Thursday, 23 April 2015

Voting with Head and Heart

I'm conscious that apart from a few tweets, I've not said much about the election. 

With two weeks to go, I'm thinking how dull this election campaign seems to be. There's a curious lack of passion about it, not much evidence of fire in the belly either of our political leaders or in the way we ourselves talk about it. Yet we keep being told that it could be one of the most defining of elections for decades. On its outcome may depend the future of the United Kingdom and whether or not we remain in the European Union. Yet we have heard only a little about the former and next to nothing about the latter despite one of the parties branding itself in relation to Europe. Nor have we heard much from our leaders about how they see Britain's place in a changing world order, or the global threats of conflict, climate change and terror, or even what kind of nation we aspire to be in five or ten years' time and how we address exclusion and poverty in our divided society. 

Is it that these Big Concerns don't stir the hearts of the electorate because they don't win votes? Or maybe (God forbid!) they don't greatly stir the hearts of most of our politicians either? In a famous poem 'The Second Coming', W. B. Yeats warned that 'the best lack all conviction'. But we shouldn't lay this indictment only at the doors of politicians. Our leaders mirror the conviction, or lack of it, that we ourselves demonstrate. If we're casual or indifferent in politics, we're going to get a politics that is itself casual and indifferent to so much that ought to matter intensely in the world we find ourselves living in. It worries me that this doesn't seem to be featuring in the election debates I've overheard so far.

It's not that domestic issues don't matter. It's right that we are clear about what our elected representatives would do with the economy, taxation, immigration, education and the NHS. But it's hard not to suspect that self-interest isn't colouring the way we're all talking about them, candidates and electorate alike: what's in it for me? In TV interviews with 'ordinary' voters, very few seem to have anything to say about global concerns, a politics of care, social justice and the common good. Are journalists not pressing these bigger questions hard enough, I wonder? I'm chairing the hustings in Durham next week. I happened to meet one of the constituency candidates recently and warned that if no one else voiced these questions from the floor, I would be. 

A few weeks ago the House of Bishops' published an admirable pastoral letter. We could all do worse than read it once more a fortnight before we cast our vote. Contrary to what some sectors of the press were saying when it was issued, it doesn't tell us to vote this way or that. What it does is to highlight the things we should all care passionately about if we see ourselves as citizens participating in a democracy. It challenges us about where our values lie. It proposes how we might bring Christian insights to bear upon the electoral choices we must make. It asks where God might be in our common life as a human family, a nation, a society.

The letter echoes something that G. K. Chesterton once said. He remarked that the trouble with British elections was not that the whole electorate couldn't be bothered to turn out and vote. It was that the whole elector didn't either. He meant that even if we cast our vote, we may only do it half-heartedly, like Yeats' 'lacking all conviction' Perhaps if we are honest, we don't care too much about its outcome or reckon it can change anything. 

But voting is like prayer. What matters as much as the act itself is what we do next so that it makes a real difference. This is how people of faith should believe in the election, and take part in it: with all of our heads and all of our hearts. And yes, definitely: with every prayer we can muster. 

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