Populism versus Constitutional Democracy

What is the difference between a conservative and a reactionary? A conservative knows when she has lost.

A conservative respects the status quo for the sake of stability. The reactionary rebels against it. Unfortunately, it is the reactionary impulse within Brexit that now threatens to hem in the liberties of British citizens, and threaten the rights of foreign residents, for a long time to come. A looser but productive relationship that Britain could have had with the European Union was lost, first at Maastricht in 1992, then again at Lisbon in 2007. A conservative recognizes this loss and adapts her politics to the new landscape. The reactionary tries to reconstruct those lost pasts in vain as the chaotic debates in Britain and the increasingly disappointing outcome illustrates.

Does this mean that referendums are bad? Do they only embolden radicals and reactionaries? It depends. If referendums are used to rubberstamp the decisions of a party in power, or as a way of deferring political judgement, then they are useless at best, dangerous at worst. By contrast, if they are part of the fabric of a democracy, and act as a real veto on constitutional change, rather than a populist rallying point, then they can be enormously valuable. They act as an additional check on the political establishment that might be irrationally fixated on some new governance structure. It ensures that every major change carries with it some level of majority support.

Ten years ago, I wrote a monograph Total Recall: How direct democracy can improve Britain. I advocated supplementing representative democracy with a norm or statutory requirement for referendums on constitutional issues and new local initiative powers. I focused on direct democracy in US states that mean that US state elections often involve both voting for representatives and on propositions. Referendums are required for state constitutional changes. In some states, citizens can initiate new legislation through propositions.

There are parallel constitutional requirements in force in parts of Europe, particularly in Switzerland, Norway and Ireland. It is hardly a coincidence that direct democratic mechanisms have slowed down European integration wherever they have had statutory rather than merely advisory force. Ireland had to go to the polls several times to get the ‘right’ answer but at least this meant that a majority of Irish eventually accepted the new EU arrangements. By contrast, Switzerland and Norway, against the wishes of their political establishments, took European integration only so far before settling with generous trade relations and much more limited political integration. The cost-benefit calculus of their arrangements are up for debate, but few would deny their legitimacy. Britain’s future position, by contrast, may turn out to look much worse and all because its people never had the chance to say ‘no’ until long after the facts on the ground changed.

It’s the ability to say ‘no’ that’s important, with the implication that the status quo must still be a viable option. A people cannot be legislators. Mass votes can’t add up to complex judgements to inform actionable law. Hence the Brexit referendum for leaving the EU for an unknown alternative was bound to lead to chaos which, in the long run, may undermine the legitimacy of representative government, let alone popular democracy, rather than strengthen it. There is no status quo ante to return to.

At the time I was writing Total Recall, the spirits of referendums never voted on haunted British politics. Referendums were promised on adopting the Euro and the European Constitution. Both were abandoned when the Government realized they would almost certainly lose. So we stayed out of the Euro but signed what became the Lisbon Treaty. This turned out to be a deadly combination that eventually led to Brexit. The Euro is quite badly managed as an economic scheme. As a political mechanism, however, it binds members of the Euro much closer together. Leaving the European Union, as Britain is doing, is perilous and costly. Leaving the Eurozone would be even more difficult as it would involve establishing a new currency from scratch. If New Labour had been serious about putting Britain in a federal united states of Europe, it should have gone all in with the Euro from the beginning.

So Brexit could have been avoided but not by ignoring majority sentiments. If British referendums were constitutionally mandated rather than the random outcome of internal (in this case, Conservative) party politics; if referendums were required to change the status quo rather than a mechanism for a belligerent minority to relitigate past losses, then, like Switzerland and Norway, we would be in a much better position now.

Will our political leaders learn this lesson for the future? That I doubt.

