The government's opportunistic support for referenda will damage democracy

The tool of dictators and demagogues makes its return.

This government has implemented or announced referenda for three things: a national referendum on whether or not the electoral system used in general elections should be switched to AV; a local referendum whenever a council decides to increase council tax by more than 2 per cent in one year; and a national referendum, to be held in the second half of the next parliament if the Tories get a majority and David Cameron manages to renegotiate Britain's treaties, on whether or not the UK should stay in the EU.

That is not the pattern of a government which has a coherent belief in when norms of democracy require referenda; it is, rather, the pattern of a government which believes in the art of using referenda to manipulate the agenda under the guise of democracy.

The AV referendum is the sort which, under the shaky constitutional settlement which emerged from the Blair years, is now a requirement. Major constitutional changes require the consent of those hit by them. Major, in this case, has previously meant a change to electoral politics, or substantial delegation of sovereignty (the exception being Northern Ireland, where the Good Friday referendum was integral to building a coalition of support for the Good Friday agreement). There was ridiculous, infantile campaigning, but the need for a referendum was clear.

The referendum on membership of the EU is less clear. The referendum is apparently justified based on the fact that there has been a significant amount of change in the EU since the last referendum in 1975. But Britain, with its unwritten constitution, is almost characterised by gradual but persistent change. In the last hundred years, the roles of the monarchy and the House of Lords have changed dramatically, without referenda. The UK has also joined, and strengthened its ties to, the UN, NATO, the IMF and the WTO, without referenda.

This is likely part of the reason the referendum is predicated on the idea that Cameron wins "concessions" from the EU. That way, what is being voted on isn't continued membership in an institution which has gradually changed, but rather a straight proposal to directly change a number of things in our relationship with that institution.

But the referendum proposal which really demonstrates the government's desire to use the system as a political bludgeon is Eric Pickle's suggestion that councils which raise council tax by more than two per cent should have to hold local referenda.

There is no constitutional or theoretical justification for this whatsoever. Pickles says:

I don’t have a problem with councils that want to put up council tax if they have a good reason – to fund local opportunities. But I do have an issue if they don’t ask permission first. They have to man up. Be straight with people. Take them into their confidence. If the public believes you’ve got a sensible case they might well listen. But councils should also stop treating residents with contempt.

But if that is to be a guiding principle for future referenda, then why did the government not "man up" when they raised VAT? And ought they to have been "straight with people" when they ended EMA? They certainly didn't "take them into their confidence" over their decision to proceed with a top-down re-organisation of the NHS.

If this government did decide to move to a Swiss-style system of direct democracy, that would be a major constitutional change. Ironically, it would probably be so large as to require a referendum to give it the mandate to do so.

But it transparently has no desire to do so. Instead, the referendum lock on council tax is just a method to impose a cap in a way that replaces toxic language of "central government control" with happy words like "democracy" and "consultation".

We already have democracy, of sorts, in the UK. It is representative, and it relies on parties and candidates running for election with clear sets of promises and priorities, and then sticking to them once elected. If Mr Pickles does want to attack "democracy dodgers", he could do worse than to look at his own coalition partners, authors of the most famous fictional manifesto in British political history. But offering votes on things you'll win, then ignoring public opinion on things you won't, isn't democracy in any sense I recognise. It's more recognisable as the tool of dictators and demagogues Atlee warned of.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Donald Trump brings home his dark vision of America at the Republican convention

The Presidential nominee pledged: "Safety must be restored."

Donald Trump brought home the Republican convention Thursday night with a dark vision of contemporary America – a darkness he claimed only his leadership could lift. It was a lengthy, tightly-scripted speech framed around polarities – insiders and outsiders, criminals and victims, the United States and the rest of the world – and infused with righteous anger. And yet against the darkness, he offered not lightness but “greatness” – a bombastic, personalistic vision of how through sheer force of will he could right the American ship before it plunged irretrievably into the depths. “I alone can solve,” he famously tweeted earlier in the campaign. This was the 80-minute version.

