Democracy and Referenda

In our recent referendum I was basically on the side of ‘Remain’ partly because on the economic side I had realised that compared to when we were last ‘out of Europe’ we had the Commonwealth, the remnants of the former British Empire, still rather geared for trade with us, and we don’t have that any more, and partly because I’m quite worried by some of the narrow nationalism and even sheer racism of many on the ‘Leave’ side. Lots of attitudes there I’m not comfortable with….

But this was a case where there wasn’t really an obvious ‘Christian’ answer on the issue, especially for an Anabaptist with no desire to be bossing the state around. This item is more on the topic of democracy itself.

It is well known that the Greeks invented democracy. And like lots of ‘well known’ things, that’s only a part truth. For starters, it was basically the Athenians, not all the Greeks, Greece back then was rather like Germany before Napoleon, or Dark Age Britain – a collection of small independent states, usually based on a city. And even Athenian democracy wasn’t much like ours. To start with, only Athenian citizens could vote. Adults only, like us; but NOT women, and NOT slaves – so only quite a small minority to begin with. I’m not even sure it was all the men – ancient societies often only recognised a man as adult when his father died or he married and had his own household…. And although Athens ruled quite a wide area and even had an overseas empire, most of the people of the empire couldn’t vote, and even most of those in the mainland Greek bit of the empire wouldn’t be entitled. On top of which, voting only took place in assemblies physically meeting in Athens – so even citizens could only vote when they were around to attend the assemblies, and in an age without phones and internet etc., many decisions would be taken before some citizens even heard about the issue….

And Greeks didn’t, in fact, regard democracy all that highly. Plato, an Athenian himself, really despised it and preferred something we’d regard as pretty much ‘Fascism’. He probably did realise that his hypothetical alternative of ‘philosopher kings’ was idealism a bit outside real world probability….

Why was democracy thought bad? Well basically, because it wasn’t like our system, electing representatives to turn things; rather, it was like having an endless series of referenda, mass public votes in an assembly of thousands gathered together. And the problem was that it could all too easily turn into a nasty kind of ‘mob rule’ with decisions being taken thoughtlessly, irrationally, very heat of the moment and carried away by not always desirable emotions; and often by only the day after they’d have changed their minds and realised the problems of the decision – but it might be too late to correct it. One story has them deciding a brutal punishment for a rebellious place in their empire, and the next day having to send a fast galley to catch the messengers of the first decision and prevent the punishment…. Yes, the people got their say – but at the expense of a lack of stability, and sometimes the unleashing of the nastiest aspects of human feeling.

I’m not suggesting that our system is perfect – it very much ain’t! But our ‘representative’ system is a quite good compromise that avoids much of the faults of Athens’ democracy, and gives some of the good points of other systems but moderating their bad points. We get many of the potential advantages of kingship or aristocratic rule – but with ‘kings’ who are accountable to the wider citizenship through the electoral process, not just selfish ‘autocrats’.

But a referendum sets that aside….

One of the problems is that in the UK we don’t have the kind of formal written constitution that many countries like the USA have, carefully written down to provide all kinds of ‘checks and balances’, including for example the provision for a ‘Supreme Court’ to review our parliament’s decisions to check whether they’re constitutional or not. Our arrangements have evolved in a more ad hoc kind of way and much of it is a matter of ‘convention’ which doesn’t really have any legal binding force and could in theory be overturned by Parliament tomorrow.

Written Constitutions tend to recognise that some rights, for example, should be stable and long-term and not able to be easily changed perhaps on a day when many MPs are absent or some such – or indeed generally changed by a short-term majority. Changing the actual Constitution and the long term rights it enshrines will generally require much more than a simple majority vote. Typically the change will require both that a larger than usual quorum of MPs must be present, AND that even then a larger majority than ‘50%+1’ must vote for the change; and something like a referendum may be required as well, and again with a significant majority required, not just a few. A typical phrasing might be that change requires “Two thirds of those present and voting”. In other words there’s a serious effort to ensure that the change requires pretty much a true majority in the country positively voting for it, as opposed to just the votes of a party that may have been elected by the votes of only a quarter of the country….

And that, I think is arguably the problem of our recent referendum; such a change should have required a greater majority endorsing it, to be a truly clear victory rather than a ‘close call’ that might have been different for essentially accidental reasons. (I’m not sure of the truth of this but I heard the other day that before the referendum Nigel Farage himself had said that a vote as close as 52/48 would be unsatisfactory!) As it is, it is likely to leave things unsettled for quite a while to come, and that’s bad in itself.

So one of the things I’m saying is that it may be time to have a firmer written constitution for the UK, with the necessary provisions to protect the constitution itself and the relevant rights, and provide a firm basis for referenda. Essentially – that constitutional change requires a truly decisive majority.

I’m generally in favour of democracy – other systems may be more efficient at times, but the flexibility and pluralism of democracy generally wins out. Yes, a dictator is more efficient – but what if the guy with that power is evil?

On the other hand, I don’t worship democracy, and I’ve a feeling that too many people in the West do effectively worship it. And democracy has its limits; there are many aspects of reality which simply can’t be changed no matter how often you vote for them to be changed. You can’t change 2 + 2 = 4 by voting for a different answer; the most you can achieve is to change the names of the numbers, which will nevertheless continue themselves to behave as they have always done. And the Earth will basically orbit the Sun like Copernicus said and that can’t be changed by a vote. (And BTW, yes I do know that technically the two bodies actually orbit their common centre of gravity – in this case the practical difference is minimal… and you still can’t make the old Ptolemaic system true just by voting on it!!)

Anyway, the above is thoughts inspired by the referendum. I think I’ll do a separate post on some other aspects, like how you get democracy to work if you also believe in a decidedly monarchical God….

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