It is after midnight and the Orkney Islands have just declared for Remain. As we wait for the results of the EU referendum, I shall while away the time with a final little homily about the future of democracy.
Some time ago I was talking with a friend of this website about his memories of being a Labour party activist in the 1970s. Although I enjoyed the descriptions of his shambolic electioneering, I remarked upon how strange and wonderful it must have been to live in a period when it was quite normal for ordinary people to be the members of political parties. Perhaps this jarred upon my friend’s nerves – maybe it sounded like second-hand nostalgia. No, he replied, his generation was simply bored. Today, when there are a hundred channels on the television and a million video clips on the internet, this boredom is probably as inconceivable to people of my age as plague buboes and the four humours. Yet oftentimes in the 1970s young people had nothing to do after work. A political party came with evenings in the pub, fetes, discos, céilidhs, and numerous opportunities for like-minded people to meet and mingle.
It cannot hurt to occasionally interrogate your own assumptions about democracy. When I was a student, the Left banked its ideology upon a vision of the world in which plucky grassroots were always stirring and the masses were always the next speech from Tony Benn away from being vastly mobilised. Supposing, however, that this model had at some point slipped out of date. However maddened I was by Occupy Edinburgh, I still envied those who could devote themselves to its fatuous marches and rallies. I could never dissolve my personality within a crowd in this way or volunteer myself with such bright-eyed cheerfulness to be fodder or scenery. Supposing, however, that all of this imagery – of marches and mobilisations and enormous demonstrations – is nothing other than anachronistic in the twenty-first century.
Look at old photographs of the action on the streets of St Petersburg in 1917 (the inspiration for so many left-wing clichés today) and then compare them to the images of any recent protest against, say, the bedroom tax. It is like a glacier has melted down to the proportions of a snowball. Has there ever been a political demonstration in the UK over the last twenty years which has involved large numbers of working-class people? Even the protests against the Iraq war were, if we are holding our hands to our hearts, a bit of a middle-class hobby. And perhaps, you begin to reflect uneasily, the modern world does not look so bad when it is seen through the eyes of the Chartists. So much of what they had wanted to use democracy for has been accomplished. With our technology and healthcare, we all enjoy freedoms which were once beyond the riches of the fattest Corn Laws beneficiary. Over the twentieth century, democracy in the UK has, through a process of ruthless elimination, dispensed with communism and unmitigated free-market capitalism, and it has proved remarkably adept at pacifying the voters. Having won so completely, the concept can surely enjoy an interlude of relaxation, or even drowsiness.
Of course, I am allowing a devil to whisper thrillingly in my ear. For me, mass participatory democracy has a moral imperative which would apply even in the most utopian of circumstances. Nonetheless, to swerve the question slightly, a puzzling feature of this week’s EU referendum is that representative democracy is being put on trial for its life at the very moment when direct democracy should be justifiably coming to life. Why is the purr of democracy suddenly spluttering, when there is no material barrier to setting up a direct democracy tomorrow, assembling it out technology which is already widely to hand?
Direct democracy is only an institutional reality in Switzerland, which holds referendums at the federal level and popular votes in its cantons. There are still two cantons which vote with a show of hands. The Swiss system is undeniably quaint and also potentially disruptive within a system of international obligations, since promises made by the government can be unexpectedly unmade by the demos.
These days, direct democracy is typically at home in tiny nations. Iceland and Estonia have been both goaded by the perfidy of their elites to radically increase citizen involvement in politics. In 2011 Iceland used crowd-sourcing to design a draft constitution, in doing so expressing a preference for citizens’ assemblies over elected representatives. Meanwhile, Estonia has covered so much ground in herding its voters online that it can possibly claim to have invented digital democracy from scratch. As the cyber commentator Jason Healey has reported:
The Estonian online election system works largely because it is tied to a national smart identity card, used with ubiquitous smart-card readers. As discussed in a recent Atlantic Council report with Intel Security, citizens vote by inserting their nationally issued smart cards into a card reader connected to “any personal computer with the voting application installed.”
The system depends on two-factor authentication, requiring not just the voter’s smartcard, but also the “PIN code in order to cast an encrypted and signed digital ballot. To preserve anonymity during vote collection and processing, the outer layer of encryption that stores and protects the user’s identity is removed before the ‘inner’ encrypted vote reaches the election commission” to be counted.
Estonia set up e-voting in 2007 and so much of Estonia’s civic life is now conducted online that it is today more of a website than a country. How could this technology be deployed in the UK, to give the Mother of Parliaments a long overdue system update?
The characteristic predicament for a plebiscitary democracy is that of who decides upon the questions. A system in which petitions have to obtain enough signatures from the people in order to be again put before the people would be hardly a satisfactory way to run a government. It would be no doubt complicated and time-consuming. It is, however, imaginable. Rather than visiting the BBC News website in the morning to check on the news, you would click on different petitions to determine what would be in the day’s news. In your lunch break, you would nip outside with your phone or tablet to vote in the day’s referendums. Voters and smokers would stand on opposite sides of the front entrance.
A stabler system would be one in which a public vote is triggered once government expenditure has exceeded a certain level. The lower the level, therefore, the greater the incentive for the budgets of dubious government contracts not to overrun. In this system, the number of digital referendums is no longer onerous for the distracted citizen. Only when there is a great controversy in the papers, like a looming Middle-Eastern war, or plans for a new nuclear power station, would the decision be referred to the voters. Every Chancellor’s budget would have to be naturally approved in this way.
What role, though, is left for Members of Parliament? Are they reduced to elected civil servants, or to legislators who would be as powerless before the new digital commons as the House of Lords is currently before the House of Commons? There is inevitably less corruption if legislation is framed by elected representatives, and so in my system the Commons would basically assume the present function of the Lords. Nonetheless, my system would also accord MPs an enhanced oratorical status. I picture something like a festival of democracy, in which there are never-ending speeches, debates, wrangles, disputes, and the ashen-faced panic which has distinguished much of the EU referendum. It will be glorious!
A conventional worry about e-voting goes something along the lines of “if we allow the people more than representative democracy, they’ll bring back hanging.” In fact, an e-petition to restore the death penalty in 2012 only received 26,351 signatures (it needed 100,000 to be debated in the UK parliament). A plebiscitary system with a financial qualification would prevent the voters from passing socially contentious legislation, or rather such legislation would be more properly consigned to the supplementary arena of e-petitions.
Is this the future of democracy? Such is the prejudice against democracy which has run roughshod throughout the EU referendum, the widespread automatic association of majoritarian rule with “racism” and chaos, that it presently seems as if democracy has only a slender future ahead of it. In truth, democracy is never guaranteed – around the world and over history, more democracies have been overthrown than have lived on into a ripe old age. Today representative democracy is on trial in the UK, but whether or not it is sent back to its EU cell, no model of democracy is ahistorical. The given model which we have can be improved upon and made more moral.