For people casual acquainted with political theory, we know that dictators quite like plebiscites in a way that they dislike parliaments. We can see in the UK, the way in which some of the Brexiteers, but not their leadership, are frightened of both parliament’s consideration of interpreting the referendum result and/or running a second one.

That’s Democracy!

they wail, but so is Parliament. Democratic politics is about expressing the will of the majority under the rule of law. It should involve debate and compromise; it often doesn’t.

The anglosphere’s political theory starts with Hobbs who posited the need for a strong sovereign to tame the bestial nature of the mob through to Paine’s “Rights of Man”, first suggesting inalienable human rights. The latter has ensured the establishment of a representative democracy based on universal suffrage but we know this has been challenged in existential terms by Fascism and in lesser terms in the UK by the move towards mayors and commissioners, rather than councils and the mindless and reactionary New Labour mantra “with rights come responsibility”.

Totalitarians have their theorists also, one of them is Carl Schmitt, and I was pointed at him in a paper, entitled, “The Paradox of Plebiscites: Why Do Authoritarian Submit issues to the voters?” by Matt Qvortrup, currently teaching at Coventry. When I originally noted this article, I highlighted the following quote,

Robert Michels, an otherwise piercing analytical mind, tersely observed that “a Führer [sic!] would lead the people astray through unclear questions, and would himself be solely entitled to interpret the result afterwards”

I have now read Nigel Jones article (see 6 below) and present this quote.

So what conclusions can be drawn from this largely melancholy history? That referendums are usually used for the convenience of rulers rather than the ruled. Much depends – as Alex Salmond realises – on the question on the ballot paper and on who controls the organs of propaganda – radio, TV, newspapers and, today, the Internet.

I hope to write more, arguing that the dumbing down of politics, the building of a super-hero culture and the destruction of debate is anti-democratic. When I am ready, I’ll convert it into an essay and post it to the blog.

See also

  1. Referendum a “Device of Dictators and Demagogues”?, at conversion uplift by Neal Cole, dated 2018, with another catalogue of democratic deficiencies
  2. Matthew Willner-Reid (2018) The Rise of Referendums: A Death Sentence for Multilateralism?, The International Spectator, 53:2, 1-20, DOI: 10.1080/03932729.2018.1438240 mirrored here
  3. Democracies don’t have Executive Presidents, on my blog
  4. On Presidentialism, on this wiki


Dennis Jarvis @flickr CC 2012 BY-SA Romania-2354 – Freedom has a Price……..


I have just noticed a spelling mistake in the permalink, here is the surl

Related Reading

  1. google search q=fascism+and+plebiscites+carl+schmitt
  2. Google’s link to Matt Qvortrup’s paper, in Word., and Matt’s Coventry U publications page.
  4. Dictators + Plebiscites MQvortrup
  5. Referendums: A Device for Despots? at History Today, no really by Nigel Jones, but behind a paywall, a catalogue of the use of Referendums in France & Germany, but also talks about Denmark’s EU referendum and Papendreou’s leave the Euro referendum. It was written in 2012 and he falsely predicts that there won’t be one on the EU. His conclusion is that they are stacked in favour of the state, and used as a tool of control, see above for the quote.
  6. Thatcher was right about referendums by Philip Stephens, published in the FT, dated 2007 and quoting her from even earlier. Her line,
    and Atlee’s are problematic if we are beginning to question Parliamentary Sovereignty as inadequate to defend the rule of law.
  7. Why referendums are anti-democratic by Mike Mcnair, published at Labour Party Marxists, this is one of the best at quoting left winger’s theory in defence of their case, by which I mean he goes beyond blunt assertion. Here is  my mirror copy, in case the hosting site failes.
  8. Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe a review by Fukiyama of Linz & Stepan’s revised work on Autocracy, referenced by Qvortrup, Here is a mirror, on this site.
  9. Mcnair references Kautsky’s Parliamentarism, direct legislation by the people and social democracy
  10. The Weekly Worker also reviews Kautsky, an article of which I have created a mirro,  kautsky on referenda
  11. Solidarity also comments in the light of the Momentum coup. It interestingly looks at the decline of the Workers Party in Brazil, after its adoption of online democracy, but not the experience of Podemos, which I believe to be similar.
  12. Here is a reference to Mainwaring & Shugart’s “Juan Linz, Presidentialism, and Democracy, A Critical Appraisal 1997, together with a mirror. Linz’s original 1985 article is here, or and here’s my mirror, Linz Presidentialism 1985., I made a new version with Calibri font. It seems that Juan Linz also wrote a prequel to the paper, “The Perils of Presidentialism”. Mainwaring and Shugart produce a number of tables illustrating their critiques of Linz, including one which attempts to collerate poverty with democratic stability. It wuold be interesting to see the failures of these classes of rule, India vs (say) Argentina, or more recently Turkey.

6 Replies

  1. I have added to references to the list at the bottom. One from the FT, quoting Thatcher’s opposition to them in the ’70s and one from the Labour Party Marxists, which is good on reviewing the thoughts of the great and not so great teachers. I also added the comment that, her line, and Atlee’s are problematic if we are beginning to question Parliamentary Sovereignty as inadequate to defend the rule of law. Courts have taken to defending the citizen against Government’s which in the UK means against Parliament because the Government controls Parliament, not the other way round.

  2. The events in Britain in Sept. 2019 led me to come back to this page, I have made some mirror copies of some of the references and read & quoted Nigel Jones article. I have also added the reference to Mainwaring & Shugart on Presidentialism as this seems to me another means of undermining the collaborative/consensual outcomes of a collective leadership, be it a Parliament or a Council.

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