The Five Year Itch: Lessons in Democracy

Every five years the UK’s political parties affect listening attentively and talking with the electorate in order to secure their vote. But if you want your say during the intervening period, forget about it. 

Examine this list of referendums held in the UK since 1973 [1]. What do you notice?

  • Northern Ireland sovereignty referendum, 1973, on whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom or join the Republic of Ireland (UK)
  • United Kingdom European Communities membership referendum, 1975, on whether the UK should remain part of the European Economic Community (yes)
  • Scottish devolution referendum, 1979, on whether there should be a Scottish Assembly (small majority voted yes, but fell short of the 40% threshold required to enact devolution)
  • Welsh devolution referendum, 1979, on whether there should be a Welsh Assembly (no)
  • Scottish devolution referendum, 1997, Two questions: On whether there should be a Scottish Parliament (yes); On whether a Scottish Parliament should have tax varying powers (yes)
  • Welsh devolution referendum, 1997, on whether there should be a National Assembly for Wales (yes)
  • Greater London Authority referendum, 1998, on whether there should be a Mayor of London and Greater London Authority (yes)
  • Northern Ireland Belfast Agreement referendum, 1998, on the Good Friday Agreement (yes)
  • North East England devolution referendum, 2004, on an elected regional assembly (no)
  • Welsh devolution referendum, 2011 (yes)
  • United Kingdom Alternative Vote referendum, 2011, 5 May 2011. (no)

In reading this list you may noticed that nearly every region of the country seems to have been given the chance to better determine its own governance, whilst there has not been a referendum concerning how the country as a whole wishes to determine how it is organized and by whom. The 1975 European Communities membership referendum comes close, but only because this was sold to the public on the false premise that it was a trade agreement, not a means of facilitating political union.

This is a situation unlikely to change given the mendacious David Cameron’s latest remarks on the chances of an EU referendum:

I think it would be bad for Britain […] When I look at what is in our national interest, we are not some country that looks in on ourself or retreats from the world. Britain’s interest – trading a vast share of our GDP – is to be in those markets. Not just buying, selling, investing, receiving investment but also helping to write the rules. If we were outside, we wouldn’t be able to do that. It comes back to this, who are going to be the winning nations for the 21st century? If your vision of Britain was that we should just withdraw and become a sort of greater Switzerland, I think that would be a complete denial of our national interests. [2]

Leaving aside Mr Cameron’s nakedly patronising assertions – and omitting the point that given a string of u-turns, serious errors, impotence and incompetence, he evidently has no idea about anything, let alone what is best for Britain – he brings to one’s attention Switzerland, derisively suggesting that Britain would be foolish to follow its record of political, economic and social competence. Indeed, given the antipathy shown towards referenda by all three main political parties, one can see why they may fear the democratic model of Switzerland.

It is a country in which binding referenda can be called by citizens at federal, cantonal and municipal level. The government is obliged to meet this demand and has no power to determine if it should be held, nor when. The procedure is enshrined in Switzerland’s constitution and is at the heart of its political life. Two types of referendum exist:

  • Facultative referendum: Any federal law, certain other federal resolutions, and international treaties that are ongoing in nature, or any change to Swiss law may be subject to referendum if at least 50,000 people or eight cantons have petitioned to do so within 100 days. Within cantons and municipalities, the required number of people is smaller, and there may be additional causes for a facultative referendum, e.g., expenditures that exceed a certain amount of money. The facultative referendum is the most common type of referendum, and it is mostly carried out by political parties or by interest groups.
  • Obligatory referendum: There must be a referendum on any amendments to the constitution and on any joining of a multinational community or organization for collective security. In many municipalities, expenditures that exceed a certain amount of money also are subject to the obligatory referendum. Constitutional amendments are proposed by the parliament or by the cantons or by citizens’ initiatives. Citizen’s initiatives at the federal level need to collect 100,000 valid signatures within 18 months, and must not contradict international laws or treaties. Often, parliament elaborates a counter-proposal to an initiative, leading to a multiple-choice referendum. Very few such initiatives pass the vote, but more often, the parliamentary counter proposal is approved. [3]

Facultative referendums force parliament to search for a compromise between major interest groups and, in many cases, the threat of a facultative referendum is sufficient to make the parliament adjust a law.

It is a modus operandi that puts British democracy to shame. It would ensure that government follows the essential mandate immortally phrased by Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg address, that government should be ‘of the people, by the people [and] for the people’ [4]. It would mean that the electoral carnival held every five years would oblige politicians to mean what they say and do what they claim during their term in office. There are those such as Will Hutton who claim they are ‘very suspicious of referenda’, adding ‘I don’t like them and I’m not certain they are a democratic instrument […] I believe in representative democracy, that we vote for our MPs and they take decisions in the House of Commons on our behalf.’ [5] Mr Hutton fails to acknowledge that one reason why faith in the democratic process is so lacklustre, is precisely because of the unaccountability of politicians once their seat is secured and the bald truth that many MPs are prepared to serve their party before they serve their constituents.

Referendums in the UK have also been discredited precisely because they are used as democratic tokenism, consulting the public on issues that are relatively unimportant to anyone other than those in Westminster (see the list at the top of this post). If the Mother of Parliaments is to nurture democracy, it must allow freedom to grow by letting the people it claims to represent take responsibility for their affairs at a local and a national level.

Consider present elector-a-phobia against UKIP who aim to:

  • introduce ‘Direct Democracy’ whereby 5% of the national or local electorate can demand a binding referendum on any issue. At national level, people will have to sign up for the referendum within six months, at local level, within three months
  • offer an in/out referendum on the UK’s relationship with the EU
  • allow binding national referenda on controversial public law and order issues that are outside party politics. The public must have the final say
  • allow county-based referenda on fox hunting within county boundaries on the basis of a simple majority. Where hunts cross county boundaries, co-terminus referenda could be promoted.
  • Introduce binding local referenda for major local schemes such as the building of new supermarkets. Remote planning appeals will not be able to override the local vote
  • allow parents to trigger a government inspection of a school if 10% of the parents at that school initiate this in a referendum [6]

The three main parties are content to treat the electorate like children who know no better. They have deliberately fostered widespread deference to politics and to democracy so that they can take decisions that are in the interests of party politics before the electorate. Lies are the language of the Conservatives, the Labour party and the Lib Dems; they have spread the disease of indifference in politics, they are the wet rot crumbling the wall of democracy.

© thepanopticonblog, 2012

Notes

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5 comments
  1. Boudicca said:

    I rather think its a combination of the binding referenda and the policy of neutrality that Call Me Dave object to.

    Referenda takes away power from the political elite and if they can’t indulge in their regular overseas adventures, how would they keep our armed forces out of the country most of the time.

  2. Once again, Boudicca, you have it exact. Thanks again for your comments and ongoing support, which continues to bring visitors to my site! Never seems to work when I try and promote it (!)

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