Now You See It, Now You Don’t

A completely underestimated part of our constitution came into being 150 years ago today, 18th July 2022. This was the Secret Ballot Act.

Before 1872, anyone emancipated by the Reform Acts of 1832 and 1867 would still have had no real vote. Anyone who held their land from someone else or relied on a rich man for their livelihood would have been making his preferences clear, when voting.

As it was, bribery and corruption in elections would not be outlawed until 1883, and elections continued as exposed occasions during which people would be plied with beer and promises.

The great dream of tyrants who are demagogues is to show that almost everyone has voted for them while secretly making the real votes disappear. Now you see it; now you don’t. No one had a real vote until they had a secret vote. It was on the basis of the Secret Ballot Act of 1872 that the next reform act, in 1884, gained some meaning. Only on this new basis did Britain cease to tinker with the old liberal system of ‘reform’ and begin to conceive a democracy in which from 1918, reform acts would be called ‘representation of the people acts’.

Without the secret ballot in 1872, that third reform act of 1884 would have increased the power of the landed interest massively. All those people in the countryside to whom those acts gave the vote would have been voting as their masters told them to vote.

It was 150 years ago that a beginning was made down the road which has led to rules for spending by the political parties during the elections. It began to build a system from which in recent years we have resiled.

In recent years, elections have been spread across more than one day, which is the effect of postal voting; previous reforms had kept all elections on one day, and that had made sure (in so far as it was possible) that all electors voted on the basis of the same events and information.

In very recent years there have been delays in revising the boundaries of constituencies, whereas previous reforms had made sure that these would be roughly equal in population rather than chosen for their connection to some history; this has altered the equality of votes.

Most topically, today there is debate between a government with an Online Safety Bill, that wishes to police our communications, and champions of an atmosphere online in which mobs can be whipped up and can move in against anyone departing from their agenda. We are not that very far, in fact, from the beer cart in the middle-Victorian county seat.

In fact, the similarity is more fundamental. Not only are many people today on salaries, or on benefits, or on both; everyone today is encouraged (as Victorians never were) to live in debt. We call it credit; we call it mortgage. We borrow money on a promise to repay it with the money we must keep our jobs to acquire, and few people build an independent income from what they earn.

The myth of the sovereign individual relies on every individual having the equivalent of a mini-sovereign wealth fund. For as long as most people are dependent on a company’s say-so, or roped into the status quo of benefits, or both, none of them can have true independence of mind without very marked sacrifice and risk.

The media which frame the debates in which the voters participate are themselves commercial interests, each part of a portfolio of other interests, each driving sales rather spreading enlightenment in some Reithian way, choosing whom to include and who to make ridiculous. Participation does not extend to deciding the debate, and efforts are now being made to shut down the internet’s possibilities for doing so.

In Russia, there is no free vote, and no truly secret ballot, and its hybrid warfare mobilises the electorates of its enemies against them. Liberal democracy was built, then started to cave in, but there is no anti-democratic alternative which truly would be better. To exchange our freedoms for some form of security would be both naïve bargain and Faustian pact: naïve, because what is granted today can be taken back tomorrow; Faustian, because the authoritarians compel behaviour by showing what they will take and what they give.

The only course from this discredited liberal democracy is for the citizens to exert themselves as citizens. This repellent state of affairs requires, counter-intuitively, more engagement rather than less — from us. One hundred and fifty years after the Secret Ballot Act it is time for reform, which gave way to representation, to be rescued by the conscious and conscientious agency of ourselves.

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Proofreader, editor, writer — in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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