611 votes giving 16 electoral college seats
    Wisconsin by 73,706 votes giving 10 electoral college seats
    Pennsylvania by 27,257 votes giving 20 electoral collage seats

    So in only these 3 seats by the FPTP system with the fall in the Democratic vote combined with the apathy of some 4 million non voters the Republicans & Trump collected 46 electoral college seats sufficient to take him well over the finishing line and claiming the Presidency.
    It is not at all surprising that 90,000 Michiganders voted for every office on every ballot on both sides of the ballot paper but refused to vote for President. They refused to vote for Trump and were not going to participate in Democratic system that they perceived to have abandoned them.

    In summing up it is vital that everyone in a democracy realise that there has been centuries of blood , sweat and tears behind citizens achieving the vote.
    Simply to be a no show is not only disrespectful to the struggle of our ancestors but is a sure way of getting the worst possible result of a Government by default. This is what has happened with Trump and the real possibility of a conflict of interests now taking U.S. Politics into uncharted and dangerous territory.

  8. ET

    Bravo, Peter.

    You hit the nail on the head. As someone else implied, there are likely too many “activists” about who care only about their personal agendas and promote those by riding on the back of popular campaigns.

    The EU ref was really not much different from voting for political parties. Most people have doubts or dislikes about some policies, but, tend to vote for the party with which they agree most and/or has, to their mind, the most competent plans.

    Nothing would have kept me out of the polling booth on such an issue.

  9. TB

    Cat, Cat, Cat. The poster-girl of the SWP, a middle-class elitist cult that no-one i their right mind supports in any way.

  10. Tarisgal

    I agree with most of your points, Peter. Not voting simply allows the chance of a win for a party that we would least want to have run the country. And I agree with many more commenters who have given their views. I can’t imagine NOT voting given so many people fought for my right to do so! There have been many times when I’ve wondered if there really was a point in going along to my local Polling Station to vote, but the idea that someone fought really hard to give me that choice, has always taken my coat off the rack and wrapped my scarf tied round my neck and I’ve braved some awful weather to get there! (I live on the coast – it’s a given on polling day the weather will be breezy and cold! Lol!)

    I so agreed with Kate’s points that as an activist, it’s hard to see how Cat Boyd can have ANY credibility whatsoever now.

    HOWEVER, as a democratic society, we have the right to NOT vote if we choose not to. As I said, we are likely to lose any credibility we may have had prior to the election and it may be that as an activist, people are less likely to listen to a word we have to say in the coming days if we choose NOT to register our protest. I think it likely many of Cat’s followers will re-assess their previously held admiration of her ‘stand’ in politics and it may be they decide that her kind of support to the cause no longer has any value to their ‘camp’. BUT – that was her choice. Her democratic right to do nothing.

    I know that wasn’t really your argument. But I think it has to be said.

    If we all decided we didn’t like any of the choices in an election, NOTHING would change. If we choose the best of the bad bunch, at least there is a CHANCE of some kind of change. Even if it’s just a ‘chance’, it’s something we can work on. Surely that’s worth voting for?

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