Is a referendum 'real' democracy like they say?

2019-01-28 11:52

No government, it may confidently be said, would hold a referendum it expected to lose.

And, of course, that is how referendums have been used historically and up to the present: as instruments of the executive. Napoleon III of France - sometimes seen as the originator of this style of 'democracy'  - used them to get his way, Mussolini and Hitler to get theirs.

So the first point to grasp about the Brexit referendum is that British prime minister David Cameron lost it. It happens sometimes. It happened, for instance, in February 2000 when Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's referendum produced a No for his new constitution. The people's decision did not suit the autocratic President Mugabe, who ignored it and seized the farms anyway.

However, Cameron's failure and the ensuing calamity is of a different kind altogether, as not only democratic Britain but Europe and the wider world now bear witness. Why has it gone so wrong? Referendums are democracy in action, the people getting the chance to express their will directly - 'direct democracy'. Aren't they?

In fact, democracy in practice means representative democracy, not direct democracy, a popular term for a form that does not exist and is never defined or critically examined beyond claims for it being 'real' or 'true' democracy. Like they had in Ancient Greece.

But what are the institutions direct democracy can draw on today? Referendums on everything? If not, who would select what they are held on? Workers councils or soviets? Petitions, street marches, demonstrations?

These are democratic already and in any event must still be organised by some leader, party or committee acting as executive on behalf of others. The issue of unequal power is not removed.

Above all perhaps, 'the will of the people', on which the idea of direct democracy rests, is deceitful. It is a metaphysical concept that cannot be proved or disproved and open to co-option by any interest rich enough to push a facile message across broadcast, press and social media. Social media have not only liberated people and opinion. They have recruited them more effectively than ever.

What we are really talking about when we speak of the will of the people is the current majority for or against something. And we forget majorities change over time. There was a time when the majority was against votes for women. Before that, it was for votes for propertied men. There was a time the majority favoured laws criminalising gays. We are living through that changing right now.

The populists' reply to these objections is essentially rhetorical: an entrenched elite are accused of elitism, of pursuing their agenda and power through institutions that are 'broken' and media that have been bought. They treat ordinary people as stupid.

It is a familiar escape, skipping the issue of how direct democracy would or could work institutionally to improve on representative democracy. It is the standby of the left and right in suggesting there is an easy solution to everything, without ever defining it.

Today we seem content to leave it there, not to address the obvious objection that if the present 'elite' were replaced it could only be by another one - not to question what that new elite represents and whether its values are democratic at all.

Such contradictions reflect the political divisions of our time rather than contribute to an understanding of how human government does or could work for a better future for all.

Read more on:    brexit  |  referendum

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