Let the people make a (liberal) choice

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The Independent Online
IF IT came to a choice, would you go for a democratic society or a liberal one? The question is theoretical, but not that theoretical, and is prompted by two weekend events. First, there were the calls for a referendum on European Union. Second, there was a democratic experiment, sponsored by the Independent. It was a 'deliberative poll', which collected a representative sample of the nation and subjected it to an intensive weekend of debate about crime - everything from police tactics to hanging.

These events are connected because they are attempts to involve the wider nation in decision-making and because they touch on two issues, Europeanism and hostility to the death penalty, which are the very stuff of modern liberalism. There is a real problem for the centre-left here, which is going to become more acute as years of pro-democracy propaganda come home to roost. 'Let the people choose.' Do we mean that?

The leftish case for political reform emerged during the Eighties, partly as a reaction to a right-wing crusade which involved tight central control and dramatic changes rammed through on the say-so of a minority of voters. To some it seemed that more democracy and a more humane, liberal society were not only compatible, but virtually the same thing. Over the past couple of years, though, the anti-Maastricht crusade has driven right-wing Conservatives towards the democratic weapon, too. When they say that the Maastricht treaty was never agreed by the people, because the parties in the 1992 election were all in favour, they have a point as valid as the left's objection to the abolition of the Greater London Council, or the rejection of Scottish Home Rule.

John Major's original argument against a referendum was that people would not really be voting on Maastricht, but on all sorts of other issues. This implied that the electorate could not be trusted to bother their little heads about their nation's democratic destiny. It also suggested that MPs decided which way to vote according to the merits of the case, rather than on the basis of their promotion prospects and so on. To which a fat raspberry is the only appropriate response.

Should a straightforward choice ever come before parliament involving a further transfer of powers (as, for instance, over a single currency), then the case for a referendum is very strong. A political elite which tries to build a new structure without the assent and understanding of the people is storing up terrible trouble for itself. That is not an anti-European point, but a basic democratic one - something the Lib Dems understand, even if Mr Major doesn't.

But the democracy problem does not stop there. The liberal dilemma was beautifully illustrated by the deliberative poll. The idea of gathering a sample of the nation to discuss a political issue in depth is genuinely radical. When the 300 people chosen for this exercise were gathered together in Manchester, there was a real debate on crime, close questioning of politicians, long explanations by 'experts'.

Sheena McDonald, every liberal's favourite television presenter (except, perhaps, for Jon Snow), suggested in the Channel 4 programme that followed the polling that this was the nearest thing to direct participatory democracy in action there had been since the glory days of Athens. She had a point. It felt new. It was exciting. It worked. This may be part of the way we conduct our democratic business in the next century.

One small point, though, was rather quickly mumbled over. This great, pro-democracy and generally right-on event included a question about hanging. A big majority of the 300 initially wanted the death penalty restored. And after listening to the experts and thoroughly immersing themselves in the arguments . . . no question, they wanted the death penalty. For some reason Sheena McDonald - and indeed, this newspaper - failed to hit a celebratory note about this unambiguous expression of the popular will.

As on hanging, so on other issues. 'Let the people choose.' Yes, yes. But what if they choose birching or repatriation? What if they want BSkyB and no more TV-tax to subsidise Radio 4? What if they want the age of consent raised?

The liberal response is to fix the rules in favour of what remains of the elite consensus. The 'democratic agenda' includes a Bill of Rights, preferably as part of a written constitution. This would, almost certainly, ensure that there was no return to hanging, birching or ear-cropping. It might be humane, liberal, decent, a bulwark of individual freedom. But to describe this as democratic is bogus. It is meant to keep the cruder views of the demos off the agenda. No one should suppose people wouldn't notice, and snort with cynicism.

There is nothing new in this dilemma. Elite fear of participatory democracy is as old as the record of political activity itself. This fear underlies the representative tradition of the House of Commons, the Burkean insistence that MPs owe voters their judgement and conscience, not their obedience.

But as we become a more assertive, stroppier people, the idea that MPs and the rest of the chattering classes are superiors to whom the rest defer becomes ever less tenable. Society's commanding heights bark their orders, but are no longer heard. Politically, this has been a problem for the Government, but the left should not jeer.

I am a gut liberal, whose soul revolts at the idea of capital punishment. If it ever came back, I'd be standing outside the prison gates with a candle, or whatever. But I'm a democrat too and I see that more democracy is coming. As it does, the easy years for the liberal consensus will come to an end. The politics of the future will be rougher, harder - and quite possibly nastier, too.