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Do referendums undermine representative democracy?

Posted by Helen Sunday, September 16, 2007

It is a measure of the establishment’s and assorted europhiles’ desperate shortage of arguments that they have resorted to accusing those of us who are calling for a referendum of undermining British democracy and parliamentary representative government.

In fact, even people who assert that they are on “our side” produce mimsy statements about a “referendum not being British”. Well, nothing is British until it is done in Britain and is part of the British system. The right to vote by everyone over the age of 18 regardless of whether they contributed anything to society or not would not have been considered British until very recently. Yet, somehow, it has become just that.

We have now had a sufficient number of referendums to consider that it is, in exceptional circumstances, part of the British political structure.

Nor does the holding of a referendum on an important constitutional matter in any way weaken or undermine the role of Parliament. (Considering that this role has been well-nigh destroyed by successive governments and by the European project, it seems rather odd that the very people, who have either contributed to that destruction or still support it, should be rolling their eyes in horror at the thought of a spot of direct democracy.)

The argument that a referendum undermines parliamentary democracy or the power of parliament assumes that this power is unlimited; that Parliament or, at least, the House of Commons is sovereign. Not so but far from it.

Parliament is not sovereign either in the sense that a country has sovereignty or in the sense of being able to pass any legislation or impose any decision on the people it likes, even if the dominant part of it has been elected. A situation in which Parliament can behave with impunity and claim sovereign powers is not a democracy but elected dictatorship.

In other words, there are limits to what Parliament, as the legislature, should be able to do within a constitutional democracy and it has long ago stepped beyond those limits. There has to be a way of bringing it back within the framework of democracy and constitutional rule.

Here we come to another problem. Britain does not have true separation of powers in the way the American Constitution laid it down for the United States (and even there the Supreme Court, that is the judiciary, has been extending its powers beyond its remit, thus upsetting the balance between the three branches of government).

The British system, as it has developed, has, theoretically, subjected the executive to the legislative branch but, in actual fact, has made the executive all-powerful because it is the dominating part of the legislative while the judiciary’s role remains interpretation of legislation as it is passed by Parliament that is effectively controlled by the government. Does that make sense? I do hope so because it is important that I should get this right.

A government with a good working majority in the House of Commons can behave with perfect impunity and the notion that it will be punished by the electorate is laughable for a number of reasons, not least because it depends on the existence of an effective opposition.

There are no constraints on the government of the day except for what comes from the European Union, which does not, on the whole, bother our politicians over-much. The only, very mild, restraint at present is the House of Lords and the government, aided by its flunkeys on all sides in the Commons, is working very hard to destroy even that.

So, it seems clear that, until such time as, rid of the European Union, we can implement a new Bill of Rights that will actually be kept by the politicians and not abolished item by item, possibly a clearly defined Constitution and a consequent Constitutional Court that will prevent MPs from destroying it, there can be only one controlling mechanism; only one way to ensure that there are some controls on the elected dictatorship we have now, and that is through referendums on important constitutional issues.

Given that it was a referendum that created the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Greater London Authority and it was a referendum that prevented the creation of an elected assembly in the North-East, I cannot quite understand why people keep muttering about referendums undermining democracy or being un-British. They are not a particularly good way of controlling the executive. As we know too much depends on how the question is phrased and who is allowed to campaign. The government still holds the reins. But they are the only method we have at present to ensure that constitutional democracy does really function.

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