Howard Croft column: Racecourse refusal and the register refuseniks

Sedgefield racecourse.
Sedgefield racecourse.

There is a group of seasoned race-goers known as the Sedgefielders, who under the leadership of Sean Magee make an annual pilgrimage to Sedgefield Racecourse. The reason for this devotion is lost in the mists of time, but it is unconnected with the former local MP for the area who once suffered the indignity of having a member of the public attempting to effect a citizen’s arrest, in a smart restaurant no less, in respect of alleged war crimes. Sean Magee is a professional writer of books and articles on racing, most notably a splendid book on Arkle.

Guests are invited to these gatherings and in 2011 I was lucky enough to be one of them. A fellow guest that year was Sir Peter O’Sullevan, the distinguished racing commentator, a much revered figure among the racing fraternity. Towards the end of dinner the night before there was a certain amount of informal story-telling and it is said that I described an episode involving one of the Sedgefielders, a friend of mine for over 40 years, which was so off-colour that Sir Peter turned purple with outrage.

Although I had no recollection of having committed this grave social error, and still do not, I was promptly banned for life from Sedgefielder gatherings. This year, however, the ban was lifted and I was invited once again. I refused all offers of alcoholic refreshment, perhaps the cause of my alleged narrative boldness three years ago, and assumed a contrite manner, sheepish even. I met a chap there who told me that he always goes to the Boxing Day meeting at Sedgefield because Wetherby, his nearest course, is such a zoo on that day. So, I said, you live in Wetherby, then? No, I live in Hong Kong, he replied. An odd moment.

Also odd, I have received an official communication requiring me to fill in a voter registration form and with it a warning that failure to do so may result in an £80 fine. I think that this penalty is a new feature of our democracy as I have no recollection of being threatened with it before, but one forgets so much nowadays. I rang the appropriate “official” to question this. I was assured that, although this sanction is one of many at their disposal, it is rarely invoked because it costs four times the penalty to take the matter to court. I suggested that they quadruple the fine to make the arithmetic more rational, then they could have more fun tormenting reluctant voters. It is a lucky man whose job is also his hobby.

I also pointed out that many people have no wish to vote, for reasons that seem to them to be excellent and to me adequate. It is the only way, not voting that is, to express contempt for all politicians who hate low turn-out at the polls because they are insecure creatures who long to be loved as fervently as they desire not to be lampooned, as I know to my cost. Perhaps they received too few toys as children, or were bed wetters, which may explain their unattractive personal qualities. They should bear in mind that failure to register inflates the turn-out figures. During the Great Thatcher Poll Tax Terror thousands of citizens removed themselves from the register in the hope of evading that new tax. Unfortunately, many in Scotland, in their enthusiasm to vote in the Independence Referendum, overlooked their earlier rebellion and re-registered only to find themselves being pursued for delinquent taxes going back decades. These debts are never written off.

From the threat to punish us for failure to acknowledge our entitlement to vote it seems only a small step to impose harsh penalties for failing to vote at all. Such a system, in addition to official corruption at the count, may explain why in some brutal regimes the turn-out in elections approaches 100 per cent.

We should be on our guard, but bear in mind the investment in the additional prisons that will be required if this “regulation creep” becomes a reality will boost the economy.

As I write this I can hear the sound of distant explosions and my first thought is that the Ryedale District Council Voter Enforcement Militia are enjoying manoeuvres on the Gannock in preparation for taking action against the refuseniks. But, no, it is only Guy Fawkes Night; now there’s a refusenik from whom we might learn.