Tag Archives: referendum

How to restore the lack of trust

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“The self-preservation society”. Today’s European Union (#Brexit) referendum has exposed deep issues of mistrust 

One of my favourite films growing up was “The Italian Job”. Not the horrible Hollywood makeover but the 1969 British original. A bunch of plucky mainly cockney criminals robbing an Italian bank in Turin and then attempting to escape over the Alps into Switzerland. Criminals yes, but with a touch of Robin Hood. There is something in every British soul that identifies with the under dog even if the film ends with Michael Caine and the other crooks trapped in a bus on the edge of a precipice. They end with the dilemma: should we edge forward to try and collect the gold or retreat safely but let the gold fall. It sounds a bit like today’s referendum.

Whichever way the UK’s EU referendum goes today (and I very much hope we remain in the European Union), the “leave campaign” has been remarkably successful. Led by some of the most privileged people in British public life, they have been able to portray themselves as the under dogs. Today’s vote is very much a vote against the perceived establishment (or establishments). Just about every British organisation (political parties, businesses, trade unions, NGOs, international organisations, global experts) are for “Remain” and yet around 50% of the population will vote against their advice. The more the Remain side marshall a serious organisation to speak, the more it seems to strengthen the “Leave” campaign.

The real revelation of the campaign then has been the depth of this distrust of officialdom within large sections of the population. This seems to have built slowly over many years- in part the result of the 2008 financial crisis but also the wider effects of globalisation felt everywhere in the world: widening the gaps in society between those that benefit and those who do not. Think only of how the Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump campaigns in the USA have exploited this. In the UK, the Leave campaign has been able to tap into this distrust against the elites even though it is a campaign run by an elite of its own. If “Remain” wins today’s referendum – this distrust will not go away, if “Leave” wins the distrust is likely to grow when the disaffected see that the promises made on trade, expenditure and immigration cannot be met.

The irony is that the leaders of both sides of the debate, David Cameron and Boris Johnson, both went to the same elite private school and university – and have been debating room rivals for many years. It seems that their private views on the EU are almost identical – they have (for reasons of political power) picked opposing sides of the debate – as any private school debating society does. The problem is the consequences of this petty rivalry will be profound, not just for the UK but also for the rest of Europe. Perhaps this is just the British way – to follow ‘our betters’ – the fictional Robin Hood himself was no man of the people in most versions of the story, rather he was an Earl looking to reclaim his status. Those that really try to push ideas that will change the lives of working people, such as Thomas Paine, tended to get exiled for sedition and forgotten by many British people – he is more remembered for his role in the French revolution or the US War of Independence.

But the referendum has revealed a deep mistrust in all types of organisation that needs to be rebuilt. This requires some serious thinking. As I debated on the BBC’s Moral Maze a couple of weeks ago – we need to understand the new forms of social contract that are developing in our societies and each organisation needs to be clear about how it relates to specific communities and where its accountability lies. Legal licence to operate is no longer sufficient for business and political licence is no longer sufficient for governments – both need also to develop their social licence. Yes, OK, I have written a book on this (yawn), but now is the time for some though questions about legitimacy, trust and consent whichever way the referendum result goes tonight. Sitting in a bus on the edge of a precipice is not a sustainable option.

δημοκρατία: Democracy remains a Greek word

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Are referenda back in fashion?

The quip or blunder about whether or not the French know the meaning of the word “entrepreneur” is often attributed to George W. Bush (like so much else). By comparison, there can be less ambiguity about whether “democracy” is still a Greek word – especially after the result of last Sunday’s referendum.  European heads of state will meet tomorrow (12 July) in Brussels to negotiate over whether Greece remains in the Eurozone. Last Sunday’s referendum gave the Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, the political capital he needed to gain the backing of the Greek parliament last night – having delivered a decisive “No” (60%) to the previous terms from Eurozone. 12 hours ago, the Athens Parliament gave Tsipras the authority to negotiate a new bailout by 250 votes to 32. Such a mandate would have been inconceivable only a week ago.

It is still anyones guess whether tomorrow will see the emergence of any new bailout offer between the Eurozone and Greece, or even whether it is in either’s interests to do so. But the referendum has unquestionably given Tsipras much greater authority – strengthening his social contract with the Greek people. The referendum was a gamble, but clearly one worth taking whatever the outcome of the bailout negotiations and Greece’s future in the Eurozone or even European Union. A deal that Tsipras could never have sold back at home would have been in no one’s interests, so the referendum is actually in the interests of his country’s creditors too – even if they did not express this sentiment at the time.

There have been plenty of other referenda in Europe over recent years, one of the most recent, before the Greek vote, being Scotland’s 2014 vote on whether it remained part of the United Kingdom (the Catalonian unofficial referendum a few months later was not recognised by the Madrid government). Recently the UK Government has confirmed that another referendum will be held in the next two years, this time about the UK’s ongoing membership of the European Union. Previously, Scandinavian countries have had referenda about whether or not to join the European Union (EU), and Ireland, France and the Netherlands have also held referenda on specific EU treaty requirements. Sometimes referenda have led to de facto changes in international boundaries – such as those in Kosovo in 1991 or Crimea in 2014 – or to legitimise existing territorial claims – such as in the Falkland Islands in 2013. In countries where referenda are a regular occurrence, such as Switzerland, they seem to be becoming more frequent with up to 10 a year now; likewise in many US states such as California and Arizona.

There are two schools of thought. Those following the social contract theories of Locke or Rousseau tend to see them as a valuable extension of democracy – in fact Rousseau’s ideal “Republic” would have a referendum on every issue (each of us would be so well informed that we could vote before coffee each morning). Others despise them, such as the former British politician and European Commissioner, Chris Patten, who stated in an interview:

“I think referendums are awful. The late and great Julian Critchley used to say that, not very surprisingly, they were the favourite form of plebiscitary democracy of Mussolini and Hitler. They undermine Westminster. What they ensure, as we saw in the last election, is if you have a referendum on an issue politicians during an election campaign say oh we’re not going to talk about that, we don’t need to talk about that, that’s all for the referendum. So during the last election campaign the Euro was hardly debated. I think referendums are fundamentally anti-democratic in our system and I wouldn’t have anything to do with them. On the whole, governments only concede them when governments are weak.”

It should be noted that Chris Patten was also Britain’s last Governor to Hong Kong which was returned to China in 1997 – without a referendum. One can expect him to have strong feelings on the subject, as do many residents in Hong Kong to this day as it happens (as demonstrated during the 2014 protests). It is true that referenda have been the ally of despots to legitimise their annexation of territory but perhaps there is now more evidence, over recent years, that referenda are becoming part of the social licence of democratically elected and accountable governments – winning an election every four or five years is essential but not always sufficient when it comes to major issues of identity or self-determination. The important caveat, and it is an important one, is that law matters and when referenda run against the fundamental values of a nation, then constitutional courts can override such popular expression – as we have seen in the USA on the issue of gay marriage.

So, referenda are no silver bullet, but perhaps they are making a come back as an essential addition to the legitimacy of governments. Perhaps Rousseau was right all along.