I passed a new expat milestone this week.
I’ve now been away from the UK long enough for there to have been a general election and for the first time ever – at the age of 40-plus-one, as my kids charmingly refer to it – I didn’t vote in it.
Worse, the cause of my disenfranchisement isn’t some protest at the state of politics in the UK, or the venality of politicians (although there’s plenty of arguments in favour of either stance) the actual reason was far more prosaic: I didn’t register to vote in time.
Now I’m kicking myself, because if I had voted, I would still have (in my mind, at least) the right to complain about the outcome of the election, the new government, their policies, their priorities and the impact they’re going to have on my family and friends back in the UK over the next five years.
Because they do have an impact.
Previously, on UK politics…
Since the last general election in 2010, a coalition nobody explicitly voted for has doled out its medicine of economic austerity, and judging by the early results, Britain has looked at that – and signed up for five more years of it.
For months, the opinion polls have been predicting the political equivalent of The X Factor’s deadlock round, minus any of Simon Cowell’s pre-scripted put downs. And yet, it looks like David Cameron’s Conservative party may have achieved an small but outright majority.
I’m not saying it’s an unexpected result because, being Britain, someone somewhere will have put a bet on it.
But it’s the political equivalent of this season’s otherwise useless Reading team not only getting to their first FA Cup semi final in 88 years, but keeping the scores level against the second-best team in England until the last 15 minutes of extra time.
Pics or it didn’t happen, basically.
The inquest, for all the defeated parties, will go on for weeks and months. The impact, in terms of what this means for the United Kingdom (spoiler alert: it could be disunited) will be felt for decades. (Not British, or don’t live there? Here’s why you should care about the election result.)
And I had no say in it.
Like my eldest niece, who will reach voting age just a few weeks after the election, I will have to wait until 2020 to cast my vote. That’s a long time to be affected by policies you didn’t vote for.
And that view is only reinforced by the fact that I live in a country where, as a foreigner, citizenship isn’t a possibility, no matter how long we might stay, or how much we contribute to the country while we’re here.
The UK is a constitutional monarchy where the head of state (the Queen) rules along with a governing body (in this case, the British parliament).
Qatar, on the other hand, is an absolute monarchy, where the Emir rules with absolute power. (There’s more about the differences between the two systems here.)
That’s not to say there aren’t democratic elections here; in fact, there’s some next week (on May 13th), for the Central Municipal Council.
And I’ll be interested to see if those voters registered here exercise their right to decide on who sits on the Council, because I believe that if you can, you should.
Prologue to history
I’ve always thought back to Emmeline Pankhurst and the Suffragette movement, literally dying to win the right for women to vote in the UK; or more recently, the queues of South African citizens lining up for hours in the blazing sun to cast their votes in the country’s first democratic elections post-apartheid.
Given their struggles, I don’t think it’s too much to ask even the most cynical Brit to put an X in a box once every five years.
The British first past the post (FPTP) system may not be perfect, but at least the election campaign is only a month long (even if it feels like it should be measured in dog years).
Voters vote for a single candidate in the constituency where they’re registered. There are about 650 constituencies in the UK, divided roughly equally by head of population.
The candidate with the most votes becomes the Member of Parliament (MP) for that constituency, and the party with a majority of MPs (assuming they achieve one) is then asked by the Queen to form a government (presumably in a brief gap between Homes Under the Hammer and Pointless.)
The winning party then appoints/reappoints a leader, who – ta da! – wakes up the next morning, Doctor Who-style, as the old/new Prime Minister.
So whilst Brits don’t directly vote for a Prime Minister, their voting choices are often as much a verdict on the leaders of the main parties.
Anyway, until yesterday I’ve been able to complain. The election result is going to affect my family members, my friends and quite possibly have an irrevocable impact on my country.
But now that country has a government I didn’t vote for (half of my British readers, insert your own “neither did I” gag here).
That’s democracy for you.