“A great leap forward for our democracy,” declared the Prime Minister at Denwick High School the day the first step was taken. He called the children “electoral pioneers” as the school made the landmark decision to give their pupils the right to vote on the man or woman who would lead their next Board of Governors. Today was Election Day and one by one, each governor took to the stage, straightened his tie or flattened her skirt and delivered a five-minute speech on why he or she should win the children’s vote.
The first, Mr Martin Jones, spoke of his “tremendous pride” at taking part in such “a vital exercise in democracy”. He was later discovered to have paid some children’s parents to fill in the voting slip on their behalf. Another, a Mrs Amanda Rosewood, praised the children for their “attentiveness and exemplary attitude”, but failed to mention she was siphoning funds from the school cash pot to pay for her new patio.
Ms Rachel Redwood (paid a previous Governor to secure her place in the election) declared herself “in awe of the children”; Mr Barry Green (friends with a previous Governor) said it was “a privilege to be contributing to the development of tomorrow’s electorate” and Mr Roland Green (sleeping with Ms Rachel Redwood) described the children as “future makers” and proclaimed them “more important to this nation than any of the five of us”, with a Cheshire Cat grin on his face and agitated twitch in his leg.
Once the speeches were over, each one greeted with ever more vociferous applause from the government representatives in attendance, the Prime Minister spent the rest of the day touring the school: posing for press pictures, watching the choir in action and enjoying a quick kickabout with “England’s future World Cup heroes” thanks to the school’s temporary relaxation of their ban on ball games. He ended the day giving a speech of his own at a special assembly held in Hall 1, a location reserved for only the most important of very important people.
Once he’d reasserted the candidates’ comments, and gone so far as to compare the children to Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and “the pioneers of your textbooks”, he opened the floor to questions. First to raise her hand was an eager young girl by the name of Emily Cross. She stood up, and in a crisp, clear voice that automatically made the Prime Minister nervous, asked her question. The instant she finished, a patronising chuckle came from the relieved PM’s mouth. “Well, my dear, they haven’t done yet.”
“The epicentre of power,” thought Melanie as she made her way to the Prime Minister’s office. Melanie was one of the Prime Minister’s latest assistants. A young lady no older than 25, she’d been rushed into service following the sacking of the PM’s previous aide Seline, who’d fallen foul of what was only referred to as “the Tube incident” in hushed tones around the halls of power. She was one of a number of candidates up for the job and had quickly dyed her hair from a dirty streaked brown to a clean, bright blonde and replaced her hard Yorkshire accent with a soft RP hum before she went in for interview. It worked. Here she was, standing on the next rung of the ladder, sipping tea with the best and the brightest.
It was one of Melanie’s morning tasks to bring the Prime Minister his copies of the newspapers. She rapped politely on the door, got a muffled response and walked into the PM’s office as he was using his ‘Signature Stamp’ to sign the mass of documents that threatened to spill off his desk and onto the floor. He hadn’t used an actual pen to sign his name since his first week in power. “How could you not have done this before?” he’d asked as he ordered the stamp’s creation. “E-ffic-i-en-cy!” Pretty soon, every official document was being signed with a stamp. Pens were only used to fill in the Times crossword and chew nervously on during crises.
She delivered the papers with a smile, as she did every day, and he gave a short “Thanks, dear”, as he did every day. After finishing off his breakfast cereal, the PM picked the papers up one by one and thumbed through the coarse pages carefully and deliberately without ever actually looking at their contents. He’d spot the odd word every now and then, bits of headlines, fragments of puns – a “Drowning Street” here, a “Prone Minister” there – but he’d mastered the art of flicking through the pages and selecting only the pieces he wanted to see, the pieces he knew would be positive.
