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Artillery Row

The slippery slope to basic standards

How has the demand for “access” overridden basic requirements?

Journalists are not noted for our commitment to sartorial excellence — but I think most of us would think twice about attending a murder trial wearing sandals.

That was not so for a co-panelist at my jury service a few years back. In her defence, it was sweltering outside, with the air conditioning in the Old Bailey chugging away as best it could. Yet I couldn’t ignore the essential impropriety in considering whether to lock a man up whilst wearing beach attire.

The view is decidedly archaic in the 21st century. Not everyone can afford smart shoes to do jury service, some would argue. The tendency to discuss things in terms of rights rather than responsibilities has only grown of late — even if many would still scramble for an excuse to avoid jury service.

Put simply, access is king. It’s on that principle that controversy has flared over the Conservative plan to require English voters to show photo ID before they cast a ballot in this May’s local elections. 

It follows previous trial schemes run before the pandemic. Whilst these worked well enough, and the practice has been established in Northern Ireland for two decades, it’s a novelty in Great Britain, with the Welsh and Scottish governments resistant to the idea.

Most of us are sceptical that the Tories even could make it happen

The mood of critics was caught in November 2020 by then shadow minister for voter engagement Cat Smith, as the requirement was still being pondered. “Instead of working to break down barriers and improve accessibility, the Conservatives are actively putting barriers in the way,” she said.

Rehearsing what has become a frequent line of attack, Smith compared voter ID to Republican attempts in the US to restrict the franchise. The attitude has since hardened amongst critics, with the journalist Nick Cohen warning last week, “If the ruling Conservative party gets its way, the local contests will be the prelude for full-scale voter suppression at the 2024 general election.”

Reminding yourself what “full-scale” voter suppression in the US looks like requires going further back than the last decade. Historically it meant charging a fee, implementing literacy tests, intimidation and violence. Needless to say, the targets and victims of such measures were mostly black voters.

Even the Conservatives’ most fevered opponents would have to admit that it won’t happen here. Frankly, most of us are sceptical that the Tories even could make it happen. It is, put mildly, hysterical tosh.

The worst one can reasonably say of the ID requirement, is that it is a solution in search of a problem. Whilst there are scant mechanisms to catch those impersonating other voters, there’s little reason to believe it is a problem in British elections, and it’s a crime that’s tricky to scale.

Nonetheless, voter ID is not an unfair ask. Local elections may have the character of two bald men fighting over a comb, such are the limited powers of local authorities, but it still determines who will run your bin collection, social care and planning committees.

That makes it more important than, say, being able to buy a beer in the pub or collecting a package from the post office. Since most of us are committed to making it difficult for youths to get drunk, having to produce the same paperwork to elect your government is almost aggressively reasonable.

The problem, critics nonetheless say, is that it’s discriminatory. On this matter, the progressives are right: standards are discriminatory.

Even the process to register to vote has its exclusions. People of no fixed abode find it harder than those with a permanent address. It is much easier if you understand English. It also requires the basic organisation that some have rightly warned eludes the average student — though most of them doubtless have more interesting diversions available than the local polls.

Given the paltry turnout, one can see why local politicians would take any comers. Conversely, it’s probably fair to say that if you can’t obtain some ID and give the manifestos a quick scan, you may not yet be ready for the heady task of voting on bin collection policy.

Usually for something to be worth accessing, barriers are essential

The trouble is that this view treats access as something less than an absolute priority, and for some that is unacceptable. At the extreme fringes of leftwing politics there is tolerance for behaviour that previous generations would have seen as unacceptable, and even we would view at least as anti-social.

The leftist writer Freddie deBoer has done an admirable job of criticising this attitude in his coverage of disciplinary systems in the US. A recent post is typical: “The Left Has Never Stood for No Rules or Expectations on Personal Behavior”. Unfortunately for deBoer, the evidence he gathers rather belies the title. There absolutely are people — probably mostly leftwing, but also on the right — who have little to no expectations about people’s personal behaviour.

You can see it in attitudes to child-rearing. The hostility towards Michaela School’s Katharine Birbalsingh, often named the UK’s strictest headteacher, speaks of an outrage that anybody might impose some rigid expectations on children — and that this might improve their lives and those of others. Speak to teachers of even a leftish disposition, and many will quietly admit that some kids benefit from greater structure and rules. Journalist turned teacher Lucy Kellaway has even suggested that children from more deprived homes might disproportionately benefit. Still the idea is offensive to many, especially those who had less need of such rules growing up.

A similar attitude is also in evidence in migration debates. Suggestions that migrants should speak the language of their adopted country are often maligned as covert bigotry, the presumption seeming to be that host nations should be the ones to adapt to the newcomers.

Usually for something to be worth accessing, barriers are essential. Whilst one hesitates to reach for hoary reactionary language like “personal responsibility”, perhaps extremists like deBoer are onto something with his expectation that people don’t smoke — or worse — on public transport.

Similarly, if you’re a functioning adult who wants a say in how your country is run, perhaps you might avail yourself of some ID? It could be the slippery slope towards other basic standards.

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