Comment on Godmorgon Världen, Swedish Radio, July 3rd 2016.
The problem with referendums
There are those saying that referendums are the highest form of democracy.
Don’t believe them.
A referendum is a slap in the face of democracy.
At least of that form of democracy which we call representative democracy and which is the only form of democracy we know of so far, that is able to connect power with accountability.
Democracy cannot be a system for making decisions only, it must also be a system for assuming responsibility and demanding accountability.
In a referendum the link between power and accountability is severed. For a brief moment the “people” is asked up on stage to make its one-syllable decision, yes or no, in or out, and is then asked to step down again without leaving anyone behind, least of all anyone to hold to account.
This will be particularly evident when the people happens to make the wrong decision, i.e. a decision contrary to the one the elected majority calling the referendum has counted on, and which it therefore might be politically reluctant or even politically incapable of carrying out. To the question who bears responsibility for the exit of the UK from the EU, the answer is everyone – and thus no one. At this moment we still don’t know what the Brexit-vote means and who will carry it out, and when, and how – and whether it will be carried out at all.
The traditional way of resolving the conflict between referendums and representative democracy is to make referendums advisory only, which means that a parliament may overrun the result of a referendum. The fact that cars in Sweden drive to the right and not to the left is the happy outcome of such an overrun. Legally, there is nothing to prevent the British parliament from running over Brexit as well, although as things stand now this would probably only add insult to injury.
Another option is to have the people vote until they have voted for the “right” decision, which is what the Danish people and the Irish people were made to do after they had voted No instead of Yes to a EU-treaty. There are those hoping that the people will get a chance to make the "right" decision in the UK as well, and that the formal process of exiting the EU will not be initiated before then, but as the situation has developed this would be the equivalent of having democracy in Britain shoot itself in one foot after another. Whatever the outcome of a referendum, the result is always a defeat for representative democracy. Politicians who call a referendum with the hope of fortifying their positions are not only playing with fire, but are eroding confidence in the ability of representative democracy to represent. Not to mention politicians who call for referendums with the expressed intention to overrun the institutions of representative democracy and who barely can hide their contempt for its weakness and incapacity.
This is not helped by the fact the democracies of Europe have a genuine problem with weakness and incapacity since so much power over society has moved out of those nationally elected assemblies where political responsibility and accountability reside, and where politicians therefore increasingly are held accountable for a power they don’t possess, or promise things they know, or should know, that they have little power to bring about.
In short, referendums are not a solution to the problems of democracy, but rather a dramatic illustration to them. The problem is the growing gap between power and accountability, between what national democracies can decide in a globalized world and what national electorates want to hold them accountable for.
To this problem there is in my mind only one solution that can claim to be democratic, and that is to enable representative democracy to reconnect power with accountability, and this can only be done if representative democracy is allowed to transcend national boundaries.
In Europe there is already a name for the possibility of such a solution and that is EU.
Perhaps not EU as it has evolved, but EU as it might still become.
It is this possible solution to the crisis of European democracy that we presently are gambling away, referendum by referendum.