Two Clock Country

There is a long used aphorism, that a person with one clock always knows the time, but a person with two clocks is never sure. As 2016 slithers into the past it leaves behind two democracies, the US and the UK, with the democratic equivalent of the two clock problem.

It was Churchill who observed that democracy is the worst kind of government apart from all the others. He understood that democracy has never really been about good governance – government that makes the best decisions (for whatever your value of best) – rather it’s about stability through agility, a release value that affords managed revolution, and prevents the build up of pressure that throws countries into chaos and destroys lives. Democracy plays the long game. Other forms of government may have firm foundations and a wide base, but knocking over a democracy is like knocking over a ball, democracy takes catastrophe and makes it mundane.

So the recent votes in the UK for Brexit and the US for Trump are not things that should alarm. Argued against, fought against even, but not a reason for despair. Democracy in action, democracy rolling.


Except that in both countries there exists multiple democratic mandates, two clocks if you will, and in both cases they are telling different times.

In the US the problem arises from the Electoral College System, where each state has a number of electoral college votes (determined by population size) and the winner of the popular vote in that state takes all the college votes. Unfortunately that can mean that a President can win the electoral college even though they lost the popular vote. Trump is the fourth president where this is true (losing the popular vote by around 3m votes), and the second in recent memory (Bush did the same in 2000, but was only 500,000 short). The problem is not that one way is right, and the other wrong, but that there are two ways of interpreting the same result. And two times means no time.

In the UK the problem comes from the world’s most ill conceived referendum. The EU referendum result narrowly went to the Leave campaign, creating a democratic mandate for Britain to leave the EU. Except that Britain, like the US, is a representative democracy and the vast majority of our representatives were elected on a platform of staying in the EU – creating an alternative, and opposing democratic mandate. Who would want to be an MP voting on triggering Article 50. You were elected to parliament with a mandate to stay in the EU, around 26% of your constituents voted to Leave, around 24% voted to stay, 25% didn’t vote, and 25% couldn’t vote (mainly due to age). Leave scraped a win, but you are obligated to represent all of your constituents. What do you do? Tick Tick, Tock Tock.

These results are not what I would have chosen, but the result is not the problem, the problem is the process, or rather the lack of faith in the process that these alternative mandates encourage. It’s not just the occasional referendum, the problem will keep on coming.

I’ve written before about the need for Systems Engineering when considering a voting system, and in both countries the problem lies in the main voting system of the general election. In the case of the US there is a direct link, and the system clearly needs reforming – as when stressed, such as the election of a particularly divisive President – this double mandate is untenable. In the UK the link is indirect, the reason that the referendum result was so unexpected, and so mismatched the will of Parliament, is that Parliament was elected on the FPTP system and not a PR system (or even an AV system) – which bluntly means that Parliament does not adequately represent the views of the population. For example, if UKIP’s 12.6% at the 2015 UK election had turned into seats they would have 82 seats not 1 – making the referendum result a bit less of a surprise.

It may seem odd that a lefty liberal academic would want UKIP to have another 81 seats, and in truth I shudder at the prospect, but the point is that had we been using a different system the political classes might have taken that threat more seriously, and may have addressed the concerns of the people earlier and more effectively. If UKIP’s 3.1% vote at the 2011 election had led to 20 odious MPs then I doubt their vote would have quadrupled over the next four years.  I for one could put up with the smell of a small force of UKIP parliamentarians if it meant avoiding the protest vote that was the referendum – and it may have actually meant that the very real problems of the EU were addressed rather than ignored, and probably made worse.

In short, I believe in democracy. I believe it is the least worst form of government. I trust that when the roll takes me somewhere I don’t like I can protest, argue and ultimately vote, and the roll will eventually take me somewhere better. But what we have now in both countries is not fit for purpose and that is the real danger. Trump and Brexit are symptoms, not the cause.

Politically we can do better than the enfant terrible choices of 2016, but we need the chance. Living in two clock country means having divisiveness at the heart of our society, with no accepted method to distinguish which time to believe, which path to agree.

If nothing else, democracy is a system of compromise, allowing us all to muddle along sustained by the hope of change.

Our democratic system matters. Hope of change is what keeps us safe.

In the UK? Check out the work of the Electoral Reform Society, and consider supporting the work of Make Votes Matter – I am not affiliated with either, but their work is important, especially now.