When referring it ends nothing – Paul Whelan on referendums

CAPE TOWN — Refer it – to what end? That seems to be a better interpretation of referendum, whether it be land expropriation in Zimbabwe (Bob Mugabe blithely ignored the outcome when it went against him), or BrexitPoliticians bank on a referendum going their way. Why else call one? Of course, they get it very wrong sometimes, as did Theresa May’s predecessor, David Cameron in September 2016. His blithe confidence in Brits supporting him to remain in the EU proved a costly political gamble. When Britons narrowly voted to exit the EU, unlike Mugabe, Cameron did the honourable thing and resigned. Now May is negotiating a very messy and complicated Brexit, with calls for yet another referendum to see if opinion has swung back. It’s high political satire. The (Latin) meaning of referendum dates from the 19th century, when a new constitution adopted by Switzerland stated that the voters could vote directly on certain issues. A far more direct system of democracy, it allows any citizen to challenge any law approved by the parliament or, at any time, propose a modification of the federal Constitution. A referendum becomes the instrument. It’s the inverse of examples above. The analysis below throws valuable light on whether referendums advance or diminish democracy. – Chris Bateman

By Paul Whelan*

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?

Read also: Whelan: One throw of the dice – How Brexit split a nation

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.

Read also: Whelan responds: Passing the buck – Referendums don’t mean people govern

What we are really talking about when we speak of the will of the people is the current majority for or against somethingAnd 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.

  • Paul Whelan is a political analyst and freelance writer. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics in international history and politics.