Cautious reform, radical change or status quo?
Some recent opinions on democracy
Why meddle with a system of governance, established political parties, hallowed parliament, copied the world over, which work so well? Our democracy has evolved over hundreds of years, Britain has been called "the mother of parliaments": Surely we need no more than minor modernisation?
We have collected opinions of experts and critics of democracy -- scroll down the page or use your "search" tool to find a particular commentator from the list.
Weir, Stuart
Wallis, Diana
Thomas, Mark
Smith, Nigel
Smith, Douglas
Saward, Michael
Referenda Society, The
Mulgan, Geoff
Meacher, Michael
Harvey, John
Budge, Ian
Beedham, Brian
Adonis, Andrew

"All over Europe there are provisions for citizens’ initiatives, often law-making initiatives where groups of ordinary citizens can put forward proposals to be seriously considered in the political arena. Why not do that?
"When I was advising the Public Administration Select Committee on quangos in the UK, we suggested that there should be a place for people to go on quangos by lot. Why not? The government absolutely rejected that out of hand. If you suggest new ideas in this country, people think you’re potty but it really is vitally important we do begin to experiment with these things."
POWER Inquiry Witness Session, London 9 December 2004
Professor Stuart Weir, Director of Democratic Audit at the Human Rights Centre, Essex University and a Visiting Professor with the Government Department, Essex University.

"The evidence from Saturday's march is that people want to do something. They want to be involved more directly in the decision making process or at the very least to be able to influence it. But sadly they feel completely marginalised by our present political system.
"Discussed at our conference* were proposals about how this sort of direct action could be linked into the political system, constructing mechanisms through the use of people's initiatives and referendums to give shape to citizens' views.
"The conference* heard from two speakers from Switzerland, where there is a long tradition of so-called 'people's initiatives', that is, the possibility of signatures being collected so that a matter can be properly debated and voted by all residents whether it be in a parish, region or indeed the whole country. This can then lead to a change in the law."
* A Forum in York, organised by local Liberal Democrat Euro MP, Diana Wallis and the Initiative and Referendum Institute (Europe), Amsterdam.
Diana Wallis, Member of the European Parliament for Yorkshire and the Humber.

Mark Thomas, who had merriment with the law insisting those who elect not to pay inheritance tax on objets d 'art allow the public to view them, has unearthed another obscure piece of legislation. Under the Powers and Constitutions of Local Councils, 10 people present at a parish meeting can demand a poll on any issue, which the district council must then hold on similar lines to an election. This the firemen have done, calling for a referendum on whether the people of Essex want the cuts. Although the result would not be legally binding, it would be vastly embarrassing for the council... So much so, indeed, that the Chief Fire Officer has suddenly made an offer which the union executive will recommend its members accept. A victory, then, for democracy In Essex. We look forward to hearing more of this enchanting regulation. "We intend," says Mark Thomas, "to make full use of this legislation." Report of Mark Thomas, comedian.

Nigel Smith, VoxScot, Campaigner for Scottish devolution "advocates the use of referendums to supplement representative democracy".

Douglas Smith in The Ecologist writes that we in Britain have " fallen out of love with conventional politics" and believes that Swiss-style direct democracy could end the current crisis of political legitimacy. Read his article.

"In my view, if Dahl had actually pursued one of his strategies - to hypothesise over feasible institutions arising from his own criteria - he would not have restricted himself to the institutions of polyarchy, but would have considered -- as a central part of his task -- mechanisms such as referendums, initiative and recall." In: Direct and Deliberative Democracy, paper for presentation at the European Consortium for Political Research ECPR Joint Sessions, Copenhagen April 2000. Michael Saward, The Open University, UK.

"In the United Kingdom, Mori polls in 1991 and 1995, showed 77 per cent favoured referenda on a particular issue when raised by petition. If direct democracy had obtained in this country prior to 1972, the European Communities Bill which, among other things, voided the legislative supremacy of Parliament in favour of Europe, would have been subjected automatically to sanction by referendum, before becoming an Act. Similarly, popular initiative would have enabled votes to be taken on measures concerning education, health, housing, transport and other matters that impinge on our daily lives."
Cited from: Next step: the case for direct democracy 2000. The Referenda Society.

Bring power back under control

This crisis can only be overcome by sweeping democratic reforms
Even more important is to draw on best democratic experience from abroad. In Switzerland, for example, citizens have a right to call a referendum on any issue they like, so long as they gather enough signatures. Indeed, any new law brought before the Swiss parliament can be challenged by the voters before it is enacted. If 1% of the population sign up to a proposal within an 18-month period, it can be voted on by the public and, if passed, become law. This really is direct democracy in action.
Suppose, more modestly, we were to require a 5% threshold: that would require nearly 2 million people to sign up - an exacting demand, but by no means a prohibitive one. It would radically transform our politics.
Quoted from an article by Michael Meacher, The Guardian Wednesday October 6, 2004. Michael Meacher is Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton; he was environment minister 1997-2003

Our 20th Century democracy allowed us to choose our politicians, - local or national - and then required those chosen to take all the communal decisions for us until the next elections fall due some years hence.  Proponents of Direct Democracy believe that in the Twenty First Century we can do things better than that. We believe that it is now both desirable and possible for citizens to take part in the decision making process themselves, rather than always relying upon the selected few to do it for them. John Harvey, The Direct Democracy Campaign

The traditional challenge of direct democracy is to the limited participation of citizens in their own government.  Why should responsible adults be debarred from deciding policies for themselves, on public as on private matters? Democracy justifies itself as empowering citizens, making government their own rather than an external or imposed authority.  So it is hard to defend restrictions on democratic citizens' power to decide what governments should do and how they should operate.

The new challenge of direct democracy lies in the startling fact that it is now technically possible. ...
Professor Ian Budge. Department of Government, University of Essex. From his book The New Challenge of Direct Democracy.

It has to be the right kind of referendum, of course. A referendum organized by the government, posing a question of the government’s choice in the words the government finds most convenient, is seldom much help to democracy.

This survey argues that the next big change in human affairs will probably not be a matter of economics, or electronics, or military science; it will be a change in the supposedly humdrum world of politics. The coming century could see, at last, the full flowering of the idea of democracy. The democratic system of politics, which first took widespread root in the 19th century, and then in the 20th century beat off the attacks of both fascism and communism, may in the 21st century realize that it has so far been living, for understandable reasons, in a state of arrested development, but that those reasons no longer apply; and so democracy can set about completing its growth.
The Economist magazine of London,  England, December 21st 1996. Article
Brian Beedham, former Foreign Editor, The Economist magazine.

In 1994 Andrew Adonis and Geoff Mulgan called for:

• a wholesale redefinition of the role of politicians so that
powerholders can be held more clearly accountable for their
• combining representative with direct democracy in the form
of referendums, rights of initiative and recall, and voter
vetoes on parliamentary legislation
Back to Greece: the scope for direct democracy. Demos Quarterly Issue 3/1994. The article states: Andrew Adonis is a former Fellow of Nuffield College Oxford, and is currently industry correspondent at The Financial Times. Geoff Mulgan is Director of Demos.