chapter  19
26 Pages

Participation beyond elections

The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) once jeered that the English people are only ‘free’ during elections. He meant that these were the only occasions when members of the public could behave like true citizens, and take a meaningful part in devising the laws by which they were governed. Even at election time, during the eighteenth century this citizenship was a privilege enjoyed by a few rather than a right extended to all British adults. Women were not allowed to vote, and most men were excluded from the franchise by the wide range of qualifications applied in different constituencies. In a typical constituency only wealthy property owners could vote. Despite the very different context of today, Rousseau’s remark is still suggestive of a major dilemma for all representative democracies. Elections give citizens a regular opportunity to dismiss unsatisfactory representatives. But normally that judgement can only be delivered at the end of a term of office, by which time many unpopular or damaging decisions could have been made. In the UK, instead of submitting themselves

to the electorate as soon as they lose public confidence, governments have either called elections when (for what might be transient reasons) their popularity is high, or hung on for as long as possible in the hope that their prospects will improve. There are, though, numerous ways in which citizens can register their feelings between elections. In this chapter we will look at referendums, pressure groups and other forms of participation in the UK, in order to assess whether or not they overcome Rousseau’s challenge.