Crack Out The Champers

28 April 2022

Crack Out The Champers

Democracy contained.

By John Watson

Photo of John Watson

So we can all breathe again. Encore Macron. Pas le Pen apres toutes. C’est certainment un relief and pour un number de reasons too. Crack ouvert le fizzy vin. Non, pas Chapel Down. Quelque chose tout Francais. Bollinger ou Veuve Cliquot; somezing comme ca?

Yes, there are certainly reasons to celebrate. Of course we all like to see our neighbours across the channel in a mess from time to time, but a le Pen victory would have been a mess the world can ill afford at the moment. Whatever she may be like as a leader, her victory would have meant seismic change in the international order and we really have had enough of those for the time being. The Ukraine, the Solomon Islands, the struggle for some sort of environmental compliance, these are quite enough to worry about thank you very much without resurgent racial tensions in France.  But out of all the worrying aspects of her campaign, the bit which struck the harshest note was not her views on the EU, nor her plans to attack headscarves, nor even her radical proposal to abolish the TV licence fee, but the idea of using citizens’ referendums under which 500,000 people could call for a vote which would sidestep the parliamentary process.

Now the casual reader, and I include the Englishman whose knowledge of the French language only allows him to absorb one word in three, might not spot the significance of this and treat it as a matter of admin. “Well, if those Frenchies have so little to do in their leisure time that they are willing to spend it traipsing in and out of polling booths, it’s time we translated Top Gear into French…”  That sort of approach. And there are others who might say that if democracy is a good thing the more voting the better, and why don’t we extend it to sixteen year olds and the better class of household pets while we are at it. But the Shaw Sheet reader is more thoughtful and will have been left wondering what the implementation of such a proposal would mean.

The obvious thing of course is two competing lines of authority. Want to change the law? You can either go through the normal political process – or you can appeal direct to the Caesar of popular opinion which would have to be the final arbiter, a garlic-laced version of “vox populi, vox dei”. It doesn’t sound too appetising, does it, and that is because it introduces a form of democracy which probably doesn’t work and that is worth thinking about for a moment.

Let’s go to Athens. No, not to the modern city of ruins and cheap holiday deals, no yuck, but to the Athens of Pericles in which democracy was established; having arrived let us look at the word they invented, “demokratia”, from demos, “the people” and kratos, “rule”. Rule by the people, eh? Yes, splendid idea, but how is it actually done? There are two basic systems. The first is the referendum basis suggested by Ms le Pen. Its advantage is that it makes everyone feel involved, but against that there are some serious minuses. The most obvious one is that it gives the decision-making power to an electorate who, unless they have infinite time at their disposal, do not have as much knowledge about the issues as professional politicians. Yes, there is such a thing as the wisdom of crowds but the purpose of that is to distil the knowledge and experience of the crowd not to proceed without them. Then there is lack of consistency. Public opinion is a changeable thing which makes it an unreliable system of government. Then the public are emotional and can be swayed by undesirable populists. They tend to take a short term view.  Etc, etc; also the system is used by the Swiss. Need I say more?

The alternative system is different in that the public make their choice between different parties or groups of people and then leave it to those parties to do the governing. Of course the parties have to set out their stalls at election time but rather than examining each issue most voters will take an overview of who they trust, often informed by their traditional loyalties. This system is admittedly less responsive to public opinion and so could be said to be less democratic. On the other hand it enables the professional politicians to develop and implement consistent strategies. It works best when there are two viable parties not too far apart between whom the floating voter can switch.

Of all the difficulties which would have been caused by a Pennite triumph, the worst would have been the chaos introduced into the decision-making process. One only needs to look at the Gilets Jaunes to appreciate that France is a country with a tendency to direct political action. To have reinforced that tendency by bringing referenda into the decision-making process of government would have been a disaster, or several disasters more likely – one each time the referendum system was used.

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