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Who Decides? And Who Should Decide?

4th November 2016

A Brit transplanted to the US gives a personal view on the meaning of democracy.

I awoke this morning to the news that the UK’s High Court has decreed that Parliament should vote on whether Britain should leave the European Union, adding fuel to the bonfire of confusion and uncertainty that has been built since the referendum in June.

While Brexiters will undoubtedly squeal that this is undemocratic and undermines ‘the will of the people’, the other half of the country, who wanted to remain part of the EU, are gleeful at this latest turn of events. Cue: Intense lobbying of MPs from both sides of the debate.

I am viewing these developments from California, which – like the rest of the United States – has its own turn at the ballot box in just a few days. But what many outside the US, or even outside California, may not realize is that there is a lot more on the ballot here than the Presidential and ‘down ticket’ races.

Like a number of other US states, California has a series of state-wide ‘propositions’ to be voted upon on November 8th. Seventeen in all, covering everything from the legalization of marijuana and hemp, to the prohibition of single-use plastic carrier bags, to the regulation of prescription drug prices. Local TV is full of ads putting either side of each argument – the Los Angeles Times estimates that some $452m will be spent fighting these battles – and for the average voter, it must be bewildering. Who do you believe on Prop 61, for example, Bernie Sanders or military veterans? In San Francisco there are a further 25 measures on the ballot. Twenty-five.

These two things – Brexit and California’s blockbuster ballot – have made me think about the nature of democracy.

Democracy has its origins in ancient Greece and the word literally means “rule of the commoners”. In modern usage of course it refers to a system of government whereby citizens elect representatives from among themselves to form a governing body, such as a parliament or a State Legislature. Those elected representatives are entrusted to make decisions on our behalf and held to account at election time.

So why have the referendums or ballot propositions at all?

Former Prime Minister David Cameron’s gamble on a referendum was a political one, intended to pacify the anti-Europe wing of his Party and shore up defences against the UK Independence Party, rather than coming from a deeply-held desire to “let the people decide”. But while the referendum is a convenient political tool (Cameron also used it to pacify his Coalition partners in 2011) there is a strong case for arguing that in a parliamentary democracy like the UK’s, they have no place, and that it is the role of our elected leaders to lead. The High Court seems to agree.

California is a slightly different matter. Here, 15 of the 17 measures on the ballot next week are there because of citizen-led signature petitions, while the other two were put there by the legislature. Not being a US citizen, and therefore ineligible to vote here, I can view this with a certain detachment, but it does raise a number of questions: Is the legislature so out of touch with the people that it is not debating the issues that actually matter to them? If so, then what are they doing? On the other hand, the ‘citizens’ behind these measures have to be very well organized and extremely well-funded to have any chance of getting their propositions on to the ballot, let alone passing. So is this the preserve of special interest groups? If so, how democratic is that?

I am reminded of the satirical Peter Cook film, the Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer, in which the eponymous Rimmer, having climbed the greasy poll to become Prime Minister, devolves all decisions to the people, through referendums, until they are so overwhelmed they hand all power to him, and him alone.

On both sides of the Atlantic, and in other parts of the world, we have seen an erosion of trust in our political leaders, prompting a rise in fringe Parties, single issue movements and citizen action. But that’s healthy. That’s democracy. What we should all be wary of is the erosion of trust in democracy itself. We choose our leaders. We should let them lead. And if they fail us, we have the option of removing them through democratic means.

As Winston Churchill observed: “Democracy is the worst form of Government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Jon Meakin

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