Democracy in the 20th century has been a half-finished thing. In the 21st, it can grow to its full height, says Brian Beedham

THIS survey argues that the next big change in human affairs will probably not be a matter of economics, or electronics, or military science; it will be a change in the supposedly humdrum world of politics. The coming century could see, at last, the full flowering of the idea of democracy. The democratic system of politics, which first took widespread root in the 19th century, and then in the 20th century beat off the attacks of both fascism and communism, may in the 21st century realise that it has so far been living, for understandable reasons, in a state of arrested development, but that those reasons no longer apply; and so democracy can set about completing its growth.

The places that now consider themselves to be democracies are with a handful of exceptions run by the process generally known as "representative" democracy. That qualifying adjective should make you sit up and think.

The starting-point of modern democracy is the belief that every sane adult is entitled to an equal say in the conduct of public affairs. Some people are richer than others, some are more intelligent, and nobody's interests are quite the same as anybody else's; but all are entitled to an equal voice in deciding how they should be governed. There is therefore something odd in the fact that in most democracies this voice is heard only once every few years, in elections in which voters choose a president or send their representatives to an elected parliament; and that between those elections, for periods of anything up to seven years, it is the presidents and parliamentarians who do all the deciding, while the rest of the democracy is expected to stand more or less quietly on one side, either nodding its head in irrelevant approval or growling in frustrated disagreement. This is part-time democracy.

There exists in a few places a different way of doing it, called direct democracy. In this straightforward version, the elected representatives are not left to their own devices in the periods between elections. The rest of the people can at any time call them to order, by cancelling some decision of the representatives with which most of the people do not agree or, sometimes, by insisting that the representatives do something they had no wish to do, or perhaps had never even thought about. The machinery by which this is done is the referendum, a vote of the whole people. If democracy means rule by the people, democracy by referendum is a great deal closer to the original idea than the every-few-years voting which is all that most countries have.

The test is: Who gives the order?

It has to be the right kind of referendum, of course. A referendum organised by the government, posing a question of the government's choice in the words the government finds most convenient, is seldom much help to democracy. Not many referendums are quite as blatant as the Chilean one of 1978 ("In the face of international aggression...I support President Pinochet in his defence of the dignity of Chile"). But General de Gaulle in the early 1960s plainly saw his de haut en bas sort of referendums as one means of making sure, as he put it, that "the entire indivisible authority of the state is confided to the president," meaning himself. Napoleon liked the technique, too. Even more modest politicians are unlikely to resist the temptation to put a spin on their referendums' wording: "Your government, having after careful thought decided that X is the right thing to do, asks you to agree..."

No, the proper referendum for democracy-strengthening purposes is the one which happens whether the government wants it or not. This can be arranged by constitutional requirement, an instruction in the constitution saying that certain kinds of change in the law must be submitted to a vote of the whole people. Better, because this way is more flexible, an agreed number of voters can insist, by putting their signatures on a petition, that a law proposed by parliament must be submitted to the people for their approval or rejection. Best of all, an agreed number of signatures can ensure that a brand-new idea for a law is put to the voters whatever the president or the parliament thinks about it.

Change calls for change

These are the channels through which power previously dammed up by the politicians can be made to flow into the hands of ordinary people. The politicians, naturally, present various arguments against doing anything of the sort. Some of their arguments do not stand up to a moment's examination. Others are more serious, and one in particular raises a genuine problem for direct democracy if a current weakness in the economies of Europe and America becomes a permanent fixture.

On the other hand, the defenders of the old-fashioned form of democracy have to face the fact that the world has changed radically since the time when it might have seemed plausible to think the voters' wishes needed to be filtered through the finer intelligence of those "representatives". The changes that have taken place since then have removed many of the differences between ordinary people and their representatives. They have also helped the people to discover that the representatives are not especially competent. As a result, what worked reasonably well in the 19th century will not work in the 21st century. Our children may find direct democracy more efficient, as well as more democratic, than the representative sort.

This is a far bigger change than any alteration in the way in which the representatives get elected - proportional representation rather than the first-past-the-post system, alternative voting, and so on. These are just variations in the method by which power is delegated. Direct democracy keeps it undelegated. First, then, a picture of how direct democracy actually works, a matter about which most people have only the haziest idea.

It is still, admittedly, a pretty scattered phenomenon. Slightly over half of the states in the United States use it, some with fairly spectacular results, though it so far has no place in American politics at the federal level. Australia has held almost 50 nationwide referendums, and its component states almost as many again (one in every six of which was about bar-closing times).

Italy has recently become a serious exponent of direct democracy, and its referendums in 1991 and 1993 played a large part in breaking up the corrupt old Italian party system. The new light has flickered occasionally in Denmark, New Zealand, Ireland and a few other countries. But the best country to look at is Switzerland, which virtually invented direct democracy, and uses it at every level of politics. The next three articles describe how the Swiss manage to keep their politicians under control in the central government, in the country's 26 cantons, and in the 3,000-odd communities which make up the cantons. UNITED KINGDOM ECONOMIST 21/12/96

Part 2:

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