Brexit Breakdown and Confusion

I posted earlier this month on Brexit Breakdown suggesting that the aims of enthusiasts for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, leaving the European Union, have been eroded as the UK government’s positions drifts towards ‘soft Brexit’ accepting alignment with EU regulations on industrial goods and food, at the very least. This is still the case, but the situation has become increasingly complex, driven in an unpredictable way by contradictory forces, as I will attempt to explain below.

Full ‘soft Brexit’ would mean membership of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), with almost complete adherence to European regulation. ‘Hard Brexit’ means eliminating any adherence to EU regulations, which in its most rock hard form means a willingness, even a preference, for crashing out of the EU with no agreement, resorting to World Trade Organisation rules to govern trade. On the other side are ‘Remainers’, including myself, who ideally would like to stay in the European Union after a referendum reversing the decision of two years ago; and who if this is not possible will work for the return of the UK to the EU at a future date.

It is still the case that over time the government has drifted towards soft Brexit, though not EFTA, and seems likely to end up agreeing to an even softer Brexit after EU negotiations are complete. The most notable area of likely compromise with the EU is to preserve an almost completely open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland by allowing de facto membership of the EU Customs Union of Northern Ireland through a de facto border in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, largely in the form of EU customs inspections on ships between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

The House of Commons anyway came very close recently to voting for the UK as a whole to form a customs union between the UK and the EU, so a proposal backed by the government for a form of customs union between the UK and the EU allowing an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic without a customs border in the Irish Sea would certainly pass the House of Commons. It is one of the oddities of Brexit that a free vote of the House of Commons would result in the UK joining EFTA and this is resisted by the leadership of the two largest parties.

The Labour Party leadership resists EFTA (or any other way in which the UK stays in the Customs Union or the Single Market) though most Labour Party Members of Parliament, party members, and voters support remaining in the EU. The Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn supported Remain in the referendum though he has always looked like a socialist critic of the EU as a capitalist club. The Conservative Party leadership resists EFTA, though most Conservative MPs supported Remain in the referendum and would vote for EFTA now, and the leader (who is also Prime Minister), Theresa May, supported Remain during the referendum. In the case of the Conservatives though, party members and voters are mostly Leave and hard Brexit.

Theresa May gathered her Cabinet at the Prime Minister’s country residence, Chequers, recently to force through a soft Brexit package, in the hope of ending increasingly public conflict on the issue. Two members of the Cabinet have since resigned and Brexiteers in the House of Commons have forced some concessions, though of a rather secondary kind, which might disappear in further negotiations with the EU and the final parliamentary vote on the exit deal.

The consequences of recent political manoeuvres are as follows:

  1. The government has moved towards a softer Brexit,
  2. Hardcore Brexiteers have pushed back with some success,
  3. A second referendum seems more likely though not the most likely scenario,
  4. A no deal hard Brexit seems more likely though not the most likely scenario.

These four things do not seem to go together and what has happened is a drift from what seemed like the overwhelming probability of a hard Brexit with an agreement, to a relatively chaotic situation in which it is becoming harder and harder to decide on the most likely of the possible outcomes.

Hard Brexit without a deal has come to seem more likely because hard Brexiteers in the Conservative Party may undermine any agreement the Prime Minister (who has recently started to exercise direct control over negotiations) may reach with the EU and there are signs that the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) will take voters from the Conservatives in the case of a soft Brexit. Theresa May is trying to achieve a position which can get most MPs behind her, and most Conservative MPs will probably support any deal she proposes. However, the hard Brexit people are willing to do anything to undermine a deal they consider inadequate and may vote with Labour in voting down a deal, though for very different reasons.

May’s hold on the Conservative Party is weak after her very poor performance in last year’s general election and no one expects her to be the leader at the next election (though given that the impossible seems to be becoming possible maybe we should not accept this as a given). Any election for the leader requires a contest in the parliamentary party to determine two candidates, with the Conservative Party membership as a whole deciding between them. The membership will undoubtedly vote for the more hard Brexit candidate, which at the moment seems likely to be Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg. Rees-Mogg has absolutely no governmental experience at all, which would create an unprecedented situation if he does become Conservative leader and Prime Minister.

