The Perils of Democracy

It all started with Lassiter – the only Green MP at the time. In any other year, he’d have been totally harmless, totally ignored, but he happened to be in a unique position.

We had a coalition government, again, and not a strong one. In the end, the working majority came down to one vote – Lassiter’s. Both sides wanted him, the final piece that would let them form a government. And eventually, in courting him, the Tories made an unwise concession.

It didn’t seem that way at the time – it wasn’t a dangerous bill, or even an unreasonable one. From a strictly ethical perspective, I think a lot of people agreed with it; it had just never been a priority.

For the Greens, it was a triumph – a policy they could point to to show that they weren’t totally powerless. They banged on about it for weeks. For Lassiter, it was genuinely giving back to the community – the man seemed to love animals more than people. For all of us, it was the beginning of the end.

The “Non-human Persons Bill” – that was the name. A bit of fluff to secure an alliance, something to keep a quiet man quiet. It was never intended to have much of an effect on anything. All it did was establish a single principle – you didn’t have to be human to be a person. Instead, consciousness and suffering were the new standard – if you were capable of thought or capable of ‘significant’ pain, then you deserved to have rights.

It only really affected circuses, pet owners, and animal testing facilities – but not by very much. All it meant, in practical terms, was that you couldn’t abuse animals. The other rights – free speech, the right to a fair trial, freedom of religion and so on – weren’t really at issue.

The most noticeable effect was on wills. Cats and dogs could and did inherit property, though they had to have trustees. Animals that could clearly indicate a request for freedom (pretty much just chimpanzees) couldn’t be held in captivity. A man in Chester tried to marry his horse, but that was struck down under separate laws, and no one felt like challenging the principle. In Newcastle, a restaurant started employing and paying monkeys to serve drinks.

Mostly though, it was treated as a joke. On the first of April, that was the angle most government websites took – the IRS released tax guidelines for a budgie, the DWP declared a three-legged dog as fit to work (that wasn’t taken well). And that fool Edgley asked a question in the house.

I was there in the house when he stood up, a smirk pasted across his chins. And then that whining drone: “Has the right hon. Gentleman, the prime minister…”

He thought he was hilarious, while we all thought he was a pillock. Still, it was a harmless enough question – after the ten minutes of posturing and pretending to be Pankhurst: would the government explain a point of policy on the Non-human Persons Bill?

It was April Fool’s day, the question was about Lassiter’s mockery of a bill, and the Commons loves a joke. So the PM confirmed it – if a non-human person can clearly and undeniably request the right, “it is not the policy of this government to prevent any citizen from exercising their right to vote.”

And there it was: black-and-white in Hansard, page four of every major newspaper the next day. “PM SUPPORTS ANIMAL VOTES” or perhaps, depending on your paper of choice “HARRY THE HORSE: VOTES FOR OATS!” People thought it was hilarious. Edgley didn’t stop telling the story interminably while propping up every bar in London. A parrot, coached by its owner, got placed on the Electoral roll.

All very funny, all very pointless, all very useful to distract the public from a disastrous trade negotiation with Brazil. People made jokes, and life went on.

Three days later, at an aquarium in Hull, a giant octopus called Archie (Enteroctopus dofleini) started talking. Lots of clacking and warbling noises, but recognizable and intelligible English. It asked for one thing only – the vote.

Up until this point, no one had had any idea how smart they truly were. We knew they were clever – tool use, ability to recognise trainers, navigate mazes – but we were totally surprised by the revelation of their actual intelligence. Tool use was at the lower end of their abilities – they could learn from us, mimic our speech, and were clearly conscious and capable of abstract thought.

A few people, amid the media hubbub surrounding the first ever talking octopus, quietly expressed reservations. I myself wrote an op-ed for the Times, though it was mostly ignored. The timing seemed a little too convenient, the jump in perceived intelligence too swift to be anything but deliberate. To my mind, this was evidence not just that they could talk, but that they could plan, and deceive us. Were we magnanimously granting personhood to a lesser species, or were we playing into their eight grasping arms?

A few more cephalopods began talking over the next few weeks – not enough to be alarming, just enough to keep the scientists delighted and the aquariums busy. None of them were as fluent as Archie was though, and none of them as beloved – he quickly became a celebrity, depicted on coats and hats and bags throughout the country.

