Saturday, 21 May 2016

Referendums are a threat to our democracy


Somewhere in Rousseau’s Social Contract is the idea that the whole electorate should vote on everything all the time. This would, of course, have been unworkable even in an eighteenth century city state. If the whole population were to spend every day governing the country, who would do any work? But now, such a model of direct democracy is perfectly possible. Everyone has access to a computer or a mobile telephone. We could be asked every day to decide on the various issues of the day. During the evening news we could be asked to key in our choice. If you want to leave the EU push the red button. If you want to remain push the green button.  There is nothing technically preventing us from having such a direct democracy. We could abolish elections and politicians tomorrow and let the people as a whole decide everything.

Would such a model of democracy work? I have no idea. As far as I know it hasn’t been tried anywhere. The closest is somewhere like Switzerland, perhaps not coincidentally Rousseau’s homeland. The Swiss continually have referendums. The threshold for calling one is small.  Power is devolved to each Canton. Central government is limited. The Swiss are prosperous and free. But a model of democracy that works for one place, doesn’t necessarily work for another.

There’s always a tendency for people who think about politics to look at other countries and think couldn’t we be more like them. Couldn’t we be more like Norway or Sweden ask some people. Couldn’t we be more like the United States ask others. But really the political culture of each country is a product of its history and the nature of its people. Scotland, for instance, could only become like Norway if you transplanted the whole of the Norwegian population to Scotland. The United Kingdom could only mimic the politics of the United States if we had a frontier, cowboys and an endless space that was our manifest destiny to fill.

Our democracy is a product of our history. It is the story of a Celtic pre-Roman people being gradually transformed and coming together as an Anglo-Saxon people. It is the story of Magna Carta and the gradual limiting of kings. It is the story of Parliament at first only for the few but then for the many. Britain does everything gradually, but we do it first. We abolished our serfs hundreds of years before most of Europe. We developed free markets, free trade and industrialisation when other European countries were stuck in the middle ages. Everyone else had revolutions but we did not. Better by far that parliament guided our gradual progress.

We think sometimes that democracy is such a little thing. We fondly imagine that places that have never known it can adopt democratic ways in an instant. But how many centuries did it take us from the first stirrings of democracy to universal suffrage? Seven, perhaps eight. Yet we expect Russia that had slavery until 1861 and an absolute monarch until 1917, to be able to somehow be fully democratic in twenty five years. We think China that has never known democracy can become one instantly without bringing with it chaos. We imagine that countries in the Middle East if only they could overthrow tyranny would embrace liberal democracy. But how can they when they have no tradition of accepting democratic defeat?

The greatest threat to democracy is not that it is indirect, but that people refuse to accept the result.  Democracy perishes when people demonstrate against a democratically elected government or when the military intervenes and decides the people made the wrong choice.

For centuries in Britain we accepted the result of elections with barely a murmur. But lately that has begun to change. This began during the long years of Conservative rule from 1979-1997. Labour’s disappointment at losing UK general elections became such that they decided they wanted to at least rule where they did win. Their refusal to accept the will of the British people has had long term consequences for our democracy. It has given birth to the idea that you don’t have to accept the result.

Since then we have had perhaps the worst instance of failure to accept a democratic vote in our history. In Scotland we had a referendum on Scottish independence. Prior to the decision I believed it would be decisive and would solve the issue once and for all. I think everyone on both sides thought this. The referendum decided nothing. Those who were disappointed by the result didn’t wait even a day before beginning their campaign for a second referendum. But failure to accept the will of the people is what makes democracy so hard to maintain in countries like Zimbabwe and Egypt.

Now we have another referendum on the EU. It is likewise very divisive. It has taken huge amounts of energy. People have worried about the result and it has had real world effects on our economy. Some people are already saying that they won’t accept the result, but will campaign for another referendum if they lose. What is the point?

I have been campaigning for the UK to leave the EU. But for me it’s a question of balance. There are things about the EU I quite like. I have some worries about leaving. But I think the scare stories are exaggerated. But I don’t know the truth. When I weigh up the pros and cons, I don’t know for sure what is a pro and what is a con. I can’t see into the future and I don’t know for sure what would happen if we left the EU nor indeed if we remain. But for the sake of our democracy I will accept the result, whatever it is. I expect at the moment that the Leave side will lose. But even if we lose by one vote, let that be decisive.

I fear I am in a minority on this. I fear that even if Remain wins well, there will still be political parties campaigning for the UK to leave the EU.  I can’t imagine UKIP giving up and ceasing to exist. I can’t imagine many Conservatives giving up the idea of Brexit.

It’s time to think again. For centuries our democracy had no such thing as a referendum. Indirect democracy worked for us. We had elections and we let those we chose rule.  There was no referendum on whether we should fight the First World War, nor the Second World War. Parliament decided that women should get the vote and huge numbers of other vital matters. Let Parliament be sovereign and let it decide all these matters.

During the present campaign I’ve long thought that Mr Cameron knows something that we don’t. I can’t believe he is using such scare tactics, unless there is some threat that he knows that he can’t say. If not then his scare stories are simply dishonourable.

But the main advantage of indirect democracy is this. We elect people who are better informed than the electorate. We elect people to make choices for us, because we hope they may have access to information that is either secret or too complex for the electorate as a whole to understand. We wouldn’t want the electorate as a whole to decide whether interest rates should rise, because the matter is difficult and requires specialist knowledge.

Direct democracy is perfectly possible. We could go further than we do at present and have referendums every day on all sorts of issues. But it would not make Britain more stable. Quite the reverse. Would we really want the people as a whole sitting at their computer terminals to decide if we should bail out a bank or even go to war? Well once we accept the benefits of indirect democracy, why not accept that referendums are themselves problematic.


It is becoming ever more clear that referendums are divisive and that they do not decisively decide issues. Well if that is the case then we ought not to have them. Let us decide once and for all that Parliament is sovereign and Parliament decides. On all constitutional matters whether it is Scottish independence or leaving the EU, let it be the case that the whole of the UK decides at a General Election. After all it was the UK Government that decided that Ireland could be independent, but that Northern Ireland could remain. Let us abolish referendums in the UK. They are a threat to our democracy. 

2 comments:

  1. The doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty (which has always been somewhat controversial) is under increasing scrutiny and pressure. Despite what many people think, it has never been absolute. If it were however, there would be nothing to stop parliament having recourse to referendums whenever and however often it saw fit.

    However even if your wish came true Effie, I'm not sure what real difference it would make? It's unlikely proponents of Scottish independence would accept the concept that future referendums should be banned, but even if they were minded to do so, the focus would simply change to achieving independence via a majority of seats and popular vote at Holyrood and Westminster.

    Similarly, if brexiteers have no recourse to a referendum, they are likely to continue their campaign via UKIP and anti-EU MPs in the Tory party to achieve a parliamentary majority to take us out of the EU. Whether that route is ipso facto less harmful to our democracy or less contentious must be open to question. Given your own anti-democratic track record calling for future independence referendums to be banned, I doubt many Scots will be happy to take any lessons from you on what democracy ought to look like.

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  2. Reading that is like a call for the elite to look after us, too stupid to vote is a new one. Just leave it to those who know better....Are you from the past ?

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