Sunday, September 28, 2008

Referendums and Me

Just a little politics homework you might find interesting

The United Kingdom claims to be a Liberal Democracy. Criticism of that statement has come from a great array of people, home and abroad. The esteemed French philosopher Voltaire once said that “Britai

n is free for one day every four years.” At the time, the franchise barely expanding beyond the aristocratic elite, bringing further truth to Voltaire’s

words but after at least 250 years of all sorts of electoral reform, the legitimacy of the British democracy is still in question.

To counter such claims, Edward Heath’s Conservative government se

t a trend and issued a referendum on Northern Ireland in 1973. For a party that traditionally – since the time of the Whigs – has been the most out of touch with voters, this represented a trend to em

phasise the democracy. However, there are serious issues surrounding its usage, at least in the UK. Rare

ly are they issued to the whole country and rarely is the issue particularly important for the whole population. For instance, no referendum was issued on either significant military action since 2000 or on the potential institution of the Eur

o. In the UK it seems that referendums are primarily used to give false legitimacy to governments which have become isolated from the electorate. T

hat’s not to say that devolution should be taken lightly but there are many more pressing issues. Voltaire was right; people here are only

free once every four years.

Thankfully however, as a Dutch Californian, at least half of me come from a very democratic background. Whilst in Holland there is no legislation that allows for binding referenda, my motherland is one of the most democratic areas on the planet.

It’s not as though California is some small New England town or Swiss canton, this is the 7th largest economy in the world, ahead of Russia and India. In short, this is no small-scale project, no shrinking violet. As Charles Kesler of the Claremont Institute said, No other state uses the popular initiative and referendum as aggressively as this one.”

Indeed, in 2008 alone, 22 referenda were issued. Not state, federal or nation can claim to come close to Hellenistic direct democracy but California comes close. Popular opinion remains decided over whether this is a good thing.

In my view, empowerment of the public opinion can never be a bad thing. Direct democracy on such a large scale ensures that politicians don’t get a chance to sway the vote, so the negatives are hard to pick out. We complain that the UK suffers from an elected dictatorship and with a potential resurgence in Tory control those fears will only be amplified.

Not in California, home to 36 million people, 26 million of which can participate whole-heartedly in the running of their state if they so choose.

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