Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.

Last weekend, I saw The Audience with my lefty best friend from university days. Disappointed by its preference for caricature over in-depth analysis, we decided to make up for this by spending most of dinner afterwards attempting to rank the post-war prime ministers impartially, using a convoluted multi-category voting system, and then averaging our results for a collaborative conclusion [1]. Sad, I know – but it was definitely his idea.

Anyway, it’s summertime! And what do we do in the summer, aside from rank stuff? We’re not quite to the point of ‘The Top Ten List of Top Ten Lists of Top Ten Classic Twentieth-Century Novels You Have to Read This Holiday Before You Die – or Die’ [2], but, no doubt, we’ll be there soon. (That is, if any of us can bear to look at a novel ever again, after the Watchman saga. Hell, it even put me off Nozick.

Assigning orders to comparable things is a funny – but universal – proclivity, isn’t it? I may have felt bordering-on-feminist indignation on reading this, yet I also remember how, whilst at university, the same friend and I very occasionally used to play an atrocious game called ‘Hot or Not’. Its name came from an equally atrocious, and then infamous, website (no doubt the Ashley Madison police would catch me if I dared to check if it still exists); the objective was to guess the marks each other would assign to the hapless (albeit self-signed-up) people appearing on it (NB not us!).

My defence is that it was a long time ago, we’d probably been playing to stereotype by drinking too much port, and none of the categories in our recent PM game was anything to do with looks. Unlike the legendary cross-party Politico Top Trumps cards sometimes given out during conference season… The main thing I recall about the first pack I saw, circa 2008, was that the George Osborne card somehow beat all the others on this front. Even so, I’m risking sounding shallow. And, obviously, women aren’t allowed to be shallow on the internet.

So, to counter this, let’s have a quick think about why we enjoy lists, and try to come up with a suitably summery whimsical explanation. I’ve often thought that a website on which you could rank set numbers of things by switching around other peoples’ rankings of them – a little like rearranging someone’s fridge magnets – could be a hit. Because we love showing off how we think things rate – whether it’s four-letter words [3], current box sets [4], or operas [5] – don’t we [6]?

The obvious reason for this is that we appreciate the ability to exercise choice. This must be true – regardless of the patronising opponents of those policies that offer us more chance to do so. And, at this point, it would be simple to bash on in this vein. Choice as the bedrock of democracy! Choice as all we need. Choice as personality, and subjectivity. Choice as freedom of expression. And choice as the all-round good of the free market.

But is that what ranking is really about? An easy metaphor for ideal politics? I’m suddenly not so sure. Because, as someone recently pointed out to me, you can’t choose randomly from an infinite set. Well, along the same lines, who can rank an endless list? Choice is determined by its limits, surely. Yet, so often we Conservatives – particularly of the libertarian-leaning persuasion – call out for that, therefore, impossible thing: boundless, complete, utterly individual, choice.

So, instead of reflecting some perfect free state, maybe the re-ordering of the fridge magnets is more demonstrative of our country’s admirable, yet flawed, form of limited democracy. Perhaps it even illustrates the paradox of the system’s supposedly ‘representative’ nature. ‘Quick! Constituents! Tell me how I should vote on this!’ the new MP tweets. Does another vote on another vote on another vote really help?

Maybe it’s comparable to a decent menu. How many truly great restaurants have you been to that offer much more than four options per course? Whereas, those pubs with massive leather-bound tomes listing about 350 dishes from every thinkable world cuisine: they’re annoying, right? (And not just because we know there’ll be some microwaving going on back there.) But why? It’s not that we don’t like choice. Rather, it’s because we’ve already made a choice – or more likely several – by going to a specific place to eat. We don’t need multitudinous options when we arrive.

After all, why do we bother with those top ten lists? Well, we just don’t have time to choose carefully from all the books out there, so we’ve trusted someone to narrow it down for us. What is important, however, is that we’ve had the chance to choose this someone – out of all the other list-makers – for ourselves.

Lists are great because they help us make decisions. But they also remind us that we can only choose from the options that we have.


[1] High scorers: Atlee, Heath(!), and Macmillan. Low scorers: Brown and Eden.

[2] Snow, Orhan Pamuk; Diary of a Nobody, George & Weedon Grossmith; Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler; Take a Girl Like You, Kingsley Amis; Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene; The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch; Passage to India, E.M. Forster; The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark; Saturday, Ian McEwan; The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Attwood.

[3] Axis, Kobe, swan, July, hark, mien, grit, Omsk, fore, ragù.

[4] Homeland, House of Cards, Borgen, Homeland, House of Cards, Borgen, Homeland, House of Cards, Borgen, Homeland (Sorry, I don’t watch much TV).

[5] Anything by Mozart; Rosenkavalier, Strauss; Billy Budd, Britten; Traviata, Verdi; Giulio Cesare, Handel; Carmen, Bizet; Coronation of Poppea, Monteverdi; Pelléas and Mélisande, Debussy; Bluebeard’s Castle, Bartók; Meistersinger, Wagner.

[6] Ok, I promise I’m done with the lists now. That was fun.