Only three percent of the UK expatriate population in the UAE has bothered to register to vote and even fewer will probably do so. At first reading, this is an incredibly depressing statistic despite the fact that poor information, awareness and the vagaries of the slightly archaic postal system here could have boosted numbers. But, despite the fact that voter apathy is clearly a major problem here as well as in the UK, this post is not intended to be on that topic. Instead, I want to focus on the lack of big ideas in play and, as a result, the lack of attention being paid to this election from abroad, by UK citizens and others.

The front page of today’s National, the leading English language daily in the UAE, has the latest major initiative of the UAE government supporting a mission to Mars. This front page splash brims with ambition, hope and expectation of a confident future to mark the country’s 50th anniversary. This comes hot on the heels of the launch of the world’s first attempt to fly around the world in a solar plane, which was launched from the UAE, and amongst the buzz of major unparalleled construction projects everywhere. The list of major world first and huge accomplishments, tied to a clear National Vision, is endless.

Compared to the micro debates in the UK about rail fare increases and energy prices freezes, it got me thinking about the paucity of ambition in the British election. To some extent this is unfair, as the UAE is in a financial and political position to fund and execute these major projects and has set the stage to do so, while the UK parties inevitably sink into the smaller campaigning issues around election time. And, of course, the UAE has its own socio-economic micro issues which it has to urgently address. But nonetheless, the lack of discussion around the major big ideas and strategic challenges facing the UK in this election has been depressing. Even more depressing is the fact that actually the parties do have some major, philosophical positions which aren’t mentioned – Cameron’s “global race” and Miliband’s “predistribution” are major intellectual, supply side platforms which seek to define capitalism and the UK’s competiveness in an uncertain world. How many times have they been mentioned, yet alone reported on, in this election?

You can argue that they don’t get mentioned as they are complex, electorally unappealing concepts. Critics would say the “Big Society” was intellectually coherent but flopped big time in the 2010 election campaign. Yet it matters because, by distilling an election down to basic arguments about the rate of deficit reduction and finding an extra billion here and there for the NHS, this means that the UK and its election gets reported on less and less in the world at large, especially here in the Middle East. Diplomats here from the UK have remarked to me how little questioning they are getting on the outcome of the UK election and what it all means. Journalists have effectively ignored this election outright, beyond the odd comment piece in the weekend editions tailored to the ex-pat audience. The election is perceived as the narrow minded, archaic and anachronistic political in-fighting of a dying world power. I know this sounds harsh, but if you compare the UK’s debate about VAT margins with China’s major investments in infrastructure and energy around the world, then it is hard to blame the region for looking in other directions. This is the country’s competition and there is little to inspire from the UK at the moment. Yes, bi-lateral commerce and trade targets have been met this year and continue to rise, but the massive ideas that define our future are sadly lacking from Brittania in the way they once were.

Big ideas matter as they reflect our standing in the world and they also drive perception of the sort of country we are and want to be. Perception is reality in many quarters and, at the moment, the UK is losing out in this battle as it looks inward on itself during this election. Elections are set piece events when the world can view a nation’s sense of itself and thus far the UK has been found a bit wanting.

Mars probes might not win an election at home but they do reflect ambition. Here’s hoping a new UK government stands up to the plate once the politicking is over. 

William Wallace

William Wallace is an integrated communications consultant specializing in public affairs and issues management. Read More