Britain: A False Dawn?

Nick Clegg
Nick Clegg; drawing by John Springs

In March 1907, Sir Francis Galton, now best and unfondly remembered for his enthusiastic promotion of eugenics (he coined the word) and his remarks on such topics as “The deterioration of the British race,” published a fascinating article in Nature titled “Vox Populi.” “In these democratic days,” he wrote, “any investigation into the trustworthiness and peculiarities of popular judgements is of interest.” His particular investigation was based on a visit he’d made to an agricultural show in Plymouth the previous summer, where people were invited to guess the slaughtered and “dressed” weight of a live ox, at a ticket price of sixpence apiece (a sufficient stake then to deter frivolous entries). There were eight hundred contestants, most of whom were “as well fitted for making a just estimate of the dressed weight of an ox, as an average voter is of judging the merits of most political issues on which he votes.”

When the competition was over, Galton got access to the tickets, discounted thirteen of them as illegible, and, on the basis of the remaining 787 votes, found that the “middlemost estimate” (ticket number 394 between the highest and lowest guesses) was 1,207 pounds, 0.8 percent higher than the true weight of the dressed ox, which was 1,198 pounds, while the mean average of votes came to 1,197 pounds, just one pound short of a perfect match. Galton wrote: “The result seems more creditable to the trustworthiness of a democratic judgement than might have been expected.”

Any “national mood” is as hard to precisely gauge as the weight of an ox, but when the surprising results of the May 6 British general election were announced, they seemed like a replay of Galton’s famous experiment. Though few individual Labour, Conservative, or Liberal Democrat voters, let alone those who supported such outlier parties as the UK Independence Party (UKIP)—which opposes membership in the EU—or the thuggish, far-right British National Party (BNP), can have been much pleased by the outcome, the vox populi came up with a set of figures that were uncannily accurate in their representation of the deeply ambivalent mood of the electorate, which pollsters and commentators had tried, and mostly failed, to catch in the weeks leading up to the election.

Gordon Brown deserved to go, but David Cameron didn’t deserve to win, and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats were not entitled to any great boost in parliamentary seats just because Clegg had delivered a strong performance in the first of the three televised prime ministerial debates. (The Lib Dems, however, had a much higher proportion of the vote than was reflected in the distribution of parliamentary seats.) There was no rush to extremes: the BNP was treated with proper scorn, and the merry jingoism of the UKIP failed to catch on. The Greens found sufficient public favor to gain their first-ever MP, Caroline Lucas in Brighton. One way and another, all the…

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