Neither Rees-Mogg nor Johnson is popular with the parliamentary party, so there must be a real possibility that neither makes it the final list of two candidates, presuming the parliamentary party does not persuade the candidates behind the leader of the first round to abandon the contest, which is what happened in May’s case. This could set off a major crisis in the Conservative Party.

The possibility of a second referendum (labelled a People’s Vote by its main advocates) is increasing because it seems likely that hard Conservative Brexiteers allied with the Labour Party will vote down any soft Brexit, and it also seems likely (but less likely as hard Brexiteers are more willing to vote against their own government) that an alliance of soft Conservative Brexiteers and the Labour Party will vote down any hard Brexit. It also seems very possible that the EU will reject any UK offer, as the arguments within Parliament and the Cabinet on the terms of Brexit refer to what can be agreed within British politics, not what the EU might find acceptable. At the very least it seems increasingly likely that substantive Brexit will be postponed, apart from withdrawal of UK representatives from EU institutions, for at least a couple of years after next year’s formal withdrawal.

The various forms of deadlock described above have not yet made a second referendum likely, but are increasing the likelihood of a second resort to the People to find a solution, though the question that would be asked, the form of any such referendum, its timing and so on remain unclear. Opinion polls show increasing support for a second vote and for then remaining in the EU, while the media is giving more coverage to the possibility. I would be happy to see such a result myself. The increasing uncertainty about what Brexit means itself undermined Leave claims that it would be an easy exit. Nevertheless, I have to say that the UK is probably leaving and that a no-deal Brexit is also increasing in probability.

How about no? Netherlands referendum

How-About-No-01Well, it wasn’t so unsuspected, how many people want us to think. Over 60% of 30-35% of voted citizens were against euro-association with Ukraine. Ukrainian politicans traditionally speaking about “russian hand” and other weird stuff, russian trolls experiencing huge wave of a butthurt from their ukrainian colleagues in the political articles comment sections. Everything as always. I personally think, that NO is better that YES in this particular situation:

  1. Law base is poor. Ukrainian Government should rise quality of anti-corruptional laws and deal somehow with unempoyment.
  2. Donbass civil war isn’t over yet. And it’s like a red flag before EU bull’s eyes.
  3. Panama Papers and offshore scandal.

So, why NO is better, than YES?

In my own humble opinion, euro-association means “total victory” for Ukraine and an approvement, that Ukraine itself passed all the requirements of EU and “Maidan quest” is completed. I personally afraid that after association Ukrainian Government will forget about current problems listed above and citizens will live worse. Economical situation will get worse too. “Hey, people, what else do you want? We passed the association test and it by default means that everything is ok”. When first wave of total euphoria will come to an end, the understanding will come: for simple worker, or miner, or vaiter, etc. nothing changed. People suffered before – and they will suffer after. Dealing with unstable situation and unemployment, brother-killing war and corruption are the only ways to EU.

Plebiscito: la solución para los problemas de Nicolás Maduro

Foto: Reuters

El día de ayer el presidente de Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, envió  un duro mensaje a los opositores que desde hace mes y medio fueron a las calles a exigir cambios en el gobierno y los culpó de la crisis social que sufre el país. “Fascistas, uno por uno los voy a capturar, uno por uno voy por ustedes”, sentenció Maduro, y afirmó que todos estos grupos “le verán la cara a la ley”.

Pero en realidad no hay nada de “fascismo” en las ideas y reclamos de los líderes y en los cientos de opositores al gobierno bolivariano que hasta el día de hoy continúan protestando. El fascismo es una ideología política que busca instaurar el corporativismo estatal totalitario y una economía dirigista que regule la vida de los ciudadanos. El fascismo es también una ideología que propone la sumisión del individuo ante un ferviente interés nacionalista y universalista en el que no hay divisiones ideológicas y políticas de izquierda, derecha, etcetera y que condena a todos aquellos que se oponen al mismo. Pero, nada de lo anterior es parte de lo que han dicho en la televisión los manifestaste que aún están en las calles venezolanas.  Es más, ¿acaso la República Bolivariana de Venezuela no es todo lo anterior según lo han demostrado sus violentas acciones represivas?

