Magazine article The Spectator

If We're Going to Have Constant Referenda, It's Best If They're Run by the Government, Not the Media

Magazine article The Spectator

If We're Going to Have Constant Referenda, It's Best If They're Run by the Government, Not the Media

Article excerpt

When general elections were the only occasions for ordinary people to have a say - apart, that is, from riots and revolutions - it would have been surprising if they did not make the most of that rare opportunity which might not come again for another five or even seven years. But now that ordinary people are invited by somebody or other to express an opinion on every subject under the sun pretty well every day of the week - and all around the clock if they participate in phone-in programmes their relative lack of interest in general elections is not in the least surprising. Truth to tell, for a public opinion which has grown accustomed to being listened to all the time between elections, polling day itself is no longer such a big deal.

This doesn't mean that public opinion has lost its appetite for influencing affairs; only that its appetite for influence is being sated in so many other ways. After all, it did not need a general election to rock the monarchy. That was done by a few adverse public opinion polls and undone again by a favourable opinion poll after a so-called `grand debate' on television. Public opinion polls, which politicians take very seriously, go on appearing whether there is an election or not. More and more audiences are encouraged to express their opinions on television talk shows all the year round. In short, there are more ways today for ordinary people to skin a cat than putting their crosses on a general election ballot paper; ways that get quicker results and are more fun into the bargain. No need to wait for a general election to get rid of an unpopular MP. All that needs to be done is to sell some tittle-tattle about him to the News of the World.

What the public is getting bored with is not democracy but representative democracy. For representative democracy most certainly does not treat public opinion with the respect it has come to expect. Being a system of government expressly designed not to put public opinion in charge, how could it be expected to? Let us be honest about this. On 1 May the public is being invited to choose 650 or so individuals who, once elected, are supposed to use their own judgment or, even worse, the whips' judgment, rather than follow the dictates of public opinion, the clear implication being that the judgment of the elected is superior to that of their electors. Only when raw public opinion has passed through the puriflying process of parliamentary debate and scrutiny, like so much sewage, can it be declared fit for consumption. That is the message. No wonder general elections are a bit of a turn-off. The task representative democracy assigns to the public is more of an insult than an honour. Naturally it seemed different 100 years ago, when ordinary people had to be thankful for the smallest crumb from the table of the ruling class. But since then - except at election times - they have become accustomed to their opinions counting for much more.

Being a non-democrat myself, I would certainly love to think that the public's apathy in this election campaign suggests waning of interest in democracy. But being a realist, I know better. They want more rather than less. Rather in the manner of the drug addict who, having grown blase about the soft stuff, wants to move on to the hard, the voter, blase about indirect democracy, wants the more immediate turn-on stuff of direct-democracy which can be pumped straight into his veins. …

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