THE TIMES REPORTED last year that increasing numbers of young people want a strong leader. Two thirds of younger voters are in favour of “strongman leaders” prepared to defy parliament. A quarter believe that democracy is a bad thing while a similar number would support having the army, rather than politicians, run the country. We have of course been here before: think Italy in the 1920s and Germany in the 1930s.
The Coronavirus pandemic – on top of debt, perceived rip-off education, unaffordable housing and seeming rot in the heart of politics – is creating the very conditions where people will reject (possibly violently) the status quo. In our current political system, politicians meanwhile can make promises they have no obligation to keep and which voters have no means to enforce.
So, what, if anything, is the solution? We could give voters more of a say in reforming the country so it reflects what they want rather than what politicians think they want (or think they can get away with)?
Direct democracy could be what the UK now requires. It would not overturn democracy, but restore it, using Switzerland as a template while harnessing a second mover advantage to build (and improve) upon what has gone before.
We do however have to get better at accepting the results.
Direct democracy told us Scotland wanted to remain as a member of the United Kingdom and it told us that the UK wanted to leave the EU. You cannot pick the outcomes you like – and reject the ones you don’t. The Swiss appreciate this.
The SNP has never accepted the devolution settlement of 1997 – always working against it while exploiting it from within. It has never accepted the independence referendum of 2014. Meanwhile, the SNP (and vast chunks of the British establishment) never accepted the Brexit referendum – even though the SNP was willing to take Scotland out of the EU as the price of gaining secession from the UK.
We have seen and are now seeing in all the counter-attacks from the SNP to British unity and Brexit the damage which representative democracy through parliamentary elections can do to a greater and clear democratic decision.
A purely representative democracy rarely represents a true majority. It is also built on promises, which unlike referenda, politicians are not contracted to honour. Yes, the winners can be voted out in five years’ time. By then, many have filled their boots and the damage has been done.
In a sense, just as the Twentieth Century truly started in 1914 so the Twenty-First Century might be said to be truly beginning now. Today, Russia is a re-Christianising nationalist state, not a communist one. China is not now an economic backwater. The US is no longer willing to unilaterally shoulder the West. Britain is exiting the EU and seeking to go global on its own terms. Meanwhile the internet has upended culture. The second half of the last century may as well have been centuries ago.
Today therefore the UK cannot afford not to make changes – politically, geopolitically and economically. Think what damage could have been avoided had Britain had direct democracy sooner, and consider what damage will be done in the future without it.