Desde mi visión minarquista liberal sí lo es.  El interés individual de los ciudadanos venezolanos ha sido puesto en sumisión al interés bolivariano de la república que fundó el ya fallecido Hugo Chávez.  Además, el gobierno bolivariano de Chávez y de Maduro en repetidas ocasiones ha negado tener una posición específica en el espectro político de izquierda y derecha, y ha volcado esta discusión al espectro de la lucha constante que debe sufrir el nacionalismo bolivariano ante la amenaza imperialista de los Estados Unidos de América y de sus títeres en otros gobiernos latinoamericanos.  Maduro ha insistido que esta manifestación es producto de una campaña imperialista de parte de los Estados Unidos en contra de su gobierno democrático.

¿Cómo es entonces que Nicolás Maduro acusa de fascistas a los opositores del mismo sistema e ideología que me parece él y su partido han establecido en Venezuela?  y  ¿qué podría el liderazgo manifestante aprovechar de la postura del Presidente Maduro?

Al llamar a la oposición “fascista”, Maduro implica que su gobierno es el antónimo del fascismo y el antónimo del fascismo es la democracia.

Sin duda, el gobierno de Maduro fue electo con mecanismos democráticos y este mecanismo legitimó su gobierno. Sí, su gobierno fue electo mediante una democracia representativa nos guste o no.  Punto y final.

Pero también es uno de los principios de cualquier gobierno democrático y representativo que, en ocasiones, los mismos pueden ser criticados cuando los los líderes han estado en el poder por mucho tiempo.  Existen mecanismos democráticos para resolver estos problemas y Maduro insiste en ignorarlos mientras pone en riesgo la vida de los ciudadanos a quienes prometió defender cuando ganó las elecciones.  Maduro olvida o ignora que una característica que suele acompañar a las democracias es el derecho de sus ciudadanos a opinar distinto y sin temor de ser enviado a prisión por sus ideas.  Cuando un grupo amplio de la sociedad insiste en que es necesario confirmar la legitimidad de un gobierno se pueden tomar muchas acciones que no son necesariamente la represión y la amenaza del uso de la fuerza policial.  Así, una decisión consistente con la democracia de un líder democrático debería de ser utilizar uno de los mecanismos de la Democracia.  El mecanismo idóneo para esta situación de inestabilidad se llama Plebiscito o más específico, un referéndum consultivo.  Al realizar un referéndum, el Presidente Maduro podrá consultar a los venezolanos que lo eligieron si están de acuerdo con que el continúe gobernando y fortalecerá la legitimidad de su gobierno con el pueblo venezolano.

Al inicio de las manifestaciones que ya han costado la vida de varios ciudadanos venezolanos, los reclamos eran la escasez de productos básicos, los altos índices de criminalidad y los reportes de violaciones a los derechos humanos que han manchado el gobierno de Nicolás Maduro. El Presidente Maduro es la única persona con el poder de evitar que una sola gota más de sangre inocente sea derramada.

Si el Presidente Maduro es en realidad un líder democrático permitirá que cualquier opinión, por muy débil o pequeña que sea,  sea considerada no una amenaza fascista sino un sentimiento de inconformidad válido de discutir.  En las manos del Presidente Maduro está que su gobierno sea recordado como  el de un absolutista del corte “L’État, c’est moi” o como un demócrata forjador de la Libertad y la Democracia en imitación del gran líder Nelson Mandela. Ojalá y la palabra referéndum empiece a sonar más y más en las próximas semanas para que la paz regrese al vecino país sudamericano.