The Independent, 26 February 2013

Sometimes, it takes a government to remind you what’s wrong with democracy. To be fair, it’s been flawed from the very beginning. When the ancient Athenians turned up to vote, they did so as a minority: only male citizens could vote, so every woman and every foreigner — even those who lived in Athens for many years — were excluded from the democratic process. And even then, they had a higher turnout that Britain managed for the police commissioner elections last year.

This shambles deserves special mention for the 15% turnout, and the heroic new information that only 11% can now even name their local commissioner. It’s lucky that no-one’s asked voters to name a single policy that any candidate espoused, or all polling and market research would have ground to an ignominious halt.

And let’s be honest: it didn’t need to be this way. Americans elect law-enforcement all the time. Though I’ve never entirely understood how anyone differentiates between the candidates. Has anyone ever stood on a platform of increasing crime and reducing detection rates? Do they have to promise to turn a blind eye to the sorts of crimes ordinary people commit — speeding, for example — and only focus on the crimes that regular voters don’t attempt?

The only candidate from the whole process last year who I can name is John Prescott, and he lost, presumably because the victor (Matthew Grove, Google reveals) had the undeniable distinction of not being John Prescott, which is the kind of thing that tends to stick in voters’ minds.

The Home Office defends itself vigorously, pointing out that more than five million people turned out to vote in these elections. And since the whole process cost £75 million (just £15 per vote! Practically free!), we can surely look on that as a bargain. Certainly, it wouldn’t be at all helpful to wonder what actual policing could have been done with that huge sum.

I propose that we replace this apparently unwanted and expensive democratic experiment with a better one. The ancient Greeks realised that nothing unites a people more than annoyance with bad politicians. So they had an annual process of ostracism: ordinary people turned up, wrote the name of their particular bête noire on a shard of pottery (an ostracon, which is where the name comes from). If any one candidate got a sufficiently hefty number of votes, that person was booted out of the city for ten years. The assumption being, I suppose, that if you hadn’t learned to be less annoying in a decade, the people could always chuck you out again.

The one downside I can see to this system is that you could only name one person each time. Where to start?

A cupboard in the Psychology department of Abertay University in Dundee is not the most obvious place to find a nurse’s suitcase. Particularly when that nurse worked in Kent and Glasgow, and the suitcase dates back to the First World War. I have some cupboards I haven’t cleaned out in a while, but I’m pretty confident they don’t contain anything which is about to reach its centenary.

I hope Margaret Maule’s diary will be published somewhere: she apparently signed up to be a nurse when her brother was killed in action. She was shocked to find herself tending to German prisoners of war in the hospital in Kent. And yet, she kept an autograph book in which her patients have written grateful messages, thanking her for the ‘tender mercy’ she showed to men who knew they were her enemies. I hope BBC Scotland is paying attention: I sense a potential Sunday night drama.