Drawing on the insights of political theory as well as empirical and comparative government, the book provides an up-to-date overview of the theories and practice of referendums and initiatives around the world. The book discusses if we ought to hold more referendums, and how the processes of direct democracy have been used – and occasionally abused -around the world.
The theoretical justification for citizen involvement
The political theory of directdemocracy:
the theoretical justification for
Since the French Revolution and certainly for the better part of the
past 100 years, representative democracy has been the norm. Joseph
Schumpeter – an economist and political theorist – summed up the
prevailing view in his acclaimed book Capitalism, Socialism and
[Democracy does] not mean and cannot mean that the people actually rule
in any obvious sense of the terms ‘people’ and ‘rule.’ Democracy means
only that the people have the opportunity of
Regulation of directdemocracy:
international comparisons and patterns
Referendums – and especially initiatives – are rare in most Western
democracies. They have only become centrepieces of the political
systems in Switzerland and – since the 1970 – Italy. The legislative
initiative is practically unknown outside America, though as we have
seen above, it has begun to play a role in Germany, New Zealand and
a couple of former communist countries. The Swiss can merely propose
constitutional amendments, but these are often defeated (the voters have
Judicial review of directdemocracy
So suppose we introduce initiatives and referendums on a larger scale.
Suppose that we – in one form or other – adopt a system whereby the
people, or a specified proportion thereof, be allowed to introduce legislation. What would happen? What has happened elsewhere?
One problem we have not considered, but which may be very relevant, is how the courts would react. In Britain, the courts cannot
interfere with decisions made by the legislature under the doctrine of
parliamentary sovereignty, but what if it were the people who
giving in to demands to introduce forms of directdemocracy, thereby exacerbating the problem they want to solve.
Proposal #1: ban the populist toolkit: not more but less directdemocracy is needed
In recent years it has become something resembling a Pavlov dog reaction: when governments or political parties are confronted with the disaffection of the electorate, they tend to accept at face value the opinion of critics, who blame the existing system of parliamentary democracy for not being “democratic” enough. This leads to proposals and measures which make it
Decentralised directdemocracy, 1964–68
At their 1964 Annual General Meeting, the Longbridge joint shop
stewards’ committee (JSSC) celebrated their success in unionising
the factory, boasting that they were now ‘100 per cent organised’
with nearly six hundred shop stewards.1 Similar developments had
taken place across the industry as worker activism created new
social practices and organisations. Over the next ten years, these
organisations would develop a growing reputation for militancy
as, along with miners, dockers and shipbuilders, their members
the defeat of the
Jürgen Habermas (1973) Legitimationsprobleme im Spätkapitalismus, Frankfurt
am Main, Suhrkamp, p. 320 (translated by the another).
Elizabeth Weise, ‘Voters in 38 States Decide Sweeping Ballot Initiatives’, USA
1687885/ (accessed 7 November 2012).
European Constitution in votes in France and the Netherlands. He said
that they should be avoided because they ‘undermine the Europe we are
trying to build by simplifying important and
shopping lists, that
we should see the demand for directdemocracy.
Political parties, and the system of representative government, are in
many ways representative of the old system of one fits all; the system
under which we were content with package deals, under which a basket
of goods had been selected for us by the benevolent shopkeeper. Sure,
we were able to choose between different packages, but the shopping
baskets on offer in the political supermarket were – and to some extend
still are – essentially the same.
This system will no longer do. As individuals and as
we have seen the most widespread use of the
initiative, and it is, consequently, in this country that we find the best
and the worst examples of its use.
Kimitaka Matsuzato (2005) ‘Semi-
Presidentialism in Ukraine: Institutionalist
Centrism in Rampant Clan Politics’, Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-
Soviet Democratization Vol. 13, No. 1, 45–58.
The initiative in the United States
Twenty-four out of the 50 states have provisions for initiatives, though
the provisions have been used with varying frequency (ostensibly due to
) Plebiscites and Sovereignty: The Crisis of
Political Legitimacy, Boulder, CO, Westview Press, p. 49.
S.B. Hobolt (2007) ‘Taking Cues for Europe? Voter Competence and Party
Endorsements in Referendums on European Integration’, European Journal of
Political Research, Vol. 46, No. 2, 151–82.
A. Downs (1957) An Economic Theory of Democracy, New York, Harper.
issues notwithstanding that they have imperfect information. A recent
article has summed up the argument thus:
The basic idea of much recent research on the relationship between