Carla Carlisle on the electoral system

Every so often, I announce that I can no longer live like this. With an emotional range that stretches from despair to hysterics, I rant about my need for order in life. Then, I head for the bookshelves. I believe that if I could arrange just this one aspect of my life, everything else-waist size, work, money-would fall into place. But all attempts at real change are destined to fail because the obstacles are always the same: too many books, too little space.

Like a farmer who would never plant potatoes and sugar beet in the same field, I want my books organised according to crop. Literature must have a field of its own, but Charles Dickens isn’t planted next to Virginia Woolf. In history, Roy Jenkins’ life of Roosevelt doesn’t live cheek by jowl with his life of Gladstone, which is another century and another country.

In an ideal world, the book I would place next to Mr Jenkins’ hefty biography of Gladstone is a little volume called On Books and the Housing of Them, a treatise by the four-time British Prime Minister himself, who writes with mathematical precision about how to accommodate the maximum number of books in the minimum space.

I share with Gladstone the belief that books arranged and catalogued provide a patch of sanity and happiness. I believe that his natural parsimony would even approve of Ikea’s Billy shelves, affordable units that satisfy his dictum that ‘shelves, as a rule, must be fixed’, with enough depth for duplicates of favourite books, copies that allow the collector to loan their books with an easy heart.

Which brings me to a foot of shelf space where four copies of Over Here by Raymond Seitz reside beside novels by Alison Lurie and Henry James, and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, literary anthropology aimed at deciphering the institutions and manners of the British.

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It’s to Mr Seitz, one-time American Ambassador to the Court of St James’s, that I turn to lighten the darkness of British electoral politics. ‘When it comes to elections in the two countries,’ he writes, ‘the devil is in the verbs. In America, you run for office; in Britain, you stand for office. This is not simply different usage. It is different politics.’ He then that the divided popular vote can result in a huge majority of seats in the House of Commons. ‘In Margaret Thatcher’s three election victories, she never won more than 43% of the vote but each time this produced an unassailable majority.’ John Major also won 43% in 1992, but only a slender majority. Tony Blair won 43% in 1997, but had an overwhelming majority.

The last time a British government took office with more than half the popular vote was in 1935. By the time you read this, I hope my bookshelves will be transformed and I will have the order I crave. I also hope that the land of the Magna Carta will have decided between the rusty history of ‘winner take all’ and the chaos of political limbo. Which takes me back to Gladstone (Liberal). When Disraeli (Conservative) was asked to define the difference between a misfortune and a calamity, he replied: ‘If Gladstone fell into the Thames, it would be a misfortune. But if someone dragged him out again, it would be a calamity.’

‘The last time a government won half the popular vote was in 1935′ explains that when an American congressman has to choose between voting for the interests of his constituency or voting for the interest of his party, he will opt for the former. Members of Parliament, however, either vote with the party or enter a political Siberia that is hard to get out of.

As for hung parliaments, Mr Seitz believes that they are more speculated on than realised, because the British electoral system is designed to prevent coalitions. If there are more than two parties in a contest, the first-past-the-post rule means.

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