When you vote in Britain, there is a relaxed feeling in the polling stations. This is a long-established part of our culture, the atmosphere seems to say, and you are trusted to follow its rules. But, as Sir Eric Pickles’s review of electoral fraud suggests, the ballot is not nearly as secure as it should be. If that trend continues, the results will be called in doubt, and then democracy really is in trouble. For a long time, I have suspected the process and so, in the recent EU referendum, I tried a couple of experiments, helped by the fact that I am legally registered to vote in London as well as Sussex (though of course one may cast only one vote in a national election or referendum). In Sussex, I went to the polling station early. I took my polling card, which is not compulsory, and asked the clerk what the significance of the barcode on it was. He had no idea, so presumably it has no security function (or the clerks are poorly trained). I voted to leave the European Union. Then I caught a train to London, where I went to my local polling station. There I presented my London polling card, unchallenged. I went into the booth and wrote on the ballot paper ‘I am spoiling my ballot because I have voted already. This second vote is my protest at how lax the voting rules are.’ I had agreed this in advance with the editor of this paper, as being in the public interest. If it is so easy for hundreds of thousands of people who legitimately have more than one vote (e.g. second-home owners, students) to vote more than once, it must be almost equally easy to acquire more than one vote by false registrations at legitimate addresses.
There is a school of thought which fiercely objects to identity checks at polling stations because they discourage the less educated. No doubt such checks could be used oppressively, but surely, in a computer age where an ID check is an everyday occurrence for most people, it can be fairly and simply done. If we don’t take voting validity seriously, we don’t take voting itself seriously. It is typical of the official sense of priorities that while almost no effort was made to ensure my voter identity, I have in the last two years received 41 letters in my London flat, where I do not possess a television, threatening me with investigation and prosecution unless I buy a TV licence.
When it was reported that Liam Fox and Boris Johnson are already squabbling about who should be in charge of what in relation to Brexit, this was taken by some to be a feather in Theresa May’s cap. Isn’t she clever to have set Leavers against one another, was the thought. Downing Street sources were quoted as saying that she took a dim view of these silly games. But if it is true that Cabinet ministers are already at loggerheads about their roles, might that not suggest that the Prime Minister who invented these roles — and entire new government departments — has not properly defined them? Certainly the short-term effect of Boris, Fox, David Davis and, come to that, Theresa May herself, all fishing in the same waters, will be much confusion among newly appointed officials and conflicting advice, including legal advice. As this column has pointed out before, there is an urgent need for a peacetime revival of the Vote Leave campaign — renamed The 17.4 Million Committee — to collect the best advice and information from people who actually do want Britain to leave the EU and feed it to whoever needs it, including government ministers.
The Twelfth of August was heralded for me by an email from the RSPB. ‘RSPB warns driven grouse does not have a future without change’. Jeff Knott, the head of the society’s nature policy, goes on to say that ‘The illegal killing of birds of prey like the hen harrier must end, and sadly this tars the reputation of every grouse moor estate and every shooter.’ It would be wearisome (not least because Matt Ridley’s piece last week set it all out so well) to go through how most such accusations about the killing of hen harriers are false, how hen harriers do better on kept moors than on unkept ones, and how grouse moors do a great service to upland species diversity. The simple point to make here is that this is not the email of a charity which seeks to maximise the constituency of those who care about birds. It is the message of a campaigning organisation with such a power-urge that it thinks it can decide the future of an independent sport. Why are charities so often taken over by people with quite different aims from their memberships? Why is it allowed?
So here follows a completely non-political nature item. Last week, in our vegetable garden, my wife came across a young badger gorging on our windfall plums. She summoned me to see it. Having done so, I then walked the dog for an hour, but the badger was so intent on its feast that when I returned it was still scoffing, and quite failed to notice us until the dog gave a great lunge on her lead and started barking. Then it lumbered off beneath the hedge. Being young, the badger was pretty, but it had no ears, nor any evidence that it had ever had any. Was it mentally defective, which would explain its insouciance, or a rare breed?
The late Peter Simple used sometimes to include in his column a topical quotation so ludicrous that it needed no gloss by him. This item was always called Screaming Point. It should be revived, particularly to take in comment by Remoaners. Here is mine for this week, from Rio: ‘In those moments, Farah seemed to embody the best of the London Games. Before the lurch backwards to Brexit and all the fear and xenophobia it carried with it, Farah’s popularity seemed to be the embodiment of a new inclusivity.’ Oliver Holt, Mail on Sunday.
If Britain stays ahead of China in the Olympic medal table, will this make China tougher about the Hinkley Point deal — to get revenge — or softer, because China respects only superior power?