During one of the most complex and unpredictable elections of recent years, our democratic process seems shrouded in darkness. Phrases like “no-confidence”, “caretaker convention”, “minority coalition” and “purdah” command a sense of mystery and bafflement. Citizens whisper in the streets of “vote swapping”, a “legitimacy crisis”, even a “second election”. Nick Clegg weeps softly into his pillow at night, clutching the 2011 alternative vote referendum.
In times of moral uncertainty, I often turn to J K Rowling. Feeling like a failure? She’s here for you, babe. Can’t quite suss your boss? Hear her wisdom. But when it comes to solving massive issues of structural inequality and bureaucratic obscurity, the Harry Potter books make our electoral system seem like an Eden of political transparency. If you’re reading this, Jo – I, for one, have a lot of questions.
The magical world, at least in Britain, is not a democracy. Rowling repeatedly refers to the “appointment” of the Minister for Magic: Fudge, Scrimgeour and Shacklebolt all secure the post with seemingly no approval at all from the Wizarding Community at large. Unusually for a community with a stated preference for segregating people into groups based on fairly arbitrary aspects of their personality, there seem to be no political parties, leadership candidates, or elections. Dumbledore casually refers to the fact that he has been “offered” the top job in wizarding society “three times on the last count, actually.” That ol’ Albus merely shrugs off the minor issue that an elusive person or persons has the power to randomly appoint a magical totalitarian overlord shows how deeply entrenched this approach to government is in wizarding society. It might also explain Dumbledore’s paternalistic and secretive approach to both teaching and magical warfare. (“Hey Harry! How about fighting the world’s most dangerous wizard with minimal help and no information at all from me, the closest thing to a guardian you have? I swear, it’s for your own good!”).
This becomes all the more troubling when Rowling hints at the full extent of the Minister’s control over the whole Ministry. The MoM appears to be a sprawling civil service, and a worryingly large percentage of adult wizards are employed by it, perhaps due to the lack of any functional economy (turns out, when you can do MAGIC, you don’t need to pay people to do much). Within the ministry, individuals have little say in their own career trajectories: witches and wizards seem to be moved sideways between departments against their will like pawns in a bureaucratic chess game. The personal preferences of the Minister play a large part in moves, promotions and demotions: Cornelius Fudge is able to freeze Arthur Weasley’s progress in the Ministry purely because he’s friends with Dumbledore. Even more extreme is the Minister’s ability to create and abolish departments, laws and offices at will. In short, the Minister exclusively commands the entire system of government, and the magical population has no control over his or her appointment. Say what you like about Voldemort, but at least he had something vaguely resembling a party, and a solid number of supporters.
Just as the Minister has unnervingly sweeping control of the Ministry, the Ministry guides all areas of wizarding life. The Magical Law Enforcement Office and the Auror Office are subsections of the Ministry with seemingly no operational independence, making them a potentially dangerous and powerful force for subjugation and control. The high court, the Wizengamot, is headed by the Minister, and its cloudy selection process and physical location within the MoM suggest it is utterly under ministerial control. This allows for the regular detaining of persons in Azkaban without trial indefinitely: Sirius Black never received a trial, yet remained wrongly imprisoned, then wanted, for over twelve years, because it was considered better for Ministry PR. The knowledge that laws surrounding imprisonment are often manipulated for political gain is widespread, as is an awareness that Ministry control of the soul-sucking Dementors is weak. The Ministry have intentionally created an unstable palace of mental and physical torture to frighten its population into subservience. In general, people seem pretty cool with that.
It gets worse: the Department of Mysteries essentially allows the Ministry to collect and analyse the private thoughts (they literally collect BRAINS), memories and potential futures of the population without their knowledge or consent. Want to know what this elusive department of government is up to? Sorry, it’s a mystery! There is no free press: the Ministry gains control of the Daily Prophet, seemingly the only respected news outlet. The Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures allows the Ministry to systematically oppress all non-human magical persons (including Beasts, Beings, Spirits, Goblins and Centaurs), enabling a society which depends on the slave labour of House Elves. The Ministry has an unusual level of influence over education: the Minister can appoint the Hogwarts headmaster, and controls the syllabus, pushing forward subjects which inevitably end in Ministry careers. At the same time, basic Muggle subjects like literature and maths are off-limits, essentially making it impossible for young wizards to leave the wizarding community. Muggle-borns are thereby encouraged to distance themselves from their non-magical homes and families, and commit themselves to the wizarding state.
Despite this disregard for the Muggle population as a whole, the Ministry, not content with total domination of magical society, extends its all-powerful grasp over the Muggle parliament, too. The bewitchment and confunding of Muggles is commonplace, structurally validated by the 1689 International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy, which prioritises the invisibilty of the wizarding community over, say, human rights. (The statute, a pillar of wizarding government, declares the primary purpose of the MoM to be concealment, and goes some way to explaining why transparency appears to be utterly disregarded by wizards and witches both within and outside the Ministry.) It remains unconfirmed whether wizards are able to vote in Muggle elections, but the extent to which the Minister for Magic interferes with the business of the Prime Minister suggests that a select group of wizards have unlimited control over any Muggle matters that concern them.
The most worrying thing of all, though, is that after the Second Wizarding War, not a huge amount seems to change. Rowling has since given tidbits of information about life after the war. Yes, our dear friend Kinsley Shacklebolt is now Minister, Harry has “revolutionised” the Auror Office, Hermione is a progressive trailblazer in the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. But the flawed system that oppressed and endangered so many is largely still in place.
My fellow Muggles: I understand your discontent, your frustration, your apathy. Our political system is inherently flawed. But remember, it could always be worse. You could be a wizard.