It was, if you were any kind of marine biologist, an exciting time to be alive. Archie was happy to answer questions about his life, about the sea. They let a philosopher in once, and they had a long discussion about the nature of the Self. I haven’t read the resulting book myself, but I’m told it was the height of philosophical writing: fascinating stuff, but not really going anywhere.

It wasn’t until a couple of years later that things started to go wrong. It was election season – pamphlets piling up on welcome mats, shiny-faced men kissing babies, all the usual kerfuffle. There was a bit of extra excitement this time, because Archie had announced his intention to run for election. He’d formed a new party – the name, we were informed, was unpronounceable except in octopus.

A week before the deadline to register, cephalopods started pouring out of the ocean. Octopuses can walk on land, for short periods – from every beach in the country, there was a squat and gelatinous procession oozing towards the town hall.

Do you have any idea how many octopuses there are in British territorial waters? How many eight-legged potential voters live in rocks by the Falklands, or lurk near any of our other overseas possessions? Thousands. Millions. And all of them wanted the vote.

In one sense, it was a victory for democracy; in only a week, over thirty million octopuses were registered and ready to take part in the election. There were aquatic candidates contesting almost every seat. Name another country in the world that could have got all of that organised.

Of course, this didn’t pass without comment. There were alarmist articles in all the presses, a few incidences of man-on-squid violence in the streets. The cephalopods didn’t even fight back; they took the punishment and then limped off to the police station. The police had no option but to arrest the louts for hate crimes.

It sounds ridiculous, that everyone let this happen, but you have to realise: from a legal and ethical perspective, it was all the right thing to do. There’s no precedent for removing the vote from people just because they might win an election, or just because they have too many arms. And once you’ve declared something a person, you can’t easily take that back – they were only claiming the rights we’d allowed them, the rights that they deserved. It was a polite, passive, and entirely legal takeover.

They won the election. A landslide – even faced with a mollusc government, people wouldn’t vote for the parties they still saw as opposition. A lot of people seemed to see another Tory government as almost worse than an octopus in charge. The human vote was split, and Archie stormed into Number 10 with an outright majority. 372 seats had to be replaced with glorified fishbowls.

The rest followed quickly. New bills were proposed and ratified – the official language changed to octopus, voter registration laws that required you to fill out forms in the same language. There was a dramatic expansion of the canal network, with small tributaries running along beside every road. The army was slowly stood down, with the ministry of defence putting all its funding into drones; you don’t need to be physically imposing on land if you can use a remote control. More and more of the civil service was outsourced underwater.

The rest of the world watched on in horrified fascination – powerless to intervene in what was, it must be remembered, technically a free and fair election. There was no legal basis for any kind of intervention, and no one wanted to start a precedent of overthrowing legal governments (at least not in the First World). There was a brief, disorganised attempt at a resistance movement in the North, but it was put down rapidly by the police, shortly before they too were replaced by drones.

This country is theirs now – they breed a lot faster than we do, and have no natural predators on land. I think we all expected it to get worse really – we had visions of slave camps and Soylent Green, but none of that happened. Mostly, they just ignore us. They’ve got a foothold on the land, and that’s all they wanted. We’re irrelevant to them – we don’t have the votes to get rid of them, and we don’t have the firepower or the justification to drive them out.

In the oceans, life is hard. Finding enough food is a struggle; keeping your offspring alive is almost impossible. Sharks and other predators make octopus lives dangerous and short. With a country though, everything changes. Fish can be farmed, shipped, and supplied to the cephalopods in vast numbers. Their young can grow to adulthood in vast nurseries, tended over by low-paid human caretakers. There are no sharks on land.

We go on with our lives. Most humans work in construction or logistics now, expanding the waterways even further, or arranging the shipments of food from the coastal farms. Humans in positions of power are rare – most functioning industries have octopus leadership now. People emigrate now, if they can, though not that many countries are happy to take us. We gave our own country away to another species – that’s not a great recommendation. Mostly, we just try and get on with our lives, try to forget the contempt that other countries hold us in.

That will change though, I think. Millions of new octopuses are born each year – in the wild, only a few from each clutch would survive for more than a month, but now they all do. Every week, the population climbs even higher, and we’re running out of room. The cephalopod leadership must be looking for room to expand.

They have the oceans, and now they have a country. The world isn’t too much of a step from there.


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