Leading Article: Press a button for democracy

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The Independent Online
ONE OF the most troubling themes of last year, and one that will continue into 1994, is the declining authority of democratic governments. Weak at home, they have also responded poorly to external challenges, thereby further undermining their domestic standing. The vicious circle shows no sign of being broken.

This is pushing a new question on to the agenda: is the whole concept of representative government under threat? All the obvious reasons for the unpopularity of democratic governments take us only a certain distance towards an answer. Yes, there are some tired, corrupt and mediocre politicians around. Yes, there has been a recession. Yes, the passing of the Cold War has dissolved the glue that held some governments and parties together, giving them purpose and authority. Yes, the power of European governments has been seeping away to Brussels.

Yes, and probably most important over the longer term, the growth of global markets and the dispersal of manufacturing have reduced the ability of even the best governments to respond to the needs and wishes of their voters. Wages, prices, pensions, interest rates, health, safety and many other aspects of life are shifting beyond their full control.

But there is something else going on of equal or greater significance that could threaten the fundamentals of the system. The principle that we elect people to take decisions for us on the basis of their own judgements, properly influenced by a desire to be re-elected, is already being undermined by opinion polls and the media. The spread of interactive electronic communications will weaken it further. Before long, practically every citizen will be able to sit at home with a beer (or something stronger), listen, or not listen, to a speech, and register a response by pressing a button. We shall then be on the way from representative democracy to direct democracy. Although the political system will be slow to grant any formal authority to mass electronic voting, it cannot fail to be fundamentally altered by it. The power already wielded by opinion polls is only a mild foretaste of what could come.

Many people will welcome the trend. After all, voters are much better educated and informed than they were when the structures of representative democracy were shaped. In those days it made sense to send a wise, trustworthy person to

the capital to represent the interests of the local community. Now the entire population can attend debates in the House of Commons and local representatives can be instantly called to account before a television camera. The interviewer then appears as the people's representative, while the MP, unless a declared rebel, is cast as apologist for party or government.

There is an arguable case for more direct democracy. In Switzerland, referendums coexist happily with representative democracy, engaging the population in frequent decisions on single issues. Elsewhere referendums are used more sparingly and with greater trepidation, but are an accepted part of the system. Electronic voting from home, presumably with smart cards to establish identity, would merely make them quicker and easier. We would then be back to the direct democracy of the Athenian market place, although probably with inferior speeches.

But Athenian democracy was run by a small, slave-owning elite with the leisure to devote to affairs of state. Issues were mostly simpler then, such as whether to slaughter the menfolk of Mytilene - and even that was nearly bungled. Although modern democracies are supposedly moving towards more leisure, with machines as slaves, there is little sign of it for those in work, and it would scarcely be realistic to confine the franchise to the unemployed and the growing cohorts of the retired. And who would mediate the provision of information and debate? The dangers of populism are obvious. Yet the trend will continue, driven by technology. It presents parliamentarians with a serious challenge. They must respond or become irrelevant.