Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Referendums and Demonstrations (and the French Revolution)

The film Bob Roberts - about a right wing protest singer and politician - was such a successful satire because, of course, protest singers are associated with being left wing.

I was reminded of this by a piece in New Statesman by Rafael Behr about the intense anger which is emerging about the current economic climate from which a strong anti-politician culture is developing. Towards the end of the article Behr briefly identifies the degree to which referendums and demonstrations have romantic attachments for right and left respectively as a means of expressing such anger.

That really set me thinking about why that should be and why, as someone who identifies themselves as being of the left, I feel instinctively comfortable about participating in a march or a rally but very uncomfortable about referendums.

I think (although I may well be wrong here) that as with many other things, the French Revolution was pivotal in the relevant developments. The Constitution of the Year One (1793), initiated by Robespierre, established a popular right to optional referendums if 10% of the eligible citizens sought to force a vote on a law within 40 days of its being passed in the Assembly. The Constitution of the Year One is notable for many things (including a right of rebellion) but crucially it marked a shift from national sovereignty to popular sovereignty. That matters because the tradition of national sovereignty is associated with a constitutional system of government in which the nation is superior to the individual. Under popular sovereignty the opposite holds good. 

It is common to right and left that democracy must be about more than just elections, so what are referendums good for? The Council of Europe recommends the use of referendums 'as a means to reinforce the democratic legitimacy of political decisions, enhance the accountability of representative institutions, increase the openness and transparency of decision-making and stimulate the direct involvement of the electorate in the political process'. 

But burrow underneath this and my one liner is that referendums are about populism; demonstrations are about collective action. These are fundamentally different in purpose and in wider constitutional terms.

Referendums are comfortable for right wing populists because they circumvent the brake that the representatives can place on issues such as abortion, the death penalty and immigration. The introduction of a right to initiate through referendums is a crucial development which is being seen across Europe and feels like part of a wider neo-liberal approach not just to demand change but to be able to secure it. 

In contrast, demonstrations are usually a protest about something that is being done by the Government - the invasion of Iraq, nuclear weapons, public expenditure cuts, removing trade union rights. This tradition is one of exhibiting solidarity about a common cause and exerting moral pressure on the Government to change tack. The Occupy protest at St Paul's is a classic example. Its interesting that apart from far right marches which are designed to intimidate the only other right wing mass protest I can recall was on the fox hunting ban and the purported defence of the countryside way of life against the depredations of the Labour  Government.

Recent initiatives by groups such as 38 Degrees use social media and electronic petitioning to show public anger at issues like health reform but to my mind this remains much more akin to the demonstration focused on the sheer weight of numbers involved. 

So what lies underneath these differences which makes me fundamentally suspicious of referendums other than on very rare occasions? Rather snappily, I think its because I have a strong attachment to a strain of civic republicanism which is founded on concern about the arbitrary in political decision making. 

One branch of republican libertarianism sees the priority being non-interference - a very comfortable, negative freedom, doctrine likely to be espoused by neo-liberals. 

However, another branch of republicanism places the emphasis not on non-interference but on freedom from the arbitrary in decision making - in other words freedom from domination without recourse.

In this second conception of civic republicanism the freedom from the arbitrary is provided through properly made and constituted laws, institutions and social norms. 

Clearly that leaves decision making in the hands of those elected to the institutions. There needs to be some enhanced democratic influence over that process. That does not mean a more populist model in which all laws and policies must in some sense express a collective will (which is where referendum based approaches start to go) but instead opportunities to contest decisions in ways which make government answerable.

So in such a schema decision making should be guided by deliberative public reasoning which is open to public debate; with opportunities to contest decisions which are open to all and with institutionalised forums for such debate where objections can be raised*. Translating this into practical propositions is by no means straightforward and I don't entirely rule out referendums as playing some role, but certainly not a dominant one.

Previously, I'd not really associated the modern proponents of referendums with the Jacobin in the French Revolution. But come to think of it .... 

* This is a much condensed description of a very useful discussion of these issues in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 

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