Any presidential challenger, of course, has to lay out a set of problems they believe need fixing and a case for why their leadership might make a difference. It was the breathtaking scale and intensity of Trump’s diagnosis, and the lack of optimistic alternative to counterbalance it, that was notable compared to other acceptance speeches. He portrayed the United States as a country riddled with crime and corruption, a “rigged system” in which politicians like Hillary Clinton can evade justice, while police officers trying to protect its citizens become targets; a fearful country, its economy sluggish, its infrastructure crumbling, its security an illusion, and its international stature in freefall

For a candidate who has mocked the soaring rhetoric of President Obama (the “hopey-changey stuff,” as Sarah Palin once called it), it was perhaps not surprising that Trump’s speech would be short on uplift. It was at least more disciplined than his other campaign speeches, if in keeping with their tone and content – the much-maligned teleprompter rolling a script to which he largely stuck. (“He sounds presidential,” a lady behind me remarked, though his press conference Friday morning marked a reversion to free-wheeling form).

It was short on substance too, though acceptance speeches aren’t designed to be policy laundry lists like a State of the Union. Still, there were few specifics, beyond a pledge to revise tax laws which inhibit religious groups from political advocacy, and a newfound concern with student loans. It was daughter Ivanka’s speech that had the greater substantive heft, promising her father would push for new labour laws to help working mothers, and for affordable childcare in the US. Neither are traditional Republican positions, but the crowd seemed on board for anything Trump might offer.

He even had them cheering for LGBTQ rights, after recalling the tragedy in Florida last month, and the need to protect gay Americans from a “hateful foreign ideology” in radical Islam. “It is so nice as a Republican to hear you cheering for what I just said,” he commended the delegates in an unscripted moment. But whether they had really embraced this unexpected message – or if it was the anti-terror chaser that really got them on their feet – remains to be seen. In either case, it was a rare grace note in an otherwise bruising speech.

Presenting himself repeatedly as the candidate of “law and order,” Trump evoked Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign. At a time when American cities were erupting in race riots and protests over the Vietnam War, Nixon had pitched himself as the face of stability and security. Likewise Trump has reacted to the simmering racial tensions and terrorist attacks this summer with a hard-line stance on “lawlessness.” “Safety must be restored,” Trump said, in one of the eerier lines he delivered. Yet in his convention speech, Nixon had balanced his tough talk with a positive message – speaking of love, courage, and lighting a “lamp of hope” in partnership with the American people. 

Trump channeled another president in his speech, too, when he promised to give voice to “the forgotten men and women of our country” – drawing on the language of Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt had promised to aid “the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid” during the 1932 campaign. But Roosevelt’s solution to the forgotten man’s distress was economic internationalism – tearing down tariff walls and trading freely with the world – which the Republican Party then opposed. Trump’s solution is the protectionist policies Roosevelt had railed against.

Trump’s economic and security philosophy is encapsulated in another, more notorious phrase associated with that era: “America First.” A rallying cry for isolationists seeking to avoid US entanglement in World War II, it acquired an anti-Semitic taint. But Trump has employed it nonetheless, capturing as it does his core argument that America must do more to protect its own citizens against threats from within and without – from illegal immigrants, from radicalized Islamic terrorists, from the downsides of free international trade. Little wonder that former George W.

Bush staffer Nicolle Wallace announced that the Republican party she knew “died in this room tonight.” In embracing elements of isolationism, protectionism, and nativism, however, it is perhaps truer to say that Trump’s Republican party reverted to an earlier form.

Often disconcerting, at times mesmerizing, the question remains how effective this speech will be. The delegates responded enthusiastically to Trump’s fierce rhetoric, but many prominent Republicans had stayed away from the convention altogether. Combined with Senator Ted Cruz’s non-endorsement, Trump goes into the general election campaign without a fully united party behind him. For both partisans and the public, Trump’s speech offered a cast of villains to rally against, but no positive, unifying vision to rally behind – beyond the much-touted yet elusive “greatness,” of course. In a typical election year, that would seem a critical flaw in a campaign – but Trump loves to confound the naysayers. As his convention speech showed, he thinks the formula that got him this far - showcasing his fame and fanning Americans’ fears – can land him in the White House.