Whither democracy?

We in the Netherlands live in a democracy, it is said. More accurately, we live in a 'representative democracy', in which we are allowed to vote for whoever we think represents our personal ideas about good government and preferred policies. The person we vote for, if he/she gains enough votes to top the threshold, will be rewarded with a seat in Second Chamber, with the mandate to work towards implementation of the policies he/she advocates, the policies for which he/she earned her seat. In theory this is a good system.

In practice, however, things are not quite so idyllic. Party discipline forces many MP's (supposedly free from coercement) to vote against their principles. Flouting party discipline is a strong sign of independence and principled representation, but it will fast-track a political career to nowhere. There are not many who will ignore party discipline, if it means an end to a well-paid job.

In a healthy democracy, parties that so conspicuously neglect their mandate and ignore and belittle the voters would disappear just as soon as the next elections come around. But on a number of issues that is too big by far, Dutch political parties are in agreement on principle, even has much sound and fury is being made of the superficial differences. In too many areas voters simply have but one choice, on too many issues the Netherlands is a one-party state: Social-democrat, pro-EUnion, pro-immigration, anti-tax-reduction (yes, even the conservative liberal VVD do not lose any sleep over increasing the tax burden even more).

Then there is the matter of representation. In practice we see all to often MPs representing the party to which they belong, the policies set out by the barons and the demands made by lobbies and pressure groups. The wishes of the voters, of us citizens hardly factor, it seems. One only has to point to the dramatic result of the Dutch referendum of the EUnions Constitutional Treaty. Even has 80-85% of Second Chamber parliamentarians were for the treaty, a full 63% of the electorate voted against.

Not that this is the only instance when parliament went against the will of the people, went against election manifestos even. A majority of the Dutch did bot want to be part of the eurozone, yet I have that most dreadful currency in my wallet. Most Dutch did not want to have a blanket smoking ban in bars and restaurants, but the EUnion and various anti-smoking NGO's prevailed. A majority of the Dutch sees mass immigration as the biggest mistake in history, yet even the PVV, for all intents and purposes part of our local government, is not able to put a dent into the large numbers of ill-educated fortune-seekers crossing our borders. Neither do the Dutch want to spend any money on the financial debauchery perpetrated by the grasshopper nations within the eurozone, or the immorally risk-prone banks that supported them. Yet what started out with a 'mere' 4 billion for Greece, sees the Dutch now collectively on the hook for up to 100 billion in guarantees. And do not get me started on the Lisbon Treaty the Turnip. In all these instances, parliament approved, even as the Dutch did not want it. Which begs the question: Who is parliament representing?

We, as citizens, have precious little say anymore about how we want our country, our lives governed. We've been made powerless by a complex of parliamentary 'democracy' that is beholden to industry, NGO's and various tranzi organisation, notably the EUnion. However, our current form of 'democracy' is not there for us. We only provide the legitimization of our government, because we vote. But our vote, the intent with which we vote, means apparently very little. Political parties take the votes and run, doing as they please, without us having the means to rectify derelict governance. There has to be an alternative.

This weekend saw a very good post by Witterings from Witney: There is a better way.... It is a thorough and systematic, yet incredibly passionate argument for the implementation of the type of direct democracy as practised in Switzerland.
It will be obvious from my 'Constitution' posts and also, to a lesser extent from the post questioning Indirect or Direct Democracy, that I favour a direct democracy such as that practised by Switzerland - one which places the people in control of their own destinies and reduces the role of politicians to one of being 'enablers'. My one addition to the form of democracy used in Switzerland would encompass the idea of 'bolting on' the idea of "Referism" as proposed by Richard North, EU Referendum, for national budgets - which is not the case in Switzerland.
For an idea of how Switzerland's democracy works, see here, here and here.

The point of direct democracy, especially in combination with Referism, is to place the power firmly where it belongs in a healthy democracy: With us, the people. And not just on big issues of the day either. The core idea of Referism is to give the people power of the budget. To let us, and not our leaders, hold the purse strings. The one that pays the piper, calls the tunes. In a democracy, it is the people that are supposed the call the tunes. Presently that is not the case.

