Politicians ignore citizens at their peril

I’m currently reading José Saramago’s Seeing (a gift from a former student), which tells the story of how panic sets in among a city’s political classes after the vast bulk of the citizens cast a blank ballot in an election. It’s a great read, though I have to admit I thought the storyline a bit far-fetched. Even with all the problems of our political system are we ever likely to end up in a scenario where such large numbers of citizens are so angry that they simply refuse to engage in the political process at all? Granted, electoral turnout is in decline, but outside of the USA and Switzerland across most of the world’s democracies the bulk of citizens still vote.


To my mind Saramago’s image of a citizenry so turned off that they disengage completely from the political system just didn’t seem credible. That was until yesterday when I stood in the centre of Barcelona and witnessed Catalonia’s (now) annual independence day rally of September 11. Standing among more than one million Catalans (the official estimates suggested anything between 1.5-2 million) it was hard not to be moved by the passion behind the demands for independence from Spain. That fact that similar numbers have turned out in the preceding three years shows just how deep the passion is. Denied the right by Spain’s constitutional court to hold a referendum on the question, and having been repeatedly ignored by the Spanish political establishment supporters of Catalan’s independence movement have now called early elections for their regional parliament on September 27, proposing to treat these elections as a ‘proxy referendum’.

Regardless of the merits of the case for Catalan independence (and having spent two days in intense discussions about this, I have to admit I find the case a strong one) the lack of any response from the Spanish government is remarkable. Ignoring one million people on one occasion might be (I stress might be) possible, but to do so on four separate occasions is just plain wrong. A rational government response would be to engage – to call the groups in for discussions, to look for a possible consensus. That the Spanish political elite is doing none of this speaks volumes for just how dysfunctional its political system has become.

If there is a lesson to learn from this it is that politicians should be awake to the needs to listen to their citizenry – you ignore the citizens at your peril.

3 thoughts on “Politicians ignore citizens at their peril

  1. Does this also apply to citizens assembled in government sponsored forums eg. our Constitutional Convention? If so, what do you propose as means of ensuring that Governments are forced to listen to citizens, apart from the results of general elections? Does all this assume that our governments want to rule, based on the legitimacy of power deriving from the people set out in a written constitution?

