( Serialised in The News Chronicle; first published in 1948 by Art and Educational Publishers Ltd. London and Glasgow. )
'And did women get their own way in the end? Did you and your friends succeed in making people treat you properly?'
'Yes; after a long struggle.'
What a wonderful idea! If women were able to do things like that, then boys and girls could, quite easily, if only Richard could make them realise it. They had only to be complete nuisances for a month or so and, like women, who were once treated 'as children', they would get votes and become Members of Parliament, and very soon put things to rights. Where women had succeeded, clearly boys and girls could. There must be hundreds of boys and girls up and down the country just longing for a chance to do something like this. They had been fools not to think of it before.
There's many a true word spoken in jest. But an idea has to be laughed at, first, before it can be taken seriously. Logic leads the way: If not suffragettes, why not... 'suffraginos', shall we say? A millenarial wish, perhaps. But before the end of the second millenium, some young English people did ask for a children's parliament.
Leslie Brewer's Vote for Richard is a light-hearted fantasy on the first child to stand for parliament. In the end, Richard succeeds, surprisingly, in getting the franchise extended to everyone over ten. But the author aims more at readers of ten or below.
A British child's failing the 11+ exam could mark him or her for life. So, Brewer's vote, for all of eleven years or more, is no more than just. Considering that a child's whole future may be determined by their performance in exams, it could be said that children are carrying their adult selves on their backs. As parents are responsible for children, children are responsible for their adult selves.
Since children have such a big personal responsibility in competitive examinations ( 'the rat
race' ) it cannot be said they are not responsible enough to vote.
It's also noticable that children are among the most aware of the ecological dangers to the future of the planet, above all, their future.
Still, today's commercialised kiddies might find Brewer's story childish. In the
post-war austerity, a child demands extra cheese rations for pet mice.
It hardly compares with toddlers answering pagers. One did this in our local library, the other day. Mobile phones are banned. But he was so small he couldnt be seen passing below the librarian's counter.
As a matter of fact, the big business of childrens adverts on television etc, that has grown up since the second world war, is a fresh reason for today's children, affluent or deprived, finding a public voice of their own, independent of commercial brain-washing. The argument, once used against womens rights, that children need protecting from the hurly-burly of politics sounds weak, in the midst of the relentless parade of dazzling toys to fill their Christmas stockings and empty their pockets.
In some ways, most adults have as little control, as children, over the economy. Adults have no forum to represent the interests of their working lives. The British House of Lords is to house 'the peoples peers', meaning the appointers' peers. An 'independent Appointments' commission is a contradiction in terms. It is a common-place example of politicians giving democracy a bad name, by pretending an oligarchy is a democracy.
'Sophisticated' moderns are clueless about economic democracy. And Brewer's childish jeu d'esprit may not be so silly, either.
The newspapers were full ( Richard read them carefully ) of talk about things which vitally concerned boys and girls. Should the Cane be Abolished in Schools? Should School Holidays be Shortened? Are Examinations Fair? Yet the strange thing was this : All sorts of people gave their opinions on these matters, but boys and girls, who were going to be caned, or examined, or have their holidays shortened, were never consulted...
About a quarter of the whole population of Britain was ignored. That, both Richard and Sally agreed, must be quickly remedied.
R G Collingwood's Autobiography bitterly recalls his mania for excelling in exams, to prove himself. Afterwards, he realised the vanity of such work and condemned his prize achievements as worthless. He believed children were 'criminally overtaught'.
In China, from where the British imported the system of examination in the classics,
the government itself was obliged to condemn this educational forced feeding, after a
singularly tragic effect of parental pressure to achieve top marks.
In march 2000, Premier Zhu Rongji told teachers to stop piling homework on children. Stop cramming them with intellectual facts. Consider their all-round education. Strengthen their moral education and help them develop practical abilities and a spirit of innovation.
In Vote for Richard, a new party is formed, with its own salute of thumbing one's nose. He and Sally have just approached a paper to spread the news of this Childrens Party:
'I hope the Editor wasn't joking,' said Sally. 'He may have thought we were dangerous lunatics and was only humouring us to get us out of his office.'
In this dated children's story, there is some timeless advice for reformers of whatever age or country:
'I know,' said the Editor, 'that some of you want to begin a reign of terror, here and now, to make people give you the vote. That's not -- if I may say so -- the British way to set about it. Try peaceful means first. Ask nicely. If the petition fails and Parliament does nothing to meet your demands -- well, that will be the time to consider other, tougher ways and means. But put the petition first, please...Meanwhile, you have to show that you are worthy of being given the vote...I know it is not going to be easy but...
There follows 'the week of virtue.' But the Chartist-type petition is rebuffed. The children go 'off the
good as gold standard'. They also have the backing of a manufacturer of water pistols.
The children show that they, too, can go on strike. In the post-war period, there is still considerable juvenile employment, in offices and hotels, as well as news boys.
But we are still twenty years away from 1968's international revolt of students. ( The lowering of the franchise age would soon re-define students as young adults. ) In 1948, school sit-ins would have been akin to a treasonous breach of quasi-military discipline.
Anyway, the Prime Minister has second thoughts. Brewer makes a delightful under-statement of it:
The news that boys and girls had secured the vote was received with mixed feelings in the country. Most people agreed, however, that the Prime Minister probably knew what he was doing, though it was, as The Times newspaper said, all a bit sudden.
( This view of prime ministers was in the days of Attlee and Churchill. )
When women got the vote, only one woman was elected an MP. The story again follows
precedent. There's only enough money to afford a campaign in one constituency ( with 'seven
boarding schools and three orphanages' ).
But Richard, the parliamentary candidate finds himself up against dirty tricks.
Like Robert Redford's film, The Candidate, he gets in at last. Unlike Redford's character, packaged for popularity, he wont have to ask: Now what do I do?
Like F Anstey's Vice Versa, Leslie Brewer's Vote for Richard could make a great movie. A completely modern script would be needed, but Brewer, like Anstey, has shown the potential of his plot.
In the real world, extending the franchise to sixteen year olds is gradually moving onto parties'
agendas. Moreover, parties most popular with the mid-teens have the incentive to act, when
they get the chance.
In ancient Rome, you were a man at fourteen.
H G Wells argued that people, just left school, remembered more of their education to exercise a vote. Compared as good citizens, the young lived in hope, unlike those broken in spirit by the age of forty.
The franchise may become part of teaching the young responsibilities with their rights against assault or abuse. The need for the young to settle their disputes by informal child courts of law, rather than violence and expoitation of each other, suggests a highest child court of the land, being a children's parliament.
The Kids Voting movement, in the USA, has shown that political participation takes education, like anything else important enough to have to be done. Parental help of their children, to learn about policies, also increases adult turn-out at the polls.
This review appeared in 2001.