IT MEANS GOVERNMENT BY THE PEOPLE, AND WE ARE THE PEOPLE.
Democracy in the 20th century has been a half-finished thing. In the 21st, it can grow to its full height, says Brian Beedham THIS survey argues that the next big change in human affairs will probably not be a matter of economics, or electronics, or military science; it will be a change in the supposedly humdrum world of politics. The coming century could see, at last, the full flowering of the idea of democracy. The democratic system of politics, which first took widespread root in the 19th century, and then in the 20th century beat off the attacks of both fascism and communism, may in the 21st century realise that it has so far been living, for understandable reasons, in a state of arrested development, but that those reasons no longer apply; and so democracy can set about completing its growth.
The places that now consider themselves to be democracies are with a handful of exceptions run by the
process generally known as "representative" democracy. That qualifying adjective should make you sit up
The starting-point of modern democracy is the belief that every sane adult is entitled to an equal say in the
conduct of public affairs. Some people are richer than others, some are more intelligent, and nobody's
interests are quite the same as anybody else's; but all are entitled to an equal voice in deciding how they
should be governed. There is therefore something odd in the fact that in most democracies this voice is
heard only once every few years, in elections in which voters choose a president or send their
representatives to an elected parliament; and that between those elections, for periods of anything up to
seven years, it is the presidents and parliamentarians who do all the deciding, while the rest of the
democracy is expected to stand more or less quietly on one side, either nodding its head in irrelevant
approval or growling in frustrated disagreement. This is part-time democracy.
There exists in a few places a different way of doing it, called direct democracy. In this straightforward
version, the elected representatives are not left to their own devices in the periods between elections. The
rest of the people can at any time call them to order, by cancelling some decision of the representatives with
which most of the people do not agree or, sometimes, by insisting that the representatives do something
they had no wish to do, or perhaps had never even thought about. The machinery by which this is done is
the referendum, a vote of the whole people. If democracy means rule by the people, democracy by
referendum is a great deal closer to the original idea than the every-few-years voting which is all that most
The test is: Who gives the order?
It has to be the right kind of referendum, of course. A referendum organised by the government, posing a
question of the government's choice in the words the government finds most convenient, is seldom much
help to democracy. Not many referendums are quite as blatant as the Chilean one of 1978 ("In the face of
international aggression...I support President Pinochet in his defence of the dignity of Chile"). But General
de Gaulle in the early 1960s plainly saw his de haut en bas sort of referendums as one means of making
sure, as he put it, that "the entire indivisible authority of the state is confided to the president," meaning
himself. Napoleon liked the technique, too. Even more modest politicians are unlikely to resist the
temptation to put a spin on their referendums' wording: "Your government, having after careful thought
decided that X is the right thing to do, asks you to agree..."
No, the proper referendum for democracy-strengthening purposes is the one which happens whether the
government wants it or not. This can be arranged by constitutional requirement, an instruction in the
constitution saying that certain kinds of change in the law must be submitted to a vote of the whole people.
Better, because this way is more flexible, an agreed number of voters can insist, by putting their signatures
on a petition, that a law proposed by parliament must be submitted to the people for their approval or
rejection. Best of all, an agreed number of signatures can ensure that a brand-new idea for a law is put to
the voters whatever the president or the parliament thinks about it.
Change calls for change
These are the channels through which power previously dammed up by the politicians can be made to flow
into the hands of ordinary people. The politicians, naturally, present various arguments against doing
anything of the sort. Some of their arguments do not stand up to a moment's examination. Others are more
serious, and one in particular raises a genuine problem for direct democracy if a current weakness in the
economies of Europe and America becomes a permanent fixture.
On the other hand, the defenders of the old-fashioned form of democracy have to face the fact that the world
has changed radically since the time when it might have seemed plausible to think the voters' wishes needed
to be filtered through the finer intelligence of those "representatives". The changes that have taken place
since then have removed many of the differences between ordinary people and their representatives. They
have also helped the people to discover that the representatives are not especially competent. As a result,
what worked reasonably well in the 19th century will not work in the 21st century. Our children may find
direct democracy more efficient, as well as more democratic, than the representative sort.
This is a far bigger change than any alteration in the way in which the representatives get elected -
proportional representation rather than the first-past-the-post system, alternative voting, and so on. These
are just variations in the method by which power is delegated. Direct democracy keeps it undelegated. First,
then, a picture of how direct democracy actually works, a matter about which most people have only the
It is still, admittedly, a pretty scattered phenomenon. Slightly over half of the states in the United States use
it, some with fairly spectacular results, though it so far has no place in American politics at the federal level.
Australia has held almost 50 nationwide referendums, and its component states almost as many again (one
in every six of which was about bar-closing times).
Italy has recently become a serious exponent of direct democracy, and its referendums in 1991 and 1993
played a large part in breaking up the corrupt old Italian party system. The new light has flickered
occasionally in Denmark, New Zealand, Ireland and a few other countries. But the best country to look at is
Switzerland, which virtually invented direct democracy, and uses it at every level of politics. The next three
articles describe how the Swiss manage to keep their politicians under control in the central government, in
the country's 26 cantons, and in the 3,000-odd communities which make up the cantons. UNITED
KINGDOM ECONOMIST 21/12/96