Selected Reading: Minaret Special

As promised, more here.


The Limits of Democracy

Swiss voters have supported a referendum proposal to ban the building of minarets, official results show.

More than 57% of voters and 22 out of 26 cantons – or provinces – voted in favour of the ban.

Democracy; it’s a funny old thing. The democracy which we endure is somewhat different to the democracy which the one the Swiss enjoy. [1]

Referenda are rare in British democracy whereas they are common in Switzerland. The proposed and withdrawn referenda on the EU constitution and Lisbon Treaty reflects the fact that constitutional change is one of those issues deemed serious enough to demand a democratic mandate only a referenda can deliver.

However, in Switzerland a referendum on any new piece of legislation can be held if the sponsor collects 100,000 signatures from the citizenship in the 18 months following its introduction.

So long as a plurality of voters in more than half of Switzerland’s 26 cantons then vote yes, the new bill will be signed into law. The opposition Swiss People’s Party have earned the ire of the Government by introducing the Bill to ban Minarets this way.

There democratic credentials of this referendum seem clear, after all this was no close run thing, more than 57% of voters and 22 out of 26 cantons voted “yes.”

Yet despite all this, banning one particular sort of building seems spectacularly undemocratic. When it is accompanied by a rise in Islamophobic violence, it seems down right authoritarian.

Guthrum over at Old Holborn is managing to do a great disservice to Libertarians everywhere by holding up this as an example of democracy in process.

Bizarrely he concludes with “The people told the Government, not the other way round” when in fact what has happened is the “the people told some other people to stop doing “that”.” Moreover, the told them to do it by co-opting the massive repressive potential of the state.

Paul Sagar has an interesting post on democracy and argues that while democracy is a process and a system of Government, it is also a value. It is assumed that democratic is always better than undemocratic.

However, a democratic outcome is not always better or more legitimate. I once saw Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty speak and she compared democracy to an engine. There are moving parts driving the vehicle forward but there are also parts that must remain stationary for the engine to function.

Our judiciary is not democratic in the majoritarian sense and trials will not and should not be decided by referenda. Even if public outcry demand one outcome it is still right if the opposite decision is delivered.

While it is entirely possible to decry the banning of the building of Minarets but accept that it is democratically sound, I don’t think it must be inherently democratic simply because it was a decision returned by a referendum.

There as some things in a democracy more fundamental than simply voting for representatives or in referenda. There are preconditions, without which voting would become a meaningless adjunct to a repressive system of Government.

For example, equality before the law is essential, as is freedom from arbitrary detention. Freedom of conscience is necessary for the plurality of opinion a democracy needs and freedom of association is essential for organising that plurality of opinions.

Before a democracy can function certain preconditions must be met. To be a follower of a legally censured religion is damaging to these basic freedoms that form the foundations of democracy. No majority vote can rewrite the preconditions necessary for a democratic and free society.

As Benjamin Franklin didn’t say: “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.”

[1] Enjoy, that is, so long as you are not a Muslim architect who’s just been put out of work.

Much, much more discussion over at Liberal Conspiracy.

And all this extra reading too.