Do referenda offer a way for the People to have more say?

martin cross By martin cross, 21st Feb 2012 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>News>Politics

In a democracy, people are supposed to be in control of their own affairs. Do referenda offer a chance for real democracy? Would the powers that be allow it?

“Government of the People, by the People, for the People”

Abraham Lincoln coined the phrase in his speech before the battle of Gettysburg during the US Civil War but his claim that such a system existed has never been validated. At best, the electorate endures a form of government by proxy, a system in which the local electorates are represented by delegates nominated, supported and financed by groups with fixed interests and political ideologies. The interests of these groups may have little in common with the local electorate’s needs and wishes and the candidate’s promises made during the election campaign are broken with equanimity and with little, if any, recourse.

Even if sufficient furore is created for a particular candidate no longer to be nominated by his political group, another clone representing the group’s political ideology and interests is substituted instead and acts at the dictates of the group rather than his constituents.

This system offers no real democracy. At worst, the system quickly corrupts into oligarchy and plutocracy, with only the illusion of freedom, and can devolve into totalitarian demagogy. Deadlock and trench warfare, such as seen recently in the US Congress, are a direct result of this type of system but provide neither government, nor any benefit to the People or the country itself.

A referendum is a device through which the whole electorate can be asked to vote directly on major issues. Historically, they have involved considerable organization, akin to an election itself, and for this reason have been contemplated only for the most momentous matters, even in the countries whose democratic principles extend to involvement of the People through referenda. The advent of the Internet, e-mail and electronic surveys now make it feasible for the electorate to inform itself and vote directly, as its own representative, on any issue of note. No doubt there will be bleating about security of voting but technology that can come up with secure and simple methods of transferring something much more important to the ruling elite, namely money, can most certainly produce a secure and simple method of registering a humble vote, Internet surveys do this all the time.

Would the Government allow it?

Now that is the $64,000 question. In a western democracy, would one not think that there should be no objection to a device that enabled the nation’s views to be represented more effectively?

There are indeed many nations that one could imagine would object or would have objected to referenda on principle - the countries in the former Communist Bloc, various nations in the Arab world, especially before the Arab Spring, several African countries, such as Zambia, etc. But what is the record on referenda in the western world?

The use of referenda in western democracies

In some countries, referenda form part of the natural process of government. In Switzerland, referenda have become an electoral tool and form an integral part of the country’s political life – this despite the fact that the country is divided up into a large number of separate cantons, speaking between them 4 different languages and spread over extremely difficult mountainous terrain. There have been some complaints that asking the people slows down the political process but should important decisions generally be made on the instant? Most Swiss contend that the referenda are a powerful manifestation of the country’s democratic principles. The procedure can even be initiated by a private citizen.

In Ireland, every constitutional amendment must be approved by a referendum. 30 referenda have taken place since 1937, when the basic framework of Ireland’s current constitution was adopted, including a referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon providing a new constitution for the European Union, of which Ireland is a member.

Spain held a referendum on the reintroduction of democracy after the death of General Franco in 1976 and on becoming a member of NATO in 1986 but, since then, has shown little interest in asking the People about such matters as membership of the European Union and conversion to the Euro.

Portugal voted on legalizing abortion in 1997 and again in 2007 but held none on membership of the European Union.

In the Balkans, both Serbia and Croatia opted for a referendum to obtain a national vote on adopting their current constitutions.

Most recently, Egypt held a referendum following the ousting of President Mubarak and Morocco employed one to push through constitutional reforms.

So what of those bastions of western democracy, the UK and the USA?

Referenda in the UK and the USA

In the UK, the mother of western democracy, the Westminster Government considers referenda to be populist and unfavourable to the country’s best constitutional interests. The logic behind this is impenetrable. After World War II, the then Prime Minister, Clement Atlee, described referenda as “alien” devices, “only too often the instrument of Nazism and Fascism”. Nevertheless, two UK-wide referenda have been held – on membership of the European Community in 1975 and on an alternative voting system in 2011. The proposed referendum on the new EU constitution was postponed and subsequently made redundant by the unilateral adoption of the Treaty of Lisbon installing the new constitution.

In Scotland, the Scottish Government is proposing a referendum in 2014 on the subject of Scottish Independence. The UK Government in London is challenging the legality of Scots deciding their own future and that of their own country without benefit of the UK Parliament (after all, why should anyone wish to decide their own future!).

All such political drama aside, in any case, under current legislation a referendum in the UK is not legally binding. The UK Government can ignore the result of any referendum because the UK Parliament is always sovereign in such circumstances.

So what about the USA, the Land of the Free, surely no such mealy-mouthed shenanigans and obfuscations regarding referenda would exist there? Indeed, they do not. The USA is one of a handful of countries that completely rejects the use of referenda as a form of democratic government. Nothing mealy-mouthed there – just a resounding NO.

In the USA, President Obama has promised to answer every e-mail sent to him. So make your views known. Lobby for referenda. Give the President a popular consensus with which to break the deadlock in Congress. Let us see if his words and adherence to democratic principles are anything more than hot air. After all, at the moment, while his opponents are intent on destroying each other, all he needs to do to seek re-election is promise the People anything they wish to hear in full knowledge that nothing promised will pass through the constipation in Congress.

A chance for some real democracy

So if you are concerned that “Government of the People, by the People, for the People should not perish from the Earth” and indeed should have a chance to start to come into existence for the very first time, you know what to do … create your own referendum by emailing complaints and opinions on all matters of major concern to your local representatives and the Heads of Government, and encouraging your friends and family to do the same. At the very least, it may cause politicians to interrupt their dance of Shiva, with every hand held out for a handout, long enough to be concerned that taking unpopular actions protecting the interests of the few against the interests of the majority and of the nation as a whole could squash their chances of re-election and throw them off the gravy train.

Wouldn’t it be bizarre if the dog could finally wag its own tail rather than the other way round? Food for thought, and indigestion for many a politician!


A Voice In Government, Control Of Own Affairs, Direct Vote, E-Mail, Government By The People, Opinion, Real Democracy, Referenda, Referendum

Meet the author

author avatar martin cross
I am a technical translator and writer, a former chef and marketeer, currently disabled. I write articles on food,, travel, politics, religion and technology among other topics.

Share this page

moderator Mark Gordon Brown moderated this page.
If you have any complaints about this content, please let us know


author avatar ittech
22nd Feb 2012 (#)

sounds gre8

Reply to this comment

author avatar Lady Aiyanna
22nd Feb 2012 (#)

Of the People For the People and By the People.... The people around choose and the corrupt politicans Veto and then get caught in their own trap as the People's voice is always heard loud and clear and the Leader is chosen unanimously by the world around.

Reply to this comment

author avatar Md Rezaul Karim
26th Feb 2012 (#)

Politics is sometimes polytricks...

Reply to this comment

Add a comment
Can't login?