Today, a colleague of mine told me that those who have not registered to vote in the upcoming General Election could face an £80 fine.
Being pretty switched on to current affairs, and rather obsessive over democratic rights and values, I was surprised I could possibly have missed this news. My immediate reaction was to dismiss it: my colleague was wrong, there was no way this could be true - such a significant tweaking of our 100s years old voting system couldn't be possible without some outcry, right?
After a Google search that threw up plenty of articles explaining the change, yet virtually none opposing or even questioning it, it was clear my colleague was right.
So how did this happen and what does it mean?
Some or even perhaps many of you maybe already knew about this, but based on my entirely unscientific survey sweep of the office, my thoughts are that this is a purposefully under-publicised change put through a few years ago by the (now exiting) government.
For many, it's barely a noteworthy change, and therefore rightly, has been barely noted. Many of these people, making something of a generalisation here, are the sort of people who say things like "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about" when discussing the ever-encroaching surveillance state. The sort of people who prefer to talk of the values of the Magna Carta rather than the values of the Human Rights Act. The sort of people who fully supported the idea of extending detention without trial as part of the Terrorism Act.
One of these people, I am not, and many others like myself would shudder at such nonchalant disregard of freedoms and rights, though of course we would consistently defend one's right to hold such beliefs - and we tend to call ourselves liberals. Not liberals in the American, synonym for slightly left-wing sense, nor Liberal as in supporter of the precursor to the Liberal Democrat Party, but liberal as in a believer in liberty, of rights of individuals and equality for all humanity, above all else. Social Liberalism if you want to be specific.
For me, the idea that I am mandated to do something - that does not in any way contribute to the ensuring of safety for other individuals or ascent to overall equality (for those tend to be the caveats liberalism allows) - is draconian, and wrong. This law, that would fine me £80 for not registering (I may as well point out now, I have registered - this is in no way about petty vested interest) is one step away from an enforced voting system, like that of Australia, Peru, Brazil and a few others. This is not what we ought to have in Britain.
Yes, people died for our right to vote. They also died for us to choose not to exercise that right. You can't have it just one way - rights to engage means rights not to engage as well. Regardless of your thoughts on voting or not, the forcing of such on anyone makes a mockery of that very democratic right.
Australia is not a beacon to be mimicked when it comes to democratic process (that makes a change from all this immigration 'points system' rhetoric, now doesn't it?), when it can literally throw its citizens in jail for not voting, when those looking to take a stand either have to take the fine or spoil their ballot. In fact, in the last Australian election, 6% of ballots were spoiled. In the 2010 UK General Election - 0.3%.
When you consider that, according to a study by Professor Mark Franklin, compulsory voting only ever increases actual turnout by 6-7% (as so many refuse to vote, take the fine and are therefore not counted towards turnout) when introduced to a country, the case for compulsory voting is entirely nonsensical. The increase in turnout would be cancelled out by the increase in spoilt ballots.
That there is the logical argument, that those who champion mandatory voting tend to argue is missing from the 'anti' position. Logically, going down this route - and don't be deceived, this is the trajectory - adds no benefit to society or politics whatsoever.
So more social & political tinkering from the Tories?
Traditionally, in the UK, we liberals would most likely put our X in the box next to the Liberal or Liberal Democrat candidate (right there in the name, after all) , not always, but perhaps more often than not.
This is why this change rankles even more, because it was put through by the Liberal Democrats - not the Coalition collectively - the LibDems take full ownership. I'm not saying I would in any way support it, but I'd better understand the internal reasoning of Labour or Conservatives pushing this through. For the LibDems to do this, it makes no sense to me.
Now it would be easy to suggest that the LibDems have gone soft on their liberal tendencies while in government, that this is merely another bastardising of promise or ideology, like tuition fees et al.
Yet, throughout their 2015 manifesto, liberalism is still there at its core. Policies such as decriminalisation of cannabis, banning of arms exports to countries with poor human rights' records, 'devolution on demand' for local councils suggest they haven't given up on the traditional values just yet, so how could a party with such values ever push through such an illiberal law, or at least one that leads us down a very illiberal path?
Unless, perhaps, it is my thinking that is skewed? Is the concept of a mandatory voting requirement so at odds with liberalism, when perhaps the ends justify the means? If this did actually increase voter turnout significantly (a big if) then arguably, it is an embodiment of a liberal value because it has empowered those who were powerless, to exercise their voting rights. I feel that may be stretching it too far, though.
I am still reticent to suggest this policy could really be conceived of as liberal, when the necessary condition of increased turnout is one that has never been proven to occur.
Is this the case with all mandated actions though? Perhaps the lesson from this is that mandatory requirements for engaging with other aspects of society don't necessarily contradict liberal values?
Where, if anywhere, could society benefit from, and liberalism cooperate with, mandatory requirements of citizens?
How about something clearly beneficial like volunteering? Mandatory volunteering sounds like a contradiction in terms I know, but what if charity or citizenry work was made mandatory for, let's say, all 16 year olds? Bear with me here:
The benefits of volunteering are clearly demonstrable for both individuals and communities, and on this logic, lead to greater long term freedom for both - depending on the activity, it can empower communities (e.g. building schools in a developing nation leads to a more educated, and therefore empowered populace) and can empower individuals (e.g. often leads to greater self-worth, social conscience, compassion).
Now it isn't a huge stretch to suggest that it is young males who would most benefit from developing those skills and traits outlined above - we are a notoriously selfish bunch, can be unkind at the least and violent at the worst, but often, this comes from possessing a depleted or threatened self-worth - the causes of which are a whole piece in themselves - that we do all we can to hide from others.
This is not purely anecdotal: males mature - and the characteristics above are those one would generally associate with maturity - later than females. Now bear in mind that the number of males who volunteer is around 33% less than the number of females. I am not saying it's a causal factor, of course not, it's biological, psychological and sociological, but what I am asking you to consider are the potential beneficial implications on liberalism of requiring all young males to volunteer.
Suicide is the leading cause of death for 20-34 year old males and surely that is the ultimate antithesis of liberalism? Taking one's life means literally removing all of one's rights. We can search for the causality (and much work is being done on this), but perhaps a short-term fix, and one that actually increases liberal values overall, would be to enforce mandatory citizenship work. The benefits outlined above would surely impact the number of those willing to choose this last of resorts.
Now, you may say this all sounds a bit like 'National Service' and I can see the connection, and as mentioned, as a Liberal, anything that contains the words 'enforced', 'mandatory', 'required' immediately raises my hackles. But I do wonder, in this scenario, whether the ends justify the means? Is longer-term, potentially increased liberty, worth sacrificing a little freedom in the short term? Of course one is reminded of Franklin's "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety" but I don't think this necessarily applies here: we are not trading liberty for security, rather we are trading some liberty now, for more liberty later.
I have to admit, I am still yet to decide whether such a trade-off is worthwhile, but I feel the questions around the implications of mandatory services or deeds on liberalism do need to be asked. It is our right to ask such questions.
That really is our liberty.