All democracies are not equally good

All across Europe, from riots in Greece to those protest votes for Marine Le Pen and George Galloway, we see signs of how alienated people now feel from the “political class” which rules over our lives, out of touch with the rest of us, without meaningful opposition, no longer responsive to any democratic control. I am reminded of a document I discovered in the National Archives at Kew in January 2002, when sifting through papers released under the 30-year rule relating to Britain’s negotiations to join the Common Market. It was a confidential 1971 memorandum, clearly written by a senior Foreign Office official, headed “Sovereignty and the Community”.

With chilling candour, this paper (from FCO folder 30/1048) predicted that it would take 30 years for the British people to wake up to the real nature of the European project that Edward Heath was about to take them into, by which time it would be too late for them to leave. Its author made clear that the Community was headed for economic, monetary and fiscal union, with a common foreign and defence policy, which would constitute the greatest surrender of Britain’s national sovereignty in history. Since “Community law” would take precedence over our own, ever more power would pass to this new bureaucratic system centred in Brussels – and, as the role of Parliament diminished, this would lead to a “popular feeling of alienation from government”.

This is from an article by Christopher Booker in the Sunday Telegraph today. Of course it can be argued that that the EU is itself subject to democratic processes and there is an EU parliament. However the form of democracy matters. All democracies are not equal. The comment about the EU leading to alienation from government is the other end of the spectrum from the study in Switzerland that suggested that people were happier when they had the power to vote in referenda.

I suspect it is a fundamental part of human nature to feel less happy when one feels dis-empowered.  It is probably part of ordinary experience. If one can choose the school for one’s children one probably feels better than if a government official simply tells you that your child must go to one particular school.

The form of EU democracy makes individuals feel they have no power to influence events. The form of Swiss democracy gives people a vastly greater sense of power – and a greater reality of power, too.

Then there is the question of which kinds of democracy make the best decisions.

1. The indirect sort such as the EU: starts off being a good way of making a compromise between competing interests. Run by clever people who mean well, it can do some good things for quite a few years. Then gradually it becomes an elite world of its own, divorced from reality of the unintended consequences and  burdens caused by bureaucratic instructions, regulations and taxes. It also become enamoured of certain ideas such as equality or ‘everybody should go to nursery school’ or ‘every woman should have a career’ not all of which will be shared by the population it serves and some of which may be damaging.

2. National parliamentary democracies. Tend to be highly emotional and make radical changes which sometimes are for the better and sometime for the worse. Having just one election every four or five years means that people cannot vote on individual issues. So a party can put through policies which people have neither debated or agreed to.

3. Democracy plus referenda. This seems to work well in Switzerland where there are regular referenda at the national, regional and local level. But referenda in some US states seem to work less well. I wonder why the difference? Maybe here again, the exact form of the system makes a difference.

  1. Democracy makes you happier – now viewable online
  2. Democracy makes you happier
  3. Why people are voting today for higher taxes
  4. Nick Clegg is giving democracy a bad name
  5. BBC tries to imply that private hospitals have equally low standards of cleanliness as NHS ones.
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