Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Democracy v Populism

I’m not a huge fan of referenda.

I’ll be voting “Yes” in the AV referendum on 5th May – but I’d prefer if we didn’t have it at all. Let’s be honest – the only reasons the referendum is going ahead is because Labour promised it in their manifesto and Cameron was coerced into offering the same as the very minimum concession in a coalition agreement.

I have a democratic problem with referenda. Direct legislation by its very nature undermines the Parliamentary system. A referendum can sometimes be a good idea, as was the case in 1975 on Britain’s membership of the EEC: the will of the people answered a pertinent question on Britain’s future on which politicians of all parties were divided. But, speaking more generally, a referendum fails to empower the electorate while actively disempowering those who have been elected to represent us. If referenda are good for major questions, why not also for minor questions? Why not take it a step further and manage affairs by text messages from every elector and eradicate parliamentary democracy entirely?

As long as we have parliaments and councils, our representatives must be allowed to take their heads with them and left free to exercise some judgement. Of course, they should be fixed on certain fundamental points but the value of parliamentary democracy is accountability to the electorate. Referenda to a large extent remove this accountability.

Referenda are not usually a responsible way of fixing policy - or even necessarily determining the public will of the electorate. They are often merely an exercise in populism. Take Brian Souter’s “referendum” in 2000 – do you really believe over 80% of Scots were so homophobic? More pertinently, will the AV referendum tell us anything about the public view on electoral reform or will it simply confirm the low approval rating of the Deputy Prime Minister?

Iceland conducted a referendum last year on whether the small nation should refund its banking debt of 4billion euros. Predictably, the 320,000 inhabitants of Iceland voted “no”. And, in the event, probably rightly: the terms of the repayment could well have crippled Iceland. However, in the last year the Icelandic government has been in negotiations with Britain, the Netherlands and other EU nations to put together a plan more acceptable to its people.

Having done that the Icelandic president, Olafur Grimsson, decided to put the new package to a referendum. The result? The same again. If you ask people if they want to spend more money to pay back debts created by an irresponsible financial sector, what are they likely to say?

Iceland’s constitution allows for the use of referenda, but Grimsson is the first president to use them. In fact, he likes referenda so much that he’s called one on three separate occasions. Overruling a bill which actually had been approved by 70% of Iceland’s MPs, the determination of the president (whose role is largely ceremonial) to give the public a say in a referendum is being praised by some as ultra-democratic. In fact, it is nothing of the sort. It is an exercise in populism; an attempt to avoid the government taking unpopular but necessary decisions.

What really is the purpose of a government that does not have the power to make its own decisions? Grimsson deprived the Althingi (parliament) of its democratic functions, removing Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir’s mandate to govern in the process. How can this be described as democratic?

Grimsson’s action also undermines the efforts of the negotiators who have spent several months in conversation with various governments to put together a realistic and more acceptable package of repayments. He won’t be flavour of the month with them: it’s clear that however robust and favourable the new deal was, it was never going to be given the chance to work.

I wouldn’t fault the Icelandic people for voting the way they did. I suspect there is more than a little national pride at stake here: little Iceland standing up to the big boys of the EU (of which Iceland is not a member). Icelandic people understandably don’t feel a moral obligation to pay the debts of a private bank. But it also appears that “no” voters tended to be those opposed to Iceland’s proposed EU membership, while “yes” voters were more pro-European. And so this referendum is about far more than the economic issue on which the government should be able to make its own decision: it’s about Icelandic nationalism, independence and resistance to perceived EU interference.

This matters to Scotland, though. A number of Scottish councils are owed significant amounts of money from Iceland, which will now not be forthcoming. North Ayrshire alone is due £15million. A “yes” vote in Iceland’s referendum would have resulted in several Scottish councils being reimbursed but the outcome of that exercise in “democracy” now means the UK government is likely to pursue legal action to recoup the monies. In the meantime, Scottish councils will be deprived of vital funds at a crucial time – the predictable effect being cuts to budgets and services.

Iceland’s president, in his need to enhance his personal popularity, has overlooked the unintended consequences of his actions. He seems to have forgotten that what has an effect in one place actually has a different effect somewhere else – in this case on the public services Scotland’s councils provide.

Populism can never be an alternative to good government. Sometimes it is important to do what is right rather than what is easy. It is a great shame that Grimsson felt such a need to pander to populism – a shame for his country’s democratic credentials and a shame for Scotland’s cash-strapped councils.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

Here's an interesting perspective, from an Irish commentator: