A dull European election seems inevitable

Tomorrow, Europeans will go to the polls to elect candidates to represent them at the European Parliament.  Or, more accurately, about 40% of the eligible voters will go to the polls.  In apathetic-sceptic Britain, turnout is expected to be about 30%.

The low turnout figures reflect a general malaise with the European parliament and democracy in Brussels.  During the heady days of the early elections, we saw chart-topping percentages like 62% & 59%.   Since then, turnout has been steadily falling, down to 43% at the last election – 35% in the UK.

In no small part, this is because the elections are boring.  There are plenty of reasons for this.

The first is that Brussels seems removed from our lives.  Seeing the raw fury in a commuter’s eyes as she spits out “can you move down the carriage!?” has taught me it’s easier to get fired up about the injustice right in front of you.   When conducting research in Brussels I found that most people preferred to let the professionals in various interest groups speak on their behalf in Brussels, farming out their voice to civil society groups with a sprinkling of clicktivism.

It doesn’t help that the candidates are overwhelmingly dull.  Possibly the most watched speech in the European parliament’s history is Nigel Farage being extremely rude about Herman van Rompuy. Who? You ask.  Well quite.  Nige sums it up: “Who are you? … No-one in Europe had ever heard of you!”  (Rompuy was President of the EU).  Even if his speech was rude, the European Parliament is hardly a hotbed of charisma.  Being an MEP is not an especially desirable position for the politically ambitious, so stronger candidates go to national parliaments rather than Strasbourg, leaving debates lacklustre.  I’d almost take a bit of sleaze just to spice things up; If Herman was caught with his trousers down the chance to splash “Rompuy-pumpy” all over the headlines would be too good to turn down, and we’d at least hear something about what was going on Brussels.

The campaigns can also be dull because the Parliament itself doesn’t propose any legislation, so no one can campaign with a grand idea – MEPs don’t typically take policy ideas with them to Strasbourg.  They review, revise and approve legislation – important work, but does not make for interesting campaigning – “I am a competent reviewer of legal clauses” isn’t exactly “I have a dream.”  This is a shame.  As the parliament has grown in significance within the European system, its MEPs have become more influential stakeholders; a campaigning European parliament could, if it wanted to, take matters to the Commission and be proactive in influencing the European policy space.  Having things to rally around is a route to engaged voters.

In the UK, national political parties share some of the blame for voter disengagement.   Sheltering in my South London bunker, I’ve been subjected to a blitzkrieg of leaflets for the local and European elections, most of which make scant reference to Europe.  Labour, one of the worst offenders, packed their leaflet full of policy pledges for national government – Wandsworth Council will not freeze energy prices, and neither will the European Parliament.  The leaflet actively encourages us to treat the election like a popularity poll for the Coalition: “This election is your chance to show David Cameron what you think of his A&E crisis.”   If national parties, who control candidate selection and the organisation of MEPs, don’t take the election seriously, can anyone else be expected to?   Political parties need to take European issues to citizens.  They aren’t always that interested in hearing it, but if politicians don’t make the effort they never will be.

As for tomorrow’s election: It’s not clear what will happen. My only hope is that the likely sharp rise in the number of anti-Europe and extreme MEPs will give some of the established party groups the kicking they need to plan how they can get voters to take this process seriously. Otherwise we risk continuing to see the Nigel Farages of this world gaining influence in Brussels, and using it for no good at all.


That Controversial Eton Exam Question is Worth Defending

A couple of days ago a friend of mine commented on something on Facebook, resulting in it being on my news feed.    The person was expressing horror at a question on an exam paper from several years ago set by Eton College for its prestigious King’s Scholarship (Boris Johnson being a former recipient).   By the end of the day I noticed it had been picked up by HuffPost Students UK, which focussed on some of the outrage expressed on twitter.

The question, taken somewhat out of context, suggested a hypothetical situation:

The year is 2040.  There have been riots in the streets of London after Britain has run out of petrol because of an oil crisis in the Middle East.  Protestors have attacked public buildings.  Several policemen have died.  Consequently, the government has deployed the Army to curb the protests.   After two days the protests have been stopped but twenty-five protesters have been killed by the Army.  You are the Prime Minister.  Write the script for a speech to be broadcast to the nation in which you explain why employing the Army against violent protesters was the only option available to you and one which was both necessary and moral.

This came after other questions centred on a passage from Machiavelli’s The Prince, where he argues it is better to be feared than loved (if you have to pick one).   Candidates were asked both to summarise the argument and explain why it is unappealing.

As for the offending part – I can see why there was some horror on reading this.   The question asks 13 year olds to justify the killing of civilians by the police.  ‘Necessary and moral’; it seems a bit heavy duty.     However, once I had gotten over the innate tendency we all share of being either outraged or infatuated with anything shared widely online I realised what an interesting question this is, as part of a series of extremely interesting and often perplexing questions.    If you have the time I absolutely would check the other questions on the paper.

There are short, snappy questions designed (I believe) to test lateral thinking, such as determining the time on a partially functioning digital clock.  There is a code that needs breaking; these are engaging questions.   Another asks student to consider a passage from Thus Spoke Zarathustra; challenging material, dealing with a genuinely interesting question, that of respect for teachers.    It’s actually one of the most stimulating exam papers I can remember reading.  Puzzles that draw you in and test your reasoning, not your recall.    My overriding memory of most exams I did at that age, Key Stage 3, is that they were never this engaging.  In the Eton paper you even have to translate from a made up language based on reoccurring phrases.  This is exactly what an aptitude exam should be, and critics would do well to think about the rest of the exam before launching into a tirade about it.

That said, context only gets you so far, and if the question was really that offensive then no amount of praise for the rest of the paper will change your mind.  It’s my view however, that it is misguided to criticise a hypothetical question designed to test and assess someone’s critical faculties.   Challenging questions are asked of students all the time, at all levels, and are essential to developing reasoning and critical thinking.  Taking these questions and assuming they represent some sort of internal bias can amount to a short-sightedness and is often foolish.  In 2011 then Labour MP Denis MacShane accused an LSE professor of “filling the minds of our young students with the most poisonous drivel” after quoting an exam question which asked students to explore the question of why, if we can hire women as poorly paid cleaners is it not legitimate to hire them as prostitutes?   This prompted, in true British style, a strongly worded letter from a number of academics (including my old supervisor Martin O’Neill at the University of York), denouncing the claim, and supporting the academic in question.  They contend an essay problem is not an assertion of belief.

Whilst an A-Level student of Economics my classmates and I had to give speeches on the privatisation of the NHS; I think it was an off-syllabus activity, but one of the more interesting ones I did in that class.   I was assigned the position of opposing privatisation, and had to argue in a speech against it and defend the current NHS under questioning.   Is that inappropriate?  Does my being assigned a position remove my ability to think for myself about a challenging issue?  Of course not.

The question set is a difficult one.  It would challenge any school pupil.  Unsurprising, as it is for a scholarship exam to one of the most prestigious schools in the world.   It is not however, horrifying, terrible or immoral to ask students to take a hypothetical position, even on such a divisive topic.   It’s one of the most interesting questions I’ve seen for pupils at that age.