No politics please - we're in Purdah now

A period of Purdah prior to elections has begun

A period of Purdah prior to elections has begun - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

A view from East Devon District Council leader Paul Arnott

East Devon District Council leader, Councilor Paul Arnott. Picture: Paul Arnott

East Devon District Council leader, Councilor Paul Arnott. Picture: Paul Arnott - Credit: Archant

It may not be immediately apparent to those of you going about your daily business, but last week we collectively entered a condition called “Purdah”.

This is the period between the official announcement of any kind of public election and the day after the election, when councils must do nothing, and certainly announce nothing, to change the potential outcome.

In East Devon, elections have now been called for a few parish and town by-elections, three Neighbourhood Plan referenda, one district by-election, all county councillors (by far the biggest competition) and the Police and Crime Commissioner.

And about all of this I cannot speak, and do not dare to whisper an opinion.

Purdah is an old-fashioned but honourable concept. For example, it prevents unscrupulous politicians announcing sudden spending sprees in certain wards in order to influence the popular vote.

Not to say that at national level a few such promises don’t get made, and not kept, anyway.

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But in general it takes the temperature down. At national elections you may recall that the on-the-day-of-election media coverage actually contains some world news for a change, rather than the usual reheated Westminster gossip. That’s purdah too.

To be honest, I’m a little surprised that we haven’t found a different term for all this. The origin of the word Purdah is in the Persian language, the mother tongue in the days of the Mughal Empire across much of the Middle East and India.

I first came across it in Salman Rushdie’s novel, Midnight’s Children, back in 1980, when he described the lives of Purdah lived by Muslim women who were obliged literally to live hidden behind a curtain away from the gaze of men.

Of course, this was then - and is especially now - viewed as a suppression of women’s freedoms. More recently, as ever in these things, a counter stream of thought has arisen where some feminists have argued that while denying women freedoms, purdah has also offered protection and the chance to develop their own gendered culture. An interesting on-going paradox.

In 2021 Devon, however, it means that in writing this column for the next few weeks it will be politics-free.

Which is, for all of us perhaps, a bit of a relief. There is only so much I can write and you can stomach about car park charges or maintaining public lavatories at a time of a pandemic without all our eyes glazing over.

Luckily, I’m writing in one of the most amazing weeks of the year. For non-Christians, it is the celebration of Spring and eggs and lambs in a seasonal festival on Sunday. To Christians it is the most meaningful part of their year. I have a foot in both camps, to be frank.

I do like an Easter egg, but then the story of Jesus in this final week of his life is an eternally important one.

His tradition, Judaism, already had impressive Old Testament stories to be going on with, but in his reality at the time his country was occupied by what we would new see as the fascist Roman forces.

He and his friends despaired both of the local king rolling over for this and their own High Priests complicity. No wonder he came forward with the best and first expression of passive resistance.

His idea was the opposite of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, that if someone hit you on one cheek, don’t hit back, offer them the other. This distinction rewards deep contemplation. He was the world’s great promoter of both resistance to evil and the peaceful, respectful means by which to do it.

To others, he is God made man walking among us, who made a sacrifice of his own life to redeem mankind from all its sins. That is a big stretch for me, but I can respect it. Happy Easter to all.

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