A lesson in direct democracy

in the place of our old friend representative democracy

Published on by Ellie Naismith


Winston Churchill notoriously said that “democracy is the worst form of government… except for all the others”. In recent weeks we have laughed in the face of Churchill’s advice and entered into the purest form of political participation still practiced today – a referendum. We might as well all have donned white robes and wandered down to the forum in Athens.

It’s worth considering, though, what the risks are of using direct democracy in the place of our old friend representative democracy.

1. Tyranny of the majority

The main reason that direct democracy is no longer practiced today is that it discriminates against those who disagree with or are different from the majority of citizens. For example, legislation that enhances the rights of disabled people or religious minorities would be much more challenging to push through. Pack mentality reigns supreme, and renders protection for those who need it almost impossible to achieve. We see this in planning – there has been talk of local referenda to decide whether to grant planning permission for major schemes. This would allow small but vocal groups to dictate the planning agenda and block developments creating urgently needed homes.

In Greece, direct democracy did not include all people. To vote, you had to be adult, male, land owning and free. To some extent, inclusion is a challenge even today – the 18-25 age group has concerningly low turnout, perhaps as a result of new registration rules that caused hundreds of thousands of people to fall off the electoral register.

2. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

Social media has caused many things, both good and bad, through its global ubiquity. One of the worst consequences has been the ease with which rumours and lies can perpetuate. For example, during recent local and mayoral elections, as well as this week’s referendum, there has been a popular belief that the use of little stubby pencils in voting booths is a tactic to allow election fraud.

Other than the fact that this is the least efficient way of altering votes imaginable (and the fact that all counts are overseen be representatives from all sides), anybody who took a Maths Challenge at school will know that pencil is easier to read than pen. Pen smudges. In the Maths Challenge, a smudgy answer paper means not getting a certificate – in an election, a smudged ballot paper could appear to be spoilt, which means that your vote doesn’t count.  

In the context of direct democracy, having the power to understand a little of something, yet not the whole picture, is extremely risky. Alexander Pope tells us that “a little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep or taste not the Pierian thing”. It forces us to take decisions without having considered the whole picture; putting power in to the hands of those who do not take responsibility for understanding the full scope of their power is, frankly, irresponsible.

3. The precedent

After the general election in 2015, thousands of protesters took to the street in anger that the Conservatives had won the election, demanding that David Cameron stand down and a further election be called. I’m not sure these protesters understand representative democracy. That’s like tossing a coin between a banana and a slice of cake – I’ll keep flipping until I get the cake, even though that entirely defeats the point of a coin toss.  You don’t just keep trying until you get the result you want. Nicola Sturgeon suggested in the recent election campaign that perhaps it was time for another Scottish Independence Referendum, only a year after the last – Nigel Farage suggested that if Remain had won by a small margin, then another referendum would follow soon after.

Representative democracy isn’t perfect – no system tried yet has been – but it works best when we’re all invested in it. This mania for referenda will lead to nothing more than civil war on the streets. Sometimes we lose – but remember, it’s the taking part that counts.

Ellie Naismith

Ellie Naismith about the author…

Ellie joined the Planning and Development team as a Consultant in the London office in spring 2016.

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