Big Brother's lessons in citizenship

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
STOP moaning about the absence of citizenship education in schools. In the past fortnight adults and children alike have had vivid nightly lessons in modern democracy, courtesy of Channel 4 and the network news. And we've all had a part to play in what's been going on.

To start with, those who said that low turn-outs in recent elections reflected apathy among the electorate, especially the young, have been silenced, by the 7.5 million votes cast in the final edition of Channel 4's Big Brother. Leave aside, if you can, the adolescent psychology of the programme itself, the tedious self-absorption of the 10 housemates, and the mendacity of both producers and audience. The eight-week event gripped millions and the final result was astonishing.

Focus for a moment on that figure: 7.5 million votes cast in the final week. This is more, I understand, than the total number of ballots cast in the recent elections in Scotland, Wales and London. This single fact will alarm politicians. But it really ought to raise their spirits. If they could, for a minute or two , peer round the mental wall of arrogance and insecurity which protects their egos from being crushed by public indifference, they might conclude that the problem isn't that the people don't want to vote. The truth is that they just don't want to vote for the people who are putting themselves up for election. There is hope for the ballot box yet.

Big Brother offered voters the chance to vote early, vote often and in their own homes. They also had the joy of dumping the bad guy every week. These are factors that would swell any poll. But as Nasty Nick, the show's pantomime villain plaintively observed: "It's only a game." It doesn't matter - no hospitals will be built, no pensions raised, no refugees housed as a result of this vote.

Yet citizens who would not turn a hand to ensure that their council taxes were spent properly, spent hours on the telephone to throw people they did not know out of a house they'd never visit. he lesson? A good narrative will catch the voters' attention; the chance to make a difference, however small, will ensure they enter the voting booth - provided they don't have to walk to it.

The other half of last week's lesson was a much darker affair. There can be no argument that fuel is becoming prohibitively expensive for many, especially those in rural areas. In recent months, I have had to make regular trips by car to the outskirts of London to visit an ailing relative; my travel costs have shot up - but I have little alternative.

So I have a great deal of sympathy for those who have to use their cars to get to work, or to ferry their children to and from schools miles away from home every day. But the need to support the "travel poor" should not lead us to feeling sorry for heavily subsidised farmers, or to owners of haulage firms who shed crocodile tears for the poor.

What it does, however, teach us is that the slide to rule by mob is as well-greased as it ever has been. We pride ourselves on parliamentary democracy; but this "protest" has shown that democracy can be impotent in the face of determined and strategically-placed minorities.

And our impotence is not just a physical and practical inability to overcome the action by a few self-appointed representatives of the people's will. It is also emotional. Everyone who observes the tactics of the playground will know that some part of the power of the bully lies in convincing the rest of the population that they are prepared to go farther, and be more unreasonable than the rest of us, and that the only way to avoid their extreme disruption is to give in to their demands.

The lesson for teachers of real citizenship is that we can have the most elaborate structures imaginable to encourage and safeguard democracy; yet they can all be undermined in a moment by the fatal combination of the minority's selfishness and the majority's desire for a quiet life. It's a warning that every child should hear.

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