The will of the people? Picture: DAILY DISPATCH
The will of the people? Picture: DAILY DISPATCH

No government, it may confidently be said, would hold a referendum it expected to lose.

And, of course, that is how referendums have been used historically and up to the present: as instruments of the executive. Napoleon III of France — sometimes seen as the originator of this style of “democracy” — used them to get his way; Mussolini and Hitler to get theirs.

So the first point to grasp about the Brexit referendum is that former British prime minister David Cameron lost it. It happens sometimes. It happened, for instance, in February 2000 when then president Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe’s referendum on his new constitution produced a defeat for him. No surprise it made no difference to the autocratic  Mugabe, who went ahead with seizing land anyway.

However, Cameron’s failure and the ensuing calamity is of a different order of magnitude, as not only Britain but Europe and the wider world now bear witness. Why has it gone so wrong? Referendums are a tool of “direct democracy”, if not the actual heart of it. Aren’t they?

In fact, “democracy” everywhere it is practised means of  representative democracy, not “direct” democracy, a popular term for a form that does not exist and is never defined or critically examined beyond claims for it to be “real” or “true” democracy. Like they had in Ancient Greece.

But what institutions does or can direct democracy draw on today? Referendums on everything? If not, who would select what they are held on? Workers councils or “soviets”? Street demonstrations?

All of these populist means must be organised by some leader, group or party and the outcome is simply one elite replacing another.

Above all perhaps, “the will of the people”, on which the idea of direct democracy rests, is deceitful. It a metaphysical concept that cannot be proved or disproved and is open to co-option by any interest savvy and rich enough to link its message across traditional and social media. Social media has not only liberated people and opinion, it has recruited them more effectively than ever.

What we are really talking about when we speak of the will of the people is the current majority for or against something. And we forget majorities change over time. There was a time when the majority was against votes for women. Before that, it was for votes for propertied men. There was a time the majority favoured laws criminalising gays. It is not past.

The populists’ reply to these objections is rhetorical: the entrenched elite are being elitist again, seeking to hide their agenda and power through institutions that are “broken” and media that has been bought.

It is a familiar escape, skipping the issue of how “direct democracy” would or could work institutionally to improve on representative democracy. It is the standby of the left and right in suggesting there exists an easy solution to everything, without ever defining it.

Today we seem content to leave it there: not addressing the obvious objection that if the present “elite” were replaced it could only be by another one. Not questioning what that elite represents and whether its values are democratic at all.

Such confrontations reflect the political divisions of our time rather than contribute to an understanding of how human government does or could operate for the better.

Paul Whelan, Cape Town