In an ideal world, democratic elections would be characterised by a kind of Socratic dialogue. Rival politicians would put forward cogent arguments, quoting unadorned and carefully sourced facts. Questioners would seek further details and probe weaknesses. Occasionally, somebody would say "you've got a point there" or "I must admit our ideas for improving [say] hospitals didn't quite work". A candidate might even say "I don't know" or "I'll have to look that up". Wise citizens would debate the parties' rival merits in pubs and workplaces, having made notes on the previous night's political broadcasts.
This world has never existed. Most people used to vote according to class interest; as social boundaries have eroded, they increasingly do so according to individual interest - what's in it for me? Now, they no longer expect much of a government. They do not look to either party to provide jobs or houses. They have their own transport and their own pensions. Telephones, gas, electricity, water, TV and radio are all available from a multitude of private suppliers. For all the clamour about standards in schools and hospitals, when faced with a bad service many simply go and find a better one (inside or outside the state sector), as politicians have encouraged them to do. Once the idea is accepted - as it now is by all three main parties - that the consumer is sovereign, even in state-financed services, why should most people bother about the outcome of an election? They do not get to vote for the chief executive of Tesco. As public services are increasingly customised and fragmented, their accountability to us collectively diminishes. Why vote for an MP who may well be told that the affairs of quasi-independent hospitals and schools are no business of his? Smart individuals will in future get the services they want, not by voting but by exercising their consumer rights.
Even self-interest, therefore, is no longer much of a basis for voting. Nothing has the straightforward appeal of a proposal for a free National Health Service, an old-age pension for everyone, or secondary education for all. Arguments about foundation hospitals, means-tested credits or city academies become complex and technical. The voters are, in any case, convinced that if politicians promise something there must be a catch in it somewhere. But as any marketing executive knows, if you can't appeal to greed, you had best appeal to fear: fear of crime; fear of terrorist attack; fear that immigrants will swamp the country; fear of hefty tax rises; fear of the NHS or pensions being abolished.
The appeal to fear is nothing new. The Conservatives tried to stop Labour in 1945 by warning it would introduce a British Gestapo. Fear of nuclear annihilation (or Soviet invasion) won many western elections in the cold war era. And fear is the dominant theme of this election, as one side (usually, but not always, the Tories) tries to create fear and the other either to allay it, or to argue that its own policies will do a better job of holding the monster at bay. Fear will surely grow in importance in future, as politicians become more desperate to hold the voters' attention. And fear, more than self-interest, is the enemy of rational debate and, ultimately, of democracy.
Take immigration. Here there is certainly room for discussion. One side might highlight the possible effects of increased population on, for example, traffic congestion and the demand for greenbelt housing development. The other might stress how young migrants boost economic growth. Yet, as the Optimum Population Trust reveals in a new report, none of the parties even mentions crowding or overpopulation in its manifesto, while, as Richard Reeves points out (page 23), Labour fails to make the link with economic prosperity. The argument is not linked, as it could be, to the environment or the economy, but to law and order: the Tories appeal to fears of potential terrorists entering the country, while Labour, conceding this as a major worry, insists it has the problem under control. It has long been the same story over Europe, so that issues about how to democratise the EU have given way to a sterile debate about a potential Brussels tyranny. Likewise, health issues are dominated by fear of the MRSA bug, with Michael Howard sounding as though he would personally tour the country with a bottle of Dettol. Again, a better debate would concern which kinds of treatment the NHS should continue to provide free of charge. This is bad ground for Labour to fight on, because the Tories have always been better at fear, and their cheerleaders at the Daily Mail are masters of it. To borrow from Franklin D Roosevelt, the party has nothing to fear but fear itself.
Following our cover story two weeks ago highlighting the late pope's role in the spread of Aids in Africa, the editor of the Catholic Herald, Luke Coppen, provided an address and phone number so his readers could convey their "views" about "the nastiest invective . . . in decades" directly to the NS editor, Peter Wilby. To maintain the flow of debate, NS readers may wish to comment on John Paul II's newly elected successor, Joseph Ratzinger. Homosexuals - described by the former cardinal Ratzinger as an "intrinsic moral evil" - may have something to say. So may Anglicans ("not a proper church"), devotees of rock music (a "vehicle of anti-religion") and women who aspire to become priests (banned "to protect true doctrine"). Views should in the first instance be addressed directly to Benedict XVI at the Vatican. But if you can't get through, Mr Coppen on 020 7588 3101 would no doubt be happy to pass on your opinions.