“If Recep Tayyip Erdoğan loses his referendum…” I say “I will donate my life savings to charity!”
I am reminded that my life savings wouldn’t pay for a week’s self catering in Antalya.
“Very well” I say. “If Recep Tayyip Erdoğan loses his referendum I will sell my priceless collection of Donald Trump jokes to Saturday Night Live —and give the proceeds to charity!”
I joke about politics a lot. Do you know why? It hides my ignorance. I am one of the (insert statistic) percentage of men who reads a newspaper from the sports pages backwards. I am not ashamed to admit this. Each to their own. After all, I once watched a football game with two politicians and had to remind them of the score. At least I read the newspaper all the way through.
I get asked a lot of questions about politics these days, mostly about referendums. It all started with Scotland in 2012 and it’s run on into Brexit and beyond. Most Germans want to know what I think and I do my best to answer. Like it or not, I am an ambassador for my country.
There is an irony behind all of this. I was not allowed to vote in the Scottish referendum because I do not live in the country, have not done so for many years and never will again. This I fully support. Only those who live in Scotland the right to decide the nation’s destiny and all of those who live in Scotland have the right to decide the nation’s destiny, “Scottish” or otherwise. Scotland can be proud that it is inclusive, undiscriminating and totally unwilling to let misty-eyed exiles decide its future.
I was not allowed to vote in the Brexit referendum because I have lived outside of the United Kingdom for more than fifteen years. I am often asked why we have this rule. As of yesterday I can answer that question by pointing to a clear example.
Mr Erdogan has won his referendum on constitutional reform and will gain a whole range of new powers. I joked last week that he would win with between 106 and 110% of the vote but the reality is much more frightening. The President’s “yes” campaign has won a tight race by 51% to 49.
Around 1.4 million Turks in Germany are allowed to vote and their results make interesting reading. In Germany, 63% of voters backed the President; here in the Ruhr area it was 75%. In Belgium and Austria, around three-quarters of voters crossed the “yes” box, in the Netherlands over 70% supported the proposal. There is a very real danger that exiled Turks have tipped the balance of the vote.
Of course they do not have to live with the consequences. Under normal circumstances I do not have to live with the consequences of British elections and so I always chose not to vote. This often causes curiosity and controversy. Not everyone agrees. Swiss people in particular find my attitude strange. I know many of them who live abroad but who will still vote in their canton elections about whether the rubbish should be collected on Tuesdays or Wednesdays. Switzerland’s view of democracy is very different to our own.
I appreciate their views: The right to vote conveys both an obligation and a privilege. Many have died for the right to vote and more still suffer for their rights than you would think. Americans abroad also find my attitude strange: They generally argue that their President is the face of their country and so even here in Germany they are affected. Their government still taxes them so I understand where they’re coming from.
I know what you’re thinking at this point. I bet he’d have loved a vote for the Brexit referendum –and you’d be right. But then referendums are not elections. Elections give a trusted candidate a mandate for change for a fixed period of time. The effects are usually reversible, as many US Democrats are finding out to their cost.
Referendums have the power to shape the country’s long-term destiny and often there is no going back. They affect everyone, even those who have yet to be born. They should not be taken lightly and so they should be well organised and the voters adequately informed.
Were Turkish voters well-informed? Well, around 2,000 laws will change, but nobody has explained the details to the electorate. Would the electorate understand these changes? It’s difficult to say: Turkey is a far away country of which I know nothing. I went there once; my impression was that they are reasonable people who read their newspapers back to front in the same way that I do.
Were the British public well-informed? Again, it’s difficult to say, although some of the claims made my certain politicians have shown themselves to be very dubious in retrospect. Scotland’s referendum took two years, Britain’s four months. Why the difference? Because we have no idea how to approach these things. Switzerland has a tradition of direct democracy, we do not. They have rules and regulations to govern the procedure, we make them up as we go along.
Should I be allowed to vote in British elections? No, I should not. Should I be allowed to vote in a British referendum? Surely we should at least ask the question. I am the country’s ambassador after all.
I seek clarity by going to the other BBC’s website. To them too, Turkey is a far away country of which they know nothing. This evening they are headlining with score updates from Middlesbrough’s Premier League game against Arsenal.
If I were living in Middlesbrough, The Boro’s chances of Premier League survival would probably be more important than politics. Or my mortgage would be, my kids, my job, my partner. Among the electorate, politics is not the priority that politicians believe it to be. We pay politicians to govern our country and we audit the results periodically. If they call a referendum, they are asking us to do their job without their insight and experience.
I have been dragged into politics. I am a novice and I am a conscript. This was never my plan. On Monday I start teaching politics at the university. A bilingual course in English and French. They will almost certainly ask what I think of Theresa’s decision to call an early election.
“None of my business” I shall tell them. “Another bad result for Middlesbrough though.”