May 4th, 2005


Vote with your feet

There's a general election in Britain tomorrow. Am I voting in it? No. I don't even know what my electoral status is, and I don't really care. I haven't voted in a national election in Britain since... 1992? To be honest, I'm much more preoccupied with European issues than British ones these days. It's a matter of some importance to me, for instance, that France ratifies the European constitution with a Yes vote in the May 29th referendum. Whatever the accuracy of the comparison, Chirac is speaking a language that resonates with me emotionally when he calls the European constitution "the daughter of the 1789 revolution". I'm on tenterhooks about Turkey's accession to the EU, but I'm not holding my breath about Britain's adoption of the Euro. The Euro is great, but whether Britain is in or out of it matters very little.

I feel like a European and I feel like a Scot, but I don't really feel "British" any more. That national unit no longer computes for me. Call me "urbriotic": I feel a sense of place, and a sense of pride, in cities rather than nations. For the moment, Ich bin ein Berliner! Taking the train from Paris to Berlin this week I was once again struck by how a short train trip can change things more radically than any politician. The contrast couldn't be greater: Paris is beautiful, defined, dense, passionate, sexy, classical, stressful, volatile, Berlin is unfinished, amorphous, empty, relaxed, subcultural, calm, solid, stolid, serious. No politician would dare to suggest he could turn a Paris into a Berlin. Such things are beyond the power of mere humans, but any human can exchange Paris for Berlin or Berlin for Paris just by getting on a train. Trains, ships and planes, it seems, are more effective agents of political change than politicians.

Rather than voting at the ballot box, I've voted with my feet. Rather than militating for change in Britain, I've preferred to live elsewhere, to find ways of being which appeal to me more than the British way of being. It was selfish of me, I know. Life is too short, you see. Rather than beat my head against a brick wall, I've simply walked out the door. But I think I'm alienated from domestic politics for another reason: it "says nothing to me about my life". It seems unreal. Domestic politics is all about numbers. It's managerial. How much do we put into the tax rebate, how do we finance the health service and the transport system? Naturally these things have to be decided, and of course the answers will impact on the lives of the people who live in the country deciding them. But numbers seem incidental. They whirr away in the background, just like they do on my computer. Normally I don't notice them, even as I surf along, turning them into letters, or sounds, or pictures. Enormous anomalies in the numbers Gordon Brown juggles daily would make very little difference to my life, as long as the basic systems kept working.

It's the transnational issues, issues like global warming, which do matter to me, and will affect me wherever I live. But in domestic elections these issues are unfortunately downplayed, and all parties tend to say the same thing about them. They're so huge they seem best dealt with at European level anyway. And it may well be that we're seeing the last days of national-scale politics. Britain will eventually either integrate with the EU or integrate (in the unholy alliance I've called "Angrael") with the US, and only then will it be able to do something effective about an issue as big as climate change. (And obviously, you know, I hope Britain aligns fully with the EU on this issue, because the US is doing nothing about climate change.)

What really matters to me above all is not numbers, and not text, but texture: what I summed up in yesterday's interview with Marxy as "a way of being". Small incremental changes in national fortune or national policy really don't seem to matter much beside the way of being you experience when you arrive in a new land, a new city, a new culture. It's way of being which is crucial, and I believe that when you find a way of being you can live with, and you can love, everything else starts to flow in the right direction. Even when things go wrong, they go wrong in the right way. Even if people are poor and unemployed, if they have the right way of being it'll be fine. And of course the corollary is true too: if the way of being that prevails in a place is wrong, it won't matter how prosperous, peaceful or proud those people are, they'll just be richly, peacefully and proudly wrong.

I'm afraid I now feel that when I visit Britain. Whether rich or poor, successful or failing, Britain seems just wrong to me. It espouses values I don't espouse. Whatever history it might celebrate is wrong: I can never forgive it for failing to have an eighteenth century bourgeois revolution like the French one, or for failing to have a constitution, or failing to become a republic. Britain is just horribly wrong in so many ways that choosing a red, yellow or blue way of being wrong is pointless. Britain, as far as I'm concerned, is wrong in its attitude to the intellect, to sex, to art, to class, to the body, to the relationship between money and quality of life, to the relationship between work and play, to the relationship between itself and the US, or the relationship between peace and war, or between British people and foreigners, or between sunny days and cloudy days, or... well, I could go on and on, or alternatively I could just go, which is what I ended up doing.

Are any of the major political parties looking at Britain's essential wrongheadedness? What are they proposing to do about it? The answer is that if you really believed Britain was essentially wrong in its way of being, you wouldn't go into politics. You'd go into France, or Germany, or Japan, or India, or Tibet, or somewhere you felt things were less wrong. I mean, really, why be a satirist when you could be a satyr? Why be miserable when you could be happy? Why vote when you can walk? And why take the perspective that it's politicians who define a place, when it's so clearly ordinary people and their ways of being?