Lesson 1, Topic 3
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Direct democracy

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Direct democracy involves the people having a direct involvement in the activity of government. Referendums are the main form of direct democracy used today. They require the people to make a direct decision on a specified question. Sometimes the results of referendums are legally binding but even if they are not legally binding, they are rarely ignored in liberal democracies (term explored later) because of the political consequences or ignoring the “will of the people”.

The UK does not hold referendums as frequently as some other countries like Switzerland, who have held over 180 referendums in the last 20 years!

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Arguments in favour of refendums include:

  • The people get to answer a single question in one vote. It might take politicians years to find an answer to the same question. For example, the Brexit question had frequently been a source of deep disagreement in the Conservative party for decades, and no real solution had been found. The 2016 Brexit referendum instantly answered the question, but whether it solved the question is perhaps a different matter altogether.
  • Referendums bypass a number of the problems with our First Past The Post voting system (explored later). Referendums are directly represent the average will of the people, in a way that general elections do not because of the way our voting system works.

Arguments against referendums include:

  • The people do not have the time or ability to be able to answer the deeply complex questions which they are expected to be able to answer in a referendum. For example, in the 2016 Brexit referendum, voters were asked “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”. This is a very simple question, but at the same time, it could not be more complex. What “leaving the European Union” actually meant was impossible to tell, it is not even clear what “remaining in the European Union” would have meant.
  • In a referendum, all that is needed for a result to be reached, is for more than 50% of the voters to vote for one of the options. But for everyone who doe snot vote for the winning option, they do not have their views taken into consideration at all- this is referred to as the tyranny of the majority.