Slugger O'Toole

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Referenda and the Phantom People who act like enemies of democracy…

Thu 1 October 2009, 2:44pm

Not everyone I approached for a Lisbon essay had the time to give us the full text for an article. One such was Professor John Keane of the University of Westminster and author of The Life and Death of Democracy… These are his shorthand thoughts on the usefulness of Referenda in general and their relationship with chambers of elected representatives…From Professor John Keane

If the vote goes against the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty then this will undoubtedly add to the present woes of the Irish people, and of us all. The history of modern referenda shows that they are sometimes necessary, for instance when an outdated or unjust clause in a constitution needs to be changed in order to improve its legitimacy.

But in the history of democracy there are many recorded cases when referenda have had bad effects. Feather-brained populism flourishes. Practical complications get ignored. Wilful ignorance takes over. Disaffection finds a lightning rod. All in the name of a phantom People that acts like the enemies of democracy, as Plato said it always would.

When referenda campaigns go down this path, real people need to wake up, and get up. They should remember the remark of Albert Camus, written in 1944, when France had its back to the wall and nationalist sentiments were on the rise: I love my country, in all its diversity, far too much ever to be a nationalist.

It’s worth noting too that Ireland is one of a very few democracies in the world that uses this extra parliamentary mechanism for amending its Constitution…

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Comments (7)

  1. Talk about the view from the top! To be perfectly frank, this is exactly the sort of condescending, patrician nonsense that has so effectively alienated the adult, educated populations of the EU member states. Keane reveals the contemptuous and undemocratic attitudes that are so characteristic of the unelected EU elites. Hopefully enough of us are not fooled by this sort of sophistry. No amount of finessing the idea of not bothering to hold referenda whenever the children are likely not to do as they are told will make Keane’s arguments any less arrogant than they are. As for ‘populism’, we are drowining in meaningless pap and sloganeering from the Yes campaign – from their nauseating, goody-two-shoes ‘Generation Yes’ supporters to the nostrums and lecturing of the ‘Ireland for Europe’ people – with their meaningless, substanceless ‘Yes for Jobs’ posters eg.

    We are entitled to have a view on the direction the EU is taking. To suggest that the EU is taking a wrong turn, as many firmly believe, is not a form of insolence or ingratitude as the insufferable Yes campaigners would have us believe. By their logic, we are obliged always and ever to say yes to anything the EU proposes, simply because it is the EU that is proposing it. Poppycock! It is the considered opinion of educated people who have looked at this Treaty and seen how many holes and deceptions there are in it that it should be rejected for very serious reasons. Now Professor Keane, go back to the drawing board and reshape your notes into something more respectful and considered please.

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  2. Brit says:

    The fact that the application of the basic concept of democracy can have bad effects is (1) uncontrovertible (Georg Bush Jnr) and (2) no argument against its overall efficacy and justice.

    As Churchill said its the worst system, apart from all the others.

    There is however a legitimate debate to be had against the merits of representative versus direct/participatory democracy.

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  3. It is the considered opinion of educated people who have looked at this Treaty and seen how many holes and deceptions there are in it that it should be rejected for very serious reasons.

    It is the considered opinion of some such people.

    And the OP brings up some very valid points about the use of referenda. I was at a FG public meeting last week where speakers from the floor were asking why the party wasn’t using Lisbon as an opportunity to defeat the government. Their argument was quite simple: “The government is on the Yes side; we hate the government; therefore we should vote No.”

    It is quite clear that the Lisbon vote will be used by many people as a proxy vote on other, unrelated matters. This is a known phenomenon, and you cannot dismiss it lightly. No matter what your own (legitimate) concerns about the treaty are, you must accept that there are many people who will vote No for reasons completely unconnected to yours. Just because it happens to work in your favour this time around, doesn’t invalidate the OP’s argument.

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  4. @Andrew Gallagher

    But this is absurd. People will have a variety of reasons for voting either way. Who is to be the arbiter of which are genuine reasons and which not? Voters themselves, is who. Certainly not John Keane or peple like him on behalf of anyone else. I see nothing working in the No side’s favour at all. We had a direct vote just a year ago and that has been undemocratically cast aside under an avalanche of alternating pusillanimous and bullying rationalisations fronted up by the pantomime referred to as the ‘guarantees’.

    If we had anything like genuine particiaptory democracy, the Lisbon Treaty would never have seen the light of day. Academics like John Keane, and the embedded minds of virtually the entire mainstream media (who know this perfectly well at heart) are merely functioning as expected in their allotted role as ‘scribes of the empire’. It’s their job in life to make the powerful elites look good, no matter what those elites are actually doing. If they don’t do that, they don’t get the job in the first place. When they step out of line, they are made to feel the icy blast of disapproval. Those who succeed know what is wanted and they have as many disingenuous arguments for reconciling themselves to what they do as Keane is now purporting to offer for removing one of the fundamentals of our pale and sick democracy. Nice try.

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  5. Who is to be the arbiter of which are genuine reasons and which not?

    This is why we have representative democracy, at least for most things. We employ politicians to turn our mess of contradictory desires (low taxes AND high benefits! choice AND quality!) into something resembling a self-consistent system. We employ them to spend their days digesting complex laws so that we can get on with our lives. The referendum has a part to play, but is not the be-all and end-all of democratic legitimacy.

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  6. Sorry for the double post.

    I see nothing working in the No side’s favour at all.

    The No side starts with huge built-in advantages, including the unpopularity of the government, the unreadability of the treaty, the belief (mistaken in my opinion, but still commonly held) that the previous No vote is being disregarded by the elite…

    That the No side is still struggling to put over its case is due to many things, but a skewed playing field is not one of them.

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  7. OC says:

    Democracy’s only saving grace is that it is the form of government where bad things happen the slowest, and even then only when safeguards are in place to stymie theatrocracy, demagoguery, and tyranny by the the majority.

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