Did you see the game last night?

I did; I stayed up for hours watching the UK general election. This isn’t because it hugely affects me (most of the year I’m not in the country), nor because I participated (I didn’t), nor because it’s so deeply important (it’s important, but not more so than hundreds of events to which I devote scant minutes of attention).

I stayed up watching the election because it was a game: I knew the teams; I knew the rules; I knew the predictions. I could watch with the all the appropriate emotions: cheering at some events, booing at others, speculating, comparing, biting my nails, etc. I could try to  justify which teams I supported and how much, but it would only be a partial explanation. I cheered at each seat the Conservatives failed to gain partly because I have always identified that team as ‘the other side’, and because I was emotionally satisfied at seeing smug shiny Cameron miss out on his big prize.

I say this not because I think it’s good but because I think it’s inevitable, and there’s no point pretending to have higher motives than I do. It’s inevitable because the electoral system doesn’t just feel like a game: it *is* a game. A set of rules define artificial goals for participants to pursue with artificial means – just as the rules of chess create such entities as rooks, bishops, and checkmates, so the rules of the British electoral system create such entities as votes, seats, and the confidence of the commons.

Being a game is not ruled out by the result making a big difference to people’s lives: poker is still a game when you bet your house on it. It’s not ruled out by the rules being designed in light of pre-existing goals or needs: javelin-throwing is still a game despite its origin in the requiremnts of hunting and warfare.

This election is serious business.

This is worth pointing out because it’s common to talk as if the election is not a game. For instance, right now many Conservatives are claiming that the results (a hung parliament with them as the largest party) constitute a ‘rejection’ of Gordon Brown and a ‘demand’ for change, and that it’s therefore innappropriate for the Labour Party to remain in government, even if they can do so within the rules (by forming a coalition).

Conversely, opponents are claiming that the Conservative’s failure to get a majority of seats is in fact a ‘rejection’ of their message by ‘the’ public. Others still are claiming that the disparity between share of votes and share of seats is a ‘denial’ of people’s democratic rights, indeed that the election has been ‘stolen’. There are disputes over who does or does not have a ‘mandate’.

All of these claims suggest that there is some real thing lying behind the election, the ‘voice of the country’ or the ‘general will’, which the election results are merely a picture or expression of. But if the election is a game, they amount to disputes about ‘the spirit of the rules’, and that’s almost the opposite: what’s real and factual and objective is the rules and the results, the votes cast and seats won, and the ‘spirit of the rules’ that lies behind them is nebulous, subjective, and indeterminate.

You can’t extract the pawn from the rules of chess and ask whether chess accurately depicts the pawn’s level of power; you can’t extract the votes people have cast from the rules and strategic situation they cast them in, the predictions and compromises and selection among available options, and posit a ‘real meaning’ that they express.

Take a debate over ‘does the God of the Quran support genetic engineering?’ You can try to have such discussions, of course, and some positions may be more reasonable than others (God is not in favour of engineering humans to have 5 asses). But when religious people argue over that topic, they assume that the words of the book are mere expressions of a more real, objective thing – God’s will. But there is no such thing, and so ‘God’s opinion on genetic engineering’ is not more real than the text, but far less real.

Does that mean none of these political debates should happen at all? No – even an atheist can engage in scriptural arguments. But they’re likely to be inconclusive, at least as long as we focus on the grand spiritual entity. Does it mean that someone who follows the rules without complaint until it becomes advantageous to complain of unfairness and appeal to ‘the real meaning of Christmas football the gospels Democracy’ – is being disingenuous? Quite possibly.

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