Why Hong Kong’s troubles and Scottish optimism provide valuable lessons for Westminster
The increasing tension building in the former British colony, Hong Kong, bubbled over this week as protesters took to the streets to declare their anger with Chinese infringement on their hopes for universal suffrage. The response of the authorities was somewhat predictable: tear gas, forcing protesters to use umbrellas to shield themselves. Nevertheless, they were not perturbed. The reluctance of China to yield to the demands of Hong Kong citizens is unsurprising and for many an example of why we should fear an increasingly powerful Chinese elite. Equally concerning for those who still value British connections to Hong Kong – which was only fully returned in 1997, the last part of the empire to cease – is the failure of British politicians to speak out against the Chinese. These are all worthwhile points for discussion. However, the simple demand of the Hong Kong people has been overlooked. They are not facing tear gas to fight China; they are facing it for their right to vote freely for whomever they want.
Firstly, it is important to note that Xi Jinping and co are not denying the citizens of Hong Kong the right to a vote. They have stated that they will permit one person, one vote. Their resistance comes to the candidates up for selection. Essentially, the Chinese want to vet these candidates, to ensure they are not anti-China in their outlook. Hong Kong sees, rightly, this as undue interference. It was returned to China under the premise of ‘one country, two systems’. This system can be seen through the free press and independent judiciary Hong Kong has. The protesters want pure democracy, not a phony version.
Now lets return to the United Kingdom. We posses the right that those in Hong Kong crave; the ability to vote for whoever we wish, and the option for all candidates to stand for any chosen policies, however unpalatable some may find them, (the BNP being a prime example). However, in the forthcoming general election, it is likely that only three in every five people will vote. In the European elections this year that percentage was even lower, with national turnout at just over 34%. The same can be said for the United States with a turnout of just 57.5% to re-elect Obama as President. Likewise Germany, Europe’s heavyweight, had a turnout under two-thirds of the electorate last year. The anomaly in recent times for a presidential election is that of François Hollande. In 2012 turnout of the VAP (voting age population) was over 70%. This figure plummets for parliamentary and European elections though. This trend has been noted widely in the political class. The question of how to inspire the public to vote, and perhaps even take a more active, participatory role, is one that crosses many MPs and commentators lips.
The Scottish referendum is the first place to which Cameron, Miliband and Clegg should draw conclusions. Much was made of the enthusiasm of the Yes campaign, with the energy of Alex Salmond and the optimism it invoked in Scottish people of all ages and classes. This was rewarded by a surge, albeit not quite large enough to win, prior to the vote. On the other hand, Alistair Darling, accurately but unquestionably tediously, laid out the threats that independence posed on the currency, foreign policy and business. His Labour colleague, Ed Miliband, for his party conference speech, then took up the baton of depicting a doomsday scenario. The Tories, we were told, would destroy the NHS. Apparently even local people Miliband happened to bump into agree, suggesting a ‘black hole’ may lie ahead for younger generations; cataclysmic stuff indeed. Nigel Farage then followed, warning of the perils of staying in the European Union and being ruled by an out-of-touch political class. Finally, this week, there is not doubt that David Cameron will adopt a similar tactic: the earth-shattering consequences of allowing labour to return to the drivers seat of the British economy. In sum, UK politics has become a series of arguments of why not to vote for them, whomever the opposition may be, rather than to vote for us.
No wonder people no longer care. If their future is as bleak as painted by the major parties, and even UKIP, why bother? Yet we turn on the news and we see the people in Hong Kong fighting for this very opportunity and we support their cause. They desire the vote 40% of us fail to use. How do we improve this? Ultimately, people respond to hope and the expectation of change. See Barrack Obama in 2008, the quest for independence for Catalonia or Scotland and the wave that carried François Hollande in 2012. Admittedly, we do not want to be lied to about how rosy the predicament we face is, otherwise politicians face the backlash currently being experienced by Hollande when the public discovers that this really isn’t possible, or even desirable. Nonetheless, if politicians want people to actively drag themselves to the polling station to vote, they need to give them at least some shining light. Equally, they need to innovate and reform. Freezes on fuel duty and benefits or removing the bedroom tax will not inspire the masses. That is the challenge Cameron and Miliband face. Sadly, neither of them looks capable of succeeding, or perhaps even trying to do so.