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.Views: 3479
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