Think of Referism in this way: On or before the third Tuesday of September (for foreign readers: This is the date of the Dutch version of Budget Day: Prinsjesdag) the government publishes it's intended budget. After a period of, say, three weeks, a referendum is held, seeking the approval of the population. A simple 'Yes' or 'No' vote. If 'Yes' (maybe given a certain quorum, say a turnout of at least 30%) so much the better. If 'No' the government will be forced to redo the budget.

The idea is to implement this not only on the national level, but also (and maybe more importantly) on the local level. This give you a determined say in which services your local government provides and which it does not. It will put an end to ever rising local taxes and levies. But its effects will be more profound then mere financial and fiscal issues. Having to reckon with the public approval of the budget forces governments on all levels to rethink their policies, to hew more closely to the wishes of citizens.

With regard to this form of direct democracy there are a few caveats. Dr. North takes a critical look at WfW's proposal in Direct Democracy. The obvious counter-argument against direct democracy is of course Adolf Hitler and his abuse of the popular vote to get rid of democracy altogether. This is one of the reasons contemporary Germans are so reluctant to permit the routine use of referendums, he writes.

The point is well-taken. If any system of direct democracy is to be implemented, some thought must go into which issues lend themselves for public consultation and which bear a little more caution, some safe-guards against public sentiments riled up to dangerously irrational levels. It is not a perfect system. But... On the face of it, it is a better system then the sham-democracy we are living now, I think.

Whichever the system we chose to support, we must realize it is a means to an end. What we need is a clear definition of the end. And here I agree with Dr. North that what I want is as little government as possible. Yes, those in honest need should be able to count on community support. There are aspects of our well-fare system I think are eminently valuable and worthwhile. But government interference with ones daily life is reaching levels of intrusion that are downright obnoxious. A government that wants to force us to allow logging our energy consumption of a quarter-hourly basis is overstepping its bounds by a mile or two. As Dr. North writes (emphasis mine - KV):
What we need is restraint, a system one which makes government physically difficult, keeping externally-imposed rules to the minimum, and forcing people to deal with and settle their own problems – as far as is possible – without external interference.

Dwelling on this further, what one must emphasise is that for the bulk of our daily activities, we do not need government Рwe do not need leadership, we do not need governors, rulers or leaders. It is one of the myths perpetrated by the ruling élites that we need them to take such an enormous part in our lives.

The first and most important requirement of any new or improved system of government, therefore, is the ability of us, the people, to reduce the amount of government. As an individual or part of a collective, I have no desire to rule my fellow man – insofar as I want power, it is the power to prevent other people telling me what to do, and then charging me for the privilege.
We must remember that our current parliamentary system was set up to curb the powers of the monarch. In this it has been spectacularly successful. The downside, however, is that with regard to the reigns of power, parliament has supplanted the monarch. Or rather: Politics, political parties have supplanted the monarch. And who will curb the power of the parties? That is supposed to be us, but we've been robbed of that power.

It is time to retake that power. The thinking on this is by no means finished. But as a starting point I think both the post by Wittering from Witney and the reply by Richard North provide sufficient food for thought. I really urge you to read them both. In full.

8 reacties:

WitteringsfromWitney zei

Thank you for your kind comments and the link KV. If I may firstly say that I have replied to Richard North's response here: http://witteringwitney.blogspot.com/2011/11/there-is-better-way-2.html and do not RNs comment that if direct democracy goes down to canton level (in the UK district councils) then he is indeed in favour of it.

I hope to agree with RN a 'democracy' and then put it to every political party in the UK with the question: Adopt? if not why not? I also hope to produce a codifying document to pull together the Magna Carta, Bills of Right, Common Law and the requirements of direct democracy which when accepted could never, as with MC and BofRs be repealed.

First RN and I have to reach agreement.......

Klein Verzet zei

I don't think that will be a big problem. It is a matter of nuance, as far as I can see. A couple of caveats to reckon with when deciding the final form.

I would be very interested in what you both come up with.

WitteringsfromWitney zei

I will update you KV, have no fear!

DP111 zei

I have been an admirer of the Swiss form of direct democracy for several years, and have advocated such a system.  But one needs to think carefully before  applying it to countries that have developed quite differently, and whose national character is quite different to that of the Swiss ( I was about to write "cheese" instead of "Swiss", and that holds true as well).

The Swiss form of democracy depends on

1. The character of the Swiss people, for the main part a Germanic character, but more insular.  

2. The geographic conditions - the mountain fastness, the inaccessibility of the federal state to many parts of CH, particularly in the long winters.

