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Bruce Bucknell

Former British Deputy High Commissioner Kolkata

Part of UK in Belarus

7th November 2014

Voice and choice

I come from a politically engaged family.  My parents were active in local politics and spent quite a lot of their spare time attending meetings or public events in support of their party.  I don’t think I ever really discussed with them why they were so interested in politics.  We talked more about what needed to be done for the country, and why one policy was better than another.

At election times, they would canvass their neighbours to find out how they would vote.  I wonder if my parents often guessed, but I remember well the lists of voters, cut up and pasted onto cards with many names neatly underlined:  in blue for Conservative, orange for Liberals and red for Labour.  They then ticked off the names of the voters as they voted, from returns of tellers who checked the voters as they arrived at voting booths.

village hall 1974
Outside the Village Hall in March 1974 and the oсcasion is the General Election. Photo from http://www.poringlandarchive.co.uk/poringland/the-footpath

My first memories were of the two elections in 1974.  At the first in February, the sitting Conservative government won more votes nationally than Labour, but won fewer seats in Parliament.  The Labour party formed a “minority government”, but soon called a second election in October.  They won more votes and more seats in that election, but only held a slim majority in the House of Commons.

I can recall the unfairness of the result.  But I also remember well my father’s philosophical reaction – for my parents were indeed Conservatives.  That was the system, he said.  He regretted the result, but told me that there would be another election in five years’ time, when everyone would decide again who would govern them.  As indeed they did in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher was elected.

Our form of democracy has elections in 650 different constituencies where candidates stand against one another to contest who will be the Member of Parliament to represent the area.  The candidate that receives the most votes wins.  This system may well again produce a similar election result to February 1974.

Other democracies have systems which rely on party lists, where parliament representatives are elected according to the proportion of votes received by each party.  A few others like Australia have a system sometimes called the “single, transferable vote”, where voters put candidates in order of preference.  The candidates with the least votes have their second preferences distributed until one candidate gets 50% of the vote.

But the important elements are the same.  There is a system.  All adults have a vote.  There are regular elections, and governments can change.

From time to time, there is disaffection that democracy doesn’t work.  That for an individual, there is little choice.  Or that one individual vote doesn’t count or change much.

Winston Churchill understood this.  He said in 1947 – just two years after his party lost an election despite the fact that he was Prime Minister during the Second World War, and indeed was a great leader:

“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe.  No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all wise.  Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…”

Churchill on his election tour of Epping, November 1935. Churchill Press Photographs © All rights reserved

Election times are when a government seeks legitimacy.  The government has to give an account of itself to the people, and seek their support.  And in our British system, an individual MP has to seek the support of a majority of the voters in their constituency.

One vote doesn’t change anything, but aggregated together, then lots of individual choices add up.  The collective majority decides the outcome of the election.  And with elections there is choice and alternatives of different futures.

I don’t know enough of the source of the words, but it seems right to me that the Russian word for election (выборы) is the word for choice.  And the word for vote (голос) also means “voice”.  A single voice doesn’t count for much but added together they make a lot of noise.

When I’m asked about what is different between Belarus and Britain, it is the democratic debate that I miss most.  I miss the cut and thrust of argument about what the government should do or not that so characterises debate in our parliament.  It is through such debate of their representatives that the government works in the interests of all people.

This is the week of the anniversary of the October Revolution in Russia, when change was brought about by very different means.  The revolution was followed by terrible war, famine, forced collectivisation of agriculture, and so on.  This week I also visited the site just outside Minsk where many people were taken and shot during the repressions of the 1930s.

My overwhelming feeling was about how many lives were wasted, and how much the people suffered to bring about change.  This is the tragedy of Russia and its neighbouring countries, as it tried to find a new way of government from the imperial system that crumbled under the pressure of mobilising society to fight in the First World War.

That was a world away from my parents and their discussions of politics around the family table.  And that is why I am a strong supporter of democracy – so that everyone has a voice, and everyone has a choice.

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About Bruce Bucknell

Bruce was the British Deputy High Commissioner in Kolkata from 2016 to 2019. Previously he was Ambassador in Minsk from July 2012 to January 2016. Bruce grew up on a…

Bruce was the British Deputy High Commissioner in Kolkata from 2016 to 2019. Previously he was Ambassador in Minsk from July 2012 to January 2016.

Bruce grew up on a farm in southern England and enjoys walking in the countryside and visiting wild places.

He studied modern history at Durham University, and takes a keen interest in the history of the places he visits.

Bruce used to play cricket when he could see the ball. Now he enjoys watching cricket and many other sports in his spare time.

He has had a varied career in the Foreign Office. Between his postings to Amman (1988-91), Milan (1995-9) and Madrid (2003-7), he has spent much of his career in London mostly dealing with Europe and Africa.

He is married with two grown up sons.