Monday, July 23, 2012

Democracy and the rule of law : the difference between the two

Six days from now, Romania will stage a referendum on whether to impeach the country's centre-right president, Traian Băsescu. This is the culmination of what many in the European press see as the left-wing government's attempts to entrench and expand its authority by extra-constitutional means. There have even been some dark murmurings about the possibility of a "soft dictatorship" re-emerging in one of the European family of nations. However, the EU's success in persuading the government to reverse its previous decision to set aside the rule requiring a 50% turnout for the referendum result to be valid is being hailed as a small triumph for democracy and the rule of law.

Now, obviously we must be careful not to judge the Romanian government by laxer standards simply because it's left-of-centre, and many of its actions do seem pretty outrageous. (For example, they tried to replace democracy with "good old British first-past-the-post", and it doesn't get much grimmer than that.) Nevertheless, the EU's enthusiasm for enforcing the minimum turnout rule is a classic example of a fixation with a single important principle (the rule of law) rendering people incapable of seeing the wood for the trees. Scrupulously legal it may be, but the 50% rule is in fact profoundly anti-democratic. Indeed, it's even worse than the notorious 40% rule from the 1979 devolution referendum, which merely put an unequal onus on Yes supporters to turn out and vote. The Romanian rule actually gives supporters of the president a clear and perverse incentive to abstain rather than actively vote against impeachment - because they know that if they do so in sufficient numbers they can thwart the will of the majority, however overwhelming. Not so much "if you stay at home you are voting No" as "if you don't want to vote Yes, don't vote".

Just goes to show that, while adherence to the rule of law may be an essential prerequisite for democracy, it isn't the same thing as democracy.

* * *

Although in principle I agree with Peter Curran that the SNP's potential policy reversal on NATO is regrettable, I have to say that I think he's getting the whole thing several light-years out of proportion. One thing is for sure - Scotland will not be leaving NATO for as long as it is part of the United Kingdom. So the first priority for any opponent of NATO membership is to get Scotland out of the UK, and the SNP is far and away the best vehicle to achieve that. A pro-NATO stance on the part of the SNP does not preclude the possibility of an independent Scotland leaving NATO, any more than a continuing anti-NATO stance would have precluded the possibility of us staying inside the alliance.

This is an issue that will be settled democratically after independence - either by a parliamentary vote, or more ideally by referendum. Whatever our individual feelings about NATO, knowledge of that fact ought to be more than enough to ensure that we don't lose sight of the bigger picture now.

1 comment:

  1. Speaking of EU rules on referendum validity, I believe they insisted on Montenegro's referendum requiring a 55% Yes vote in order to be valid. I struggle to see how that can be viewed as anything other than undemocratic. I'm hopeful that neither of these rules will be forced upon Scotland - indeed, the 1979 fiasco should surely see the SNP resist any attempts from outside forces to insist on various thresholds - but it's still something to keep in mind. I'm sure we won't have to worry anyway though - I expect the eventual result to be around 60% YES on a turnout in the region of 70%.

    As for Peter Curran's stance on NATO, I'd have to agree. I realise it's something he cares deeply about, and he's certainly not the only one (Robin McAlpine of the Reid Foundation is similarly critical of the NATO stance), but we mustn't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just as some people get animated by the idea of Scotland retaining the monarchy, focussing on one issue distracts from the overriding concern, that of Scotland being able to make its own decisions.

    If the UK was not in NATO and the SNP were proposing that Scotland join it upon independence, then I could see the point. Similarly if the UK was a republic and the SNP wanted indy Scotland to become a kingdom. But the issues that the SNP gets criticised for by fellow indy supporters are ones that are true now and the SNP are merely saying they won't change instantly.

    I'm sure folk like Peter and Robin will, in the end, realise their goal is much more likely in an independent Scotland than under the UK and vote accordingly, though.