3. The generally agricultural nature of CH over the period of development of Direct democracy in CH.
  

Edward zei

I agree with DP111 that the Swiss system has arisen in circumstances peculiar to Switzerland and would not necessarily transplant as a whole to other countries although it offers promising examples and indeed inspiration.

Both in the Netherlands and Britain we used to have systems which had arisen out of our history and traditions and which worked imperfectly but tolerably. They depended on a degree of good faith amongst the political and official classes which no longer exists. Whilst the buildings of parliament and government look the same and the outward forms and procedures likewise, the reality has been hollowed out  and destroyed. Most of what goes on is mere puppetry. A few years ago, a question in the Bundestag revealed that 84% of the laws being made for Germany arose from the EU. Even a former Federal President doubted whether Germany could be honestly described as a democracy.  In real life, when any operation is outsourced to foreign parts, the native workers lose their jobs - not so MPs!

As long ago as 1971 the British Foreign Office issued this advice to politicians, then negotiating British surrender to the EEC's terms of membership.

"The transfer of major executive responsibilities to the bureaucratic Commission in Brussels will exacerbate popular feelings of alienation from government. To counter this feeling, strengthened local and regional democratic processes within member states and effective Community economic and social policies will be essential ....there would be a major responsibility on HM Government and ON ALL POLITICAL PARTIES (my emphasis) not to exacerbate public concern by attributing unpopular policies to the remote and unmanageable workings of the Community."
Note that the faux-democratic regional institutions exist to implement "effective Community" (i.e EU) policies. In any other age, this process would have been called treason.

Klein Verzet zei

Edward,

You and DP are right that the Swiss system came about through a historical process particular to Switzerland, as did the (comparable) systems in the UK and NL.

As a wrote before: Both in the UK and in the Netherlands, the current system was set up to curb the powers of the monarch. Since its inception the system has taken away more an more power from the monarch, in favour of itself. The last twenty years has seen a parallel process of curbing/shutting out the power of the people. We must now conclude that the parliamentary system, the political class, is taking on the attributes of an absolutist monarch, who will do as they please.

There is, at present, no balancing institution to curb the powers of the political class. This imbalance must be rectified, and I think some measure of direct democracy (and certainly the referism part) is a step in the right direction.

But, and here I agree with you, it has to be real. It must not be a democracy-shaped pacifier to lull the masses. Moreover, I think the 'wisdom of the crowd' will see through such a move. It does now, anyways, with a lot of festering annoyance with anything EUnion, even as most don't realize the true nature of the EUnion. Humans have a knack for sensing they're taken for a ride.

I am not familiar enough with the intricacies of UK history to make an informed guess whether  DD&R would actually work in the UK. In NL I think it might.

Throughout Dutch history we were spared the curse of absolutism, because from as early as the early middle ages, some primordial form of democracy was required, just to keep the system of levies and dikes in shape to safe us all from drowning. Local nobles has to reckon with their subjects, because they were had to depend on them to get the work done.

Some historian (it may have been Simon Schama) described this as the cause if the Dutch 'consensus culture', a trait often regarded humorously by especially Germans, who like to make jokes about endless meetings trying to get single person in the room on side.

But we do have a bit of a dilemma here: The demise of the EUnion is the sine qua non for such a system to work effectively, safe from railroading by Common Purpose type pols. But seeing as the EUnion is the pet of our political elites to begin with we have to get rid of them, to get rid of the EUnion. But it will be exceedingly hard to get rid of *them* if the EUnion and its supporting structures are still around.

Between now and then, this is the knot we will have to untie (or slash through). Here's hoping events will prove to be the sword that will undo the knot for us.

WitteringsfromWitney zei

KV, ES & DP: I am not advocating a 'Cut 'n paste' exercise for the UK - just the principle, the detail of which would need to be agreed. In the UK we are too wedded to representative democracy and it has to change!

I can but stress we, in the UK nor those outside, should dismiss discussion on change and the merits of direct democracy which is heaven knows so much better than what exists at present.

I also have to ask of those  querying the change, just how much - or little - do they know?

Klein Verzet zei

Don't get me wrong. I agree with your position on principle. See the first couple of paragraphs of my previous comment. Power is residing in the wrong places at this time. That needs to change. And your suggestions are a well place signpost in the right direction, I think.

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