Democracy and referenda: a rejoinder to Gisela Stuart

George Schöpflin
23 June 2008

I am grateful to Gisela Stuart for giving me the opportunity to clear up some misconceptions about my piece on referenda and democracy.

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In the first place, in her openDemocracy article "Referenda: democracy vs elites" (18 June 2008) she is mistaken when she assumes that my rejection of referenda is tactical. Even if, as she says referring to the European Union "there had been twenty-seven referenda and in each and every single country the vote had been an overwhelming "yes"", I would still be opposed to the exercise, basically for the reasons that I set out in my piece "The referendum: populism vs democracy" (16 January 2008) - which it would be superfluous to repeat here.

Likewise, when she writes, "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", my answer is no, I would not have. The very concept of "collective will" - I am assuming that this is the same as Jean-Jacques Rousseau's volonté générale - is fraught with dangers that do not appear in Gisela Stuart's strategic analysis.

George Schőpflin is a member of the European parliament for Fidesz (Hungarian Civic Union) and was Jean Monnet professor of politics at University College London.The articles in this debate so far:

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

Gisela Stuart, "Referenda: democracy vs elites" (18 June 2008)

Also in openDemocracy on the Irish referendum and the European Union response:

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

John Palmer, "Ireland's ‘no': a European view" (13 June 2008)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "Europe's coal-mine, Ireland's canary" (20 June 2008)

I suspect that Gisela Stuart has not had an opportunity to think through the implications of direct democracy or, indeed, to look at the literature that deals with it. Two interesting cases come to mind - the workers' councils set up during the Hungarian revolution of 1956 and the experience of Solidarity in Poland in 1980-81. The broad aims of both these movements had my wholehearted support, but that does not mean there were not cases of intimidation, bullying and majoritarianism that denied due consideration to dissenting voices. Both movements were instances of direct democracy. Or think of Switzerland, where referenda are held with great regularity and it took decades for women to be given the vote.

Much the same applies to state-wide voting. Referenda were used by Hitler and Mussolini and there is also the phenomenon of Bonapartism, where a leader seeks to stand above politics and to rely on plebiscites to sustain his power (generally "his"). I am fairly certain that the hypothetical cases of a referendum to reintroduce the death penalty or, say, to expel immigrants would receive majorities in a good number of European states. Would such a result be the will of the people? I don't think I'm alone in dismissing these outcomes as anti-democratic, so the distinction between referenda and democracy has to be made. It is worth noting in passing that Germany does not permit referenda at all; does this make Germany undemocratic?

The non-democracy question

There is a further set of problems with referenda that neither Gisela Stuart nor others who were kind enough to respond to my piece have tackled: namely, who decides when a referendum is to be held, what are its terms, and how the questions are framed? If it's the elite, then it is easy enough to manipulate voters.

Gisela Stuart writes: "I am puzzled by Schöpflin's denouncement of "ad hoc coalitions". Some may call this "tactical voting"." No, these are not the same. An ad hoc coalition, as I noted, comes together solely for the purpose of approving or rejecting a particular issue, but its members will have nothing further to do with each other. In the Netherlands, the longer-term result of the 2005 referendum on the EU constitutional treaty has been the strengthening of the far right and far left - I am somewhat surprised that this has escaped Gisela Stuart. If she genuinely believes that new political actors are useful to stop elites from becoming complacent, then she has a problem, I would have thought, with, say, Jean-Marie Le Pen or Umberto Bossi or the League of Polish Families or even the British National Party.

Presumably she can accept that not everyone is a committed democrat, hence it is valid to establish filtering mechanisms against non-democratic actors. This is precisely what referenda negate. Hence I would assume that Gisela Stuart is not in favour of all new political actors, only some, but that immediately raises the problem of criteria, which new actors do we accept, which do we reject? Civil society is my preferred answer.

In brief, there are major advantages to representative democracy.

I was not discussing the problem of the European demos in any detail, but I will stick to my position that it is weak, rather than non-existent. I share Gisela Stuart's concern that the power of the EU is exercised without much reference to the citizens, producing the democratic deficit.

Among George Schőpflin's articles in openDemocracy:

"Hungary's cold civil war" (14 November 2006)

"The European Union's troubled birthday" (23 March 2007)

"Russia's reinvented empire" (3 May 2007)

"Turkey's crisis and the European Union" (23 July 2007)

"The new Russia: a model state" (27 February 2008)

Two points are worth making here. The first is that the power of EU institutions is supposedly legitimated and controlled by the member-states via the European council, which is made up of government representatives (I'm sure that Gisela Stuart knows this full well, having been a member of the convention that drafted the constitutional treaty). In other words, the national demos is also supposed to be the European demos. All attempts to strengthen a direct relationship between EU institutions and the citizens have been prevented by the member-states of the EU, which regard this, quite correctly, as a step to weakening their own power. Why not elect the president of the European commission? Because the member-states don't like it. And, by the way, elections to the European parliament are not wholly insignificant.

Second, if the demos is weak politically, it is surprisingly real in terms of its cultural practices. Europeans today are far more alike than they were fifty years ago in respect of their consumption patterns, the fashions they follow, their interest in sport, celebrity cults, and pop culture; and many of their casual assumptions about the world are shaped by popular magazines that are astonishingly similar. In the languages that I can read - English, Hungarian, French, German, Italian and a bit of Estonian - I see near identical topics being given a near identical reading. But this demos of cultural practices has very limited political consciousness of itself.

I will leave to one side any discussion of the proposition "that the appetite for European integration is waning" and say only that Britain is not the best place from which to assess that appetite. Things really do look different from Hungary.

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