Today, those pieces were about his “successful, totally successful” trip to Denwick High. This, he knew, was an “easy win”, but it took just a matter of seconds for him to realise that something had gone wrong. Very badly wrong indeed. ‘POLL AXED’, blared The Mirror, ‘WRECK THE VOTE’, said The Sun. The Prime Minister’s aides and assistants shifted nervously as his eyes glanced up from the paper. He asked the usual questions – “How could this happen!?”, “Why did this happen!?”, “What are we going to do about it!?” – and looked over angrily – bloodthirstily – towards Melanie and Neil Black, one of the his key advisors who’d been with him since the election and helped guide him to victory. In that instant, Melanie felt her heart sink and the earth crumble beneath her feet.
“Did you hear what happened?” As the days went by, the events at Denwick High gathered notoriety. The story had started on page 13 of The Mirror and page 24 of The Sun. It had garnered no interest whatsoever from The Daily Express, The Daily Telegraph or The Times. By the end of the week though, it was on page four of the Express, page two of The Times, and the front page of The Guardian. The Mirror and The Sun had promoted it from news to editorial, and The Daily Mail had joined in the pontificating too. None were happy. For The Mirror, this was a monumental error of judgement by the authorities, showing once again their ignorance about the minds of children, while the Mail and The Sun said it proved that the voting age should never be lowered. Indeed, the Mail called for it to be raised to 21.
The Prime Minister was forced into an embarrassing climb-down. He gave separate interviews to The Guardian (the “electoral pioneers” “weren’t quite ready for such responsibility just yet”) and the Mail (“it raises very real concerns over the education system established by the previous regime”), and insisted that the children had “let themselves down very badly indeed” in a Newsnight interview in which he also made sure he praised “the intelligence, innovation and creativity” the pupils displayed on that day. It was a powerful moment of television, the PM thought. He’d been tough but fair and left the TV studio happy with how he’d come across. That, he thought to himself, was that.
But it wasn’t. The events at Denwick High had started something, and long after the papers and TV news had moved onto their next scandal (the PM, it appeared, was enjoying opulent parties with arms-dealing princes), people still spoke about what the children had done. It had begun as a joke, an amusing bit of one-upsmanship on the most powerful man in the country by a load of kids. But as the months ticked by and national polling day edged nearer, the laughs transformed into real reverence. Parents across the country discussed it on the school run, pub patrons analysed it over a pint, NHS nurses chatted about it while performing their daily rounds. The joke that turned into respect now became a question.
“What if we did that? What would they do then?” As the election campaign rolled into May, these questions pressed on peoples’ mind, but the Prime Minister paid them no heed. “Silly tittle tattle,” he said dismissively. But it wasn’t. This was revenge. Peaceful and patient revenge for years of lies, double-talk and broken promises. And as the Prime Minister took to the podium – a rather elaborate prop that had been designed with a resounding victory in mind – to make his speech, he remained set in the fantasy that this was simple laziness.
“This is a disgrace to our democracy,” he said in a crisp, clear voice. “The people of this country have undermined the ideals their grandfathers fought so valiantly for. More than that, they have let down their children, who will see this as a terrible example, and they have let down themselves. This kind of apathy cannot and will not be tolerated. It…”
Suddenly a screen in one of the outside broadcast vehicles the BBC had assembled around Downing Street buzzed into life. The anchor quickly cut to a polling station where the volunteers were pouring out the voting slips. Every single one of them bore the same insignia. The anchor cut to another polling station at the other side of the country. The same thing. Another polling station followed, and another, and another. And in each case, every single slip had the same thing. Instead of a single, small x drawn neatly in a box, there was a large, black cross streaked from one corner of the page to the next, covering the entire slip and voiding it.
The Prime Minister shuffled nervously on the spot as the press chattered and cameras flashed. He looked down at his papers, desperate to buy time, desperate to find an answer, quite simply desperate. But all he could think of was a question, the question asked by young Emily Cross on that day at Denwick High School all those months ago, the question he had dismissed back then, but which now presented itself with all the crispness and clarity its original speaker had given it:
What would happen if nobody voted?