Tim Woolley reflects on the importance of referenda in securing civil rights, in light of the recent vote in favour of same sex marriage in Ireland.
Right, rights. On one side of the Irish sea, the recent referendum marks a momentous day for all we hold dear: democracy, expressing the will of the people in government, and equal rights for all, the latter of which being especially long overdue. Good job, democracy. What a triumph of the Irish political system that the elected officials actually let the people influence decisions directly.
Referenda are great because they remind you how little say the public has in so many other decisions that really affect them. We’re born championing democracy – that our rights as citizens (in addition to the more trivial requirements of age, and, historically, gender, social class and wealth) entitle us to a say in how decisions are made. However, aside from the quinquennial circus of pandering to the voters, few of us could truly say they feel represented in government, fewer still of us students. Democracy. Rule of the people. Yes, our representatives are publicly accountable, but, protest and petition aside, none of us really have direct influence in government.
So are our voices really heard? I think not. In most areas of my life, this is not all that unusual – very few institutions explicitly place importance on my point of view on their daily running. Whilst, yes, complaint forms are available in case your coffee wasn’t to your liking, my recommendations to Costa that all medium cappuccinos should be free on weekday mornings have fallen on deaf ears.
Complain as I might, is this really such a bad thing? A tired example it may be, but ancient Athens is the classic allegory of the society where its citizens (albeit a male, over-30, land-owning slice) had too much say in government. Regrettably, public opinion is subject to tides of sensationalism, of scaremongering, where reason succumbs to the fear and passion instilled by the slickest and loudest of voices. Those skilled in rhetoric and in twisting each others’ words yield the true power, not the citizens.
So maybe for the most part we should leave ‘The Politicians’ to it. All but a few of us proles are equipped for government, or even to speak informedly about it. Just in the same way that I know nothing about running a hospital or a coffee shop, I could not devise a budget, nor do I understand the ins-and-outs of the Scotland debate. Equally, I wonder whether ministers can honestly profess to either. On the most salient of issues, and, crucially, the broadest, we might often have an admirable point to make, but I wager that these account for some 10% of the actual running of an institution like a country. The rest is mere administration.
Voting on civil liberties is different to voting on all other matters of government. The problems of public voting – that we don’t know what we’re talking about, talk only about a small slice of the issues, and that we can be easily influenced – largely disappear with civil rights. We perhaps understand the issues better; we’re ‘closer’ to rights issues as they affect us more tangibly than, say, nominal GDP. Furthermore, the issues being closer to our hearts makes them arguably harder for our opinions to be corrupted by rhetoric, as we likely already have strong opinions about them.
There is little to no damage that could come from us voting for our own rights. Whereas if I had a say in the Treasury I might lower taxes and increase spending for the benefit of everyone (looks legit, right?) and in doing so damage the economy, personal rights referenda have no downside. What ‘downside’ could, say, same-sex marriage have for society? As per the philosophy of John Stuart Mill, the passive interests of the many should not override the very much active opinions of those most affected by it, assuming that most people are indifferent towards Same Sex Marriage.
One issue that is carried over from our hypothetical direct democracy is that of selective importance. Maybe we don’t see the issues with other people’s rights because we’re removed from them; I may not care much for cars, so I might not consider a petrol-head’s point of view in legislation that impacts greatly upon their life. Apathy reigns in issues that don’t concern us, or issues whose importance haven’t been demonstrated. The rate of inflation or the strength of the Pound Sterling are not important to me until I need to convert currency, for instance.
The proposed changes to the Human Rights Act received insignificant airtime before the election. Most of the public are not informed about the consequences of a new Snooper’s Charter, for instance. Until the issues are discussed in public and all of the public takes an interest, our discussion will be ill-informed and the government can do more of what it wants without reproach.
We should hope that we shouldn’t need referenda. The fact that we have them highlights flaws in the system. Politicians don’t want to be seen as part of the government making a difficult or controversial decision, like in Ireland. Neither do they like acknowledging that we’re not represented well enough for them to have made the decision already. Popular voting isn’t perfect either; for as long as opinions differ, no conclusive, all-satisfying decision can really be reached. But, until the system is better, a referendum, when one is tossed our way, is the next best thing. Referenda are necessary to secure our rights, but only because our system of government is flawed.