Referism: A Dream of New England

Discontent with the virtual representation present in Her Britannic Majesty's Parliament is not new. Here's Anthony Henry MP to his constituents in 1734, responding to comments about his vote on taxes (I found it in Denis Healey's great old book, My Secret Planet, and have referred to it many times before);
I have received your letter about the excise and I am surprised at your insolence and writing to me at all.

You know, as I know that I bought this constituency. You know, and I know, that I am now determined to sell it, and you know, what you think I don't know, that you are looking out for another buyer, and I know what you certainly don't know, that I have found another constituency to buy.

About what you said about the excise: may God's curse light upon you all, and may it make your homes as open and as free to the excise officers as your wives and daughters have always been to me while I have represented your rascally constituency.

Yours sincerely,

Anthony Henry MP
That was, of course, before facebook. I've been a personal witness to how social technology can change indifference to pretended, and possibly worthwhile concern these past weeks when watching the 'Corby Lights Campaign' from afar. This was a cross-party effort to demand that East Northamptonshire County Council stop turning off and sawing down fifty per cent of