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Oh! Those referendums: They Keep Biting Back So What Else Can Democracies Do?

Barcelona was battered, bruised and reeling from a weekend of civil unrest after an emotionally charged independence referendum for Catalonia, unsanctioned by the Madrid-based Spanish government, ensued into what appears as extremely heavy-handed treatment by riot police towards voters at polling stations.

Clearly, an explanation of police tactics and civil authorities’ intentions and reasoning for their behaviour is urgently required. There’s nothing like a heavy-handed response to embolden people and firm their opinions that pushes a cause to the next level. This is a day the central Spanish government may well live to regret.

There are heightened tensions in Kurdistan in Northern Iraq, after their nominal independence referendum on the 27th September 2017, between Kurds, Iraqi central government in Baghdad and their Turkish neighbours about the possible ramifications of the strong yes vote for a proposed independent Kurdistan.

The effects of the UK referendums of 2016 for Brexit and 2014 for Scotland leaving the UK persist on a daily basis. The complex EU negotiations are underway and the issue of a second Scottish referendum remain on the political agenda for the pro-independence SNP government.

This all demonstrates that asking the electorate to decide on an emotive single issue, such as self-determination, can create further division or political dissolution between those on opposite sides of the issue. This sets local, regional and national government at odds with its own internal consistency.

Notably, the right to self-determination is a fundamental issue for a nation-state if enough of the nation identifies with the cause for a further separate political identity. Thankfully, the UK hasn’t yet dissolved into street battles on the scale seen in Barcelona (there was a small skirmish in George Square in Glasgow in 2014 and street protests peacefully held in London in 2016 but nothing on the scale of the hundreds of injured in Spain).

A government engaging with its electorate to improve its system of representative government is crucial in a well-functioning democracy.

However, more useful than holding referendums a government should continually strive to improve the standard of education among the electorate. By promoting better access to and explaining how government functions helps keep the electorate better informed and encourages further engagement in the political process.

It would make the representative (and arguably the optimum) form of governance operate at a higher efficiency and elevate public acceptance of decision making. This, in turn, would reduce the feeling of distance and animosity towards those mandated to make decisions.

There are alternatives processes like deliberative democracy which involve selecting representatives from the electorate by lot rather than getting directly elected to take part in government for a set period with the civil service providing the technical knowledge of government and ministerial advice.

However, a concerted effort to implement such changes may require agreement by the electorate to do so… thus hold another referendum on changes to the democratic process?

Thus round and round we go…

Therefore it’s best to avoid referendums and use your vote to form representative and accountable governments to debate and decide issues and certainly not to divide and cajole as seen in Barcelona recently.


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