An argument for engagement

Howard Davies on a call for the citizenry to increase their level of involvement in democracy

July 31, 2008

Those pesky Irish have once again thrown a spanner at the European Union's pigeons, producing the wrong answer in their referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. And while some European politicians and many Eurocrats think the Irish should be told to wash their mouths out and speak again, others accept that there is something amiss when the three sets of citizens who were invited to express a view on the treaty have all rejected it.

The EU's democratic deficit is a central element in Paul Ginsborg's thesis, although of course he wrote the book before the Irish vote. He argues that there is a dangerous lack of engagement on the part of many citizens in democratic processes, reflected in low voter turnout, and in growing contempt for politicians and parliaments.

This is an important issue, and Ginsborg is to be congratulated on addressing it. Unfortunately, his method, and the conclusions he reaches, are disappointing.

We begin at a dinner debate between John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx (and their respective wives) at a flat in Victoria Street in London in 1873. The dinner, I should point out, as Ginsborg eventually does, did not take place. This reconstruction is not especially helpful to the argument he wants to develop, but it is better than the final chapter, which takes the form of an imaginary dialogue between Marx and Mill when they have, so to speak, passed over - although whether Marx made such a journey must be kept open to doubt.

In their beyond-the-grave conversation, Marx says jolly witty things such as "What a turn-up for the trousers", which Mill solemnly corrects. Democracy has the merit of brevity, but not of wit, and it could with benefit have been one chapter shorter.

But these are the outside slices of the sandwich; where's the beef? Ginsborg's core argument is that we need to develop a model of deliberative democracy that meets two criteria. First, it must widen the "circles of critical, informed and participating citizens who debate with politicians and administrators". Secondly, these practices should demonstrably "contribute to changing the way politicians behave".

Those are two tall orders, and Ginsborg finds only one place, Porto Alegre in Brazil, where they look to have been met. I have heard positive things about the Porto Alegre experiment in combined representative and participative democracy, although I confess I have not been there. (Ginsborg does not claim to have visited either, in fact.) But it is striking that the approach there has not spread elsewhere. So the force of the example is not clear.

Perhaps conscious of this weak empirical base, he also argues for an extension of industrial democracy, referring to 1970s Italian initiatives (which were largely unsuccessful) and the European Works Council Directive, although with no data or discussion on what it has achieved. He also ignores the British parallel to the Italian efforts, the 1975 Bullock Report. As the secretary to a Whitehall committee that laboured to implement it in the face of deep scepticism from both employers and unions, I can say that he was wise to be silent on that exercise in stirring up apathy.

These two ideas seem unlikely to resolve the EU problem. When a wider group of citizens are involved, they do not seem to like what they see. Yet Ginsborg betrays no hint of concern about the direction of the project itself: "what is needed is for the union to embrace a theory of combined democracy" and engage in "transforming itself into the facilitator and promoter of a highly original project". I am sure that, translated into Gaelic and deployed in the second Irish Lisbon referendum campaign, that slogan will do the trick.


By Paul Ginsborg

Profile Books, 224pp, £10.99

ISBN 9781846680939

Published 3 July 2008

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