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Referenda: democracy vs elites

About the author
Gisela Stuart is a member of parliament for the constituency of Birmingham Edgbaston, England, representing the Labour Party.

In his article in openDemocracy following the vote in the Republic of Ireland on the European Union's Lisbon treaty, George Schöpflin makes a confusing case against the use of referendums (see "The referendum: populism vs democracy", 16 January 2008).
Gisela Stuart is a member of parliament for the constituency of Birmingham Edgbaston, England, representing the Labour Party

Also by Gisela Stuart in openDemocracy:

"The body of democracy" (15 November 2005)

Gisela Stuart is responding to the article by George Schöpflin:

"The referendum: populism vs democracy" (16 January 2008)

He says that those who support referenda have fallen victim to the "seduction of direct democracy". There is no such thing as "the people"; it's not democracy but populism, which in turn leads to the tyranny of the majority. Worse, it's power without responsibility and the focus on a single issue leads to unholy alliances. The basic problem is the failure to hold national elites to account because the connection with European Union institutions is weak.

Let's turn this on its head. Would George Schöpflin have made the same case if there had been twenty-seven referenda and in each and every single country the vote had been an overwhelming "yes"?

I doubt it. I think he would have been much more likely to have penned a glowing piece praising the virtues of participatory democracy. The people of Europe had spoken; some in defiance of their purportedly Eurosceptic governments. I hazard a guess that he even would have urged national governments to take heed and listen to their people - who had so clearly expressed their collective will.

We are writing articles about the EU and the use of referenda because when given the chance to have a say, three out of four broadly pro-European countries (France, the Netherlands, and the Republic of Ireland) came up with a largely unexpected "no".

This came as a shock and governments which had originally promised one didn't dare to ask to their people. In the United Kingdom all three political parties entered the 2005 general election with a manifesto commitment to hold a referendum. They all in different forms got cold feet and reneged.

So let's look at George Schöpflin's argument again. He's right to say that not all things lend themselves to being decided by a referendum.

But it is not the complexity of the question which matters, but whether it is about conferring power; power which emanates from the people.The third edition of the openDemocracy Quarterly contains a selection of our articles since 2001 on Europe's politics, identity, and future. For details and how to buy, click here

General-election manifestos are complex documents. Few have read them, even fewer have understood them - but when it comes to the general election people decide which package they prefer. The voters don't say "yes" or "no" but tick a box labelled Labour, Conservative or LibDem.

I am puzzled by Schöpflin's denouncement of "ad hoc coalitions". Some may call this "tactical voting". In the 1997 general election there was many a constituency where LibDem supporters voted Labour or vice-versa because it was the best way of getting the Conservatives out. I can't see much wrong with that.

More worrying is the line that referenda are bad because they introduce new political actors. I'd say "hallelujah" to that. Anything that stops political elites from becoming complacent seems a good thing to me.Among openDemocracy's articles on the European Union and referenda:

Daniel Keohane & Dan O'Brien, "Why Europe needs referenda" (13 June 2003)

Bruno Kaufmann, "Referenda: Europe's democracy finds its voice" (2 October 2003)

Matthias Benz, "Democratic vote or deliberative poll?" (13 October 2007)

Joseph Curtin & Johnny Ryan, "The Lisbon treaty and the Irish voter: democratic deficits" (13 June 2008)


After the demos

So let's try again.


There is a case for direct democracy when the people decide who should govern. When the government passes power onto a third party, then the people have a right to express their consent or otherwise.

As the great constitutionalist AV Dicey put it: "the referendum is the people's veto; the nation is sovereign and may well decree that the constitution shall not be changed without the direct sanction of the nation."

George Schöpflin is right when he says the European demos is weak. I would go further and say it does not exist. But the national demos - "we the British", the Germans, the French or the Hungarians - is strong. To argue that "the people" is an antediluvian concept and we have progressed to some higher plane, may sound trendy and modern. But in my constituency in Birmingham they know who "we the people" are. Maybe it's clearer to call them "the taxpayers".

Schöpflin assumes that European Union integration operates within three different sectors - the EU and its institutions, the national elites and the supposed European demos.

I'd argue that the appetite for European integration is waning; there is no discernible European demos and the real problem is that the European elites in particular and the national elites to a lesser extent seem to be unable to comprehend or understand this.

So stop condemning referenda just because we don't like the answers they produce and begin a proper debate about what kind of allocation of powers and responsibilities "the people" across Europe would be willing to support.


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