  2. David Farrell has addressed a very important issue in contemporary politics. Saramago’s novel may be farfetched as he suggests but it contains an important truth. If the public becomes disenchanted with the political process, what can be done? The late Peter Mair did a lot of thinking on this matter and his view that Western democracy may be hollowed out makes sense to me. The distance between the voter and the politician has widened as the political system has become more professionalised. In a number of states, if for different reasons, there is considerable distrust of politicians. This can be seen in much of Southern Europe as a result of the recession and the failure of the political classes to address issues such as wide – spread unemployment and growing inequality.
    Many now vote out of instinct or because they feel an obligation to do so.
    Without going as far as Saramago, perhaps we should campaign to have an option in each ballot: ‘None of the above’? A stipulation could be included that if none of the above attracts more than a specific percentage of votes cast then a national forum to consult widely might be automatically called into operation. It could have a remit to address why such a vote of censure on the system has been passed (the model might be the Forum on Europe in Ireland or the Constitutional Convention that David Farrell is closely associated with) and discuss how to address this shortcoming.
    It is very disappointing that the electorate are energised by populists or nationalists more than by conventional political parties. David provides a positive reading to the independence movement in Catalonia and I can see why: citizen participation is high and enthusiastic as it was in Scotland in 2014. However, I remain sceptical that these or less benign anti-establishment parties can restore confidence in the existing political system. It is one thing to generate enthusiasm in the face of Spanish intransigence or against austerity, it is another to achieve positive policy outcomes once independence is achieved or an election won. Nationalists and populists offer simplistic answers to complex questions and have a one-dimensional view of politics.
    It will be very interesting to see what happens in the UK, now that Jeremy Corbyn has won the Labour leadership election on a strong anti-austerity policy (the evidence for the SNP in Scotland is not particularly good in this respect).
    The evidence from Greece does not lead to an optimistic assessment. I recently discussed this with a friend who is a member of Syriza (she has now left) and her view was that democracy in this case did not matter as Germany and a number of other European states had decided what the outcome would be. Her view was that there is no alternative as far as Germany was concerned and among the majority within the European Union. This is very discouraging for those who would wish to see a more democratic and participative model for European democracy. Greece may be a special case but I think it is only the circumstances that are exceptional not the political and economic situation. It also challenges those who are pro-European to justify why a state should remain in the Euro or the EU in these circumstances.
    To return to the Catalan issue: I am not as positive as David but it does raise questions about what democracy is and what territorial unit should be used to assess democratic outcomes. Is it Spain or is it Catalonia? The Spanish government (naturally) say the former, while Catalan nationalists (naturally) say the latter.
    If the right of all nations to self-determination is conceded and/or accepted then there are serious questions in respect of the stability of the existing state system in Europe (and elsewhere too). My own view is that it is time to acknowledge that the right to self-determination for all nations is on the political agenda, especially in stable liberal democratic states. However, democracy is a very rough tool for addressing this question, unless the nation is substituted for the state as the unit for democratic accountability. I fully appreciate the anger of Catalan nationalists when their demand for a referendum is denied on narrow legalistic grounds and I support the suggestion that the Spanish government and the Catalan nationalists should enter into discussions on how to do so. The example of Scotland and the negotiations between David Cameron and the SNP could provide a model for this engagement.
    The critical issue is that secession corrodes the existing state system. Successful secessions in Scotland and Catalonia will promote further claims. Those who advocate secession have an obligation to show that their actions will not make both parties and other neighbouring states worse off than before.
    In the spirit that David addresses his questions I would like to suggest that what is required is a European Convention on Secession that sets out the criteria for a referendum on this matter. For example, if the Catalan nationalist parties win a majority in the forthcoming elections that would justify the application of the Convention to the issue, not a mandate to secede.
    Such a convention could establish how and in what circumstances a vote on secession would take place. The charter would oblige both sides to accept the rules of engagement and prevent what looks like happening in Spain: the Spanish government denies the right of Catalonia to determine its own future and the Catalan nationalists seek a mandate to unilaterally secede from Spain. This is a recipe for conflict and political instability. It is likely to weaken the democratic process further.

    • “It is very disappointing that the electorate are energised by populists or nationalists more than by conventional political parties. ”
      What were the origins of the political parties before they became conventional?
      Was it people to people looking to enhance their power in a region/territory dominated by minorities? Some were described as nationalists eg. apart from Labour and the Greens, how many of our conventional political parties (including some that have dissappeared) had their origins in something other than nationalism?
      Similarly for populists – presumably, at one stage it was deemed populist to call for more equality in terms of housing and/or education and/or health and/or welfare and/or opportunities to work in decent conditions.
      If so, all this suggests that all we are living through is the waning away of some outmoded conventions and the emergence of other responses to changes – economic, communications, perspectives.
      The pity is that there is too much focus on parties, as almost the sole vestor of democratic power. There is not enough on other means which enhance the power of people to deal with issues more directly, without waiting for parties to go through the kinds of hoops in which they have become emmeshed.

      So what if secession corrodes the existing state systems? So too have the growth of multinationals, the emergence of the EU, organisations like the WTO, agreed procedures on sectors eg. Basel agreements on banking. Ignoring that source of erosion means that those who do so are bound to loose democratic credibility and ultimately legitimacy. In the past, centres of power were eroded by the invention of the printing press, empire builders (eg. Napoleon), unifiers (the US founders,Garibaldi, Bismarck, Monnet), the emergence of new powers and smugness/complacency of elites.

      Democracy may be rough, but it can provide the means of using conflict to promote greater understanding and resolution rather than violence.

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