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The Harrogate Agenda – direct democracy, part IV

Richard North, 05/08/2012   144


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Coming to another milestone on our journey of discovery, we reach yet another facet of direct democracy, the idea of Referism, the central tenet of which is the annual referendum on the budget.

The deeper issue, though, is one of power at its most fundamental. Power is an indivisible part of sovereignty and, in modern governance, power is money. As long as government controls the purse-strings and can call off cash without democratic restraint, the people cannot be sovereign.

When I first introduced the concept in May 2011, though, many people exposed to it reacted with horror. Some, manifestly, were opposed to the very idea that ordinary people should control or decide on taxation and levels of government spending.

Others were concerned that the majority would always vote for increased spending – despite the limited evidence to the contrary. Still others expressed their worries that, if the people did vote against a budget, government would be left without essential funds – even though there could be transitional arrangements to ensure that spending commitments were honoured.

In practical terms, there should be no problem in having a fixed date for a referendum well before the financial year for which each budget applied. If a budget was then rejected, there should be enough time for governments to resubmit, and again seek approval.

If a budget was again rejected, and it was too late to resubmit before the start of a financial year, there could – for example – be a system where permitted income stood at eighty percent of the previous year's figure, with adjustments made once a budget was approved.

All sorts of variations are then possible, with even a provision for mandatory resignation of any government which fails to gain approval of its budget after three attempts.

As to the mechanics of budget referendums, it was our own Sandy Rham who suggested that the software on current lottery terminals could be adapted to allow their use as voting terminals. A system that handles £6.5 billion in annual sales could very easily handle 40 million or so votes. Add an online facility and you have a quick, cheap system of conducting referendums.

Such a system is not only desirable but also necessary. If one looks the current situation, it is hard to accept that we have anything that approaches democracy. As it stands, both at local and central level, the politicians decide how much they are going to spend, and how much we are to pay them. We are never consulted, and have no means directly of affecting their decisions.

The way the system is supposed to work is that, if we disagree with the decisions taken, we hold our elected representatives to account at elections – i.e., after the event. But can anyone really assert that the election process is any barrier to the ever-increasing government expenditure and control?

Thus does Witterings from Witneyremind us that we need a form of restraint, a mechanism we can apply before the event. Slapping the politicians' wrists after they have wasted our money really isn't good enough.

The key, though, is that phrase "our money", and therein lies one of the most important aspects of referism. The government does not have any money of its own. It spends our money. And, if it wants our money, it should tell us how much it needs and why it needs it.

Then, not only should government (local and central) be required to ask for our money, we should have the ability to say "no".  Anything short of that simply isn't democracy.



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