One of the trendy things to worry about these days is political disengagement among young people. A think tank called the Institute for Public Policy Research is so worried it’s suggested people be forced to vote in the first election after their 18th birthday. They say political apathy among the young is undermining democracy, but their solution is rather perverse. People who are so bored by thinking about the future of the country that they can’t be bothered to vote are the last people we should be consulting on the next government; frankly it’s a relief that so many of the least competent voters keep themselves away from the polling stations. These kind of people were chief argument against universal suffrage when it was first considered, as Charles Moore wrote in 1987.
Disraeli warned that ‘the moment you have universal suffrage it always happens that the man who elects despises the elected’. And he imagined the House of Commons in these circumstances:
“There will be no charm of tradition; no prescriptive spell; no families of historic lineage; none of those great estates round which men rally when liberty is assailed: no statesmanship, no eloquence, no learning, no genius. Instead of these, you will have a horde of selfish and obscure mediocrities, incapable of anything but mischief, and that mischief devised and regulated by the raging demagogue of the hour.”
The spread of the franchise has not brought a great deepening of political knowledge, nor a growth of public spirit…Universal suffrage has made politics more silly and more strident…But after a very rocky period, a century of continuous political decline, it may be that the Reformers’ work is at last beginning to bear better fruit. For many of the worst effects of democracy tend to cancel themselves out. J.S. Mill’s worries about uneducated people voting are mitigated by the fact that the uneducated seldom bother to vote. Illiterates, presumably, scarcely ever vote. More important, the desire for ever greater public spending which democracy produced in its first years has now run into conflict with a popular desire produced by all that spending — to pay less tax. Tax has become such a major drain on the resources of all workers that it is much harder to get votes simply by promising more expenditure. People are growing dimly aware that they will have to pay. In a prosperous nation where more than 60 per cent of the housing is owner-occupied we may at last have attained the social conditions where a universal franchise is unsubversive.
These days we leave education, buy houses and get married later than we used to, so it’s not surprising that young people pay less attention to politics. In the 19th century, another objection to universal suffrage was that it would give votes to people who didn’t pay taxes, which is why an 1874 Spectator argued that household suffrage was much the best system.
The duty of voting is best performed by those who are personally interested in the result of voting—that is, by those who have some “stake in the country”—who are sufficiently tied in one way or another to know they must suffer for any mishap; who will think, or at worst follow a leader, instead of rushing away with an idea. Boys are bad voters, because they think everything possible, believe every evil can be cured by legislation, and cannot perceive the advantages of compromise. It takes time and it takes experience to make a sound, reasonable voter…
It is the peculiar claim of household-suffrage that it does admit the whole nation when ready, that it is true to the principle of equality, and excludes no one the moment he has reached a point at which he feels the burdens as well as enjoys the privileges of citizenship. There is, we believe, but one suffrage which is strictly national, which recognises absolute equality, and which nevertheless can be relied on for the kind of steadiness and persistency which enables statesmen to prepare any policy at all, and that is household suffrage.
Even the Victorians who were in favour of giving the vote to everyone would have been astonished at the proposal to force it on unwilling participants. We’ve moved on from household suffrage, but we should have some humility about the drawbacks of our present voting system. Some people have the grace to admit they don’t care about who runs the country, so rather than frogmarching them to polling station to put a cross in a random box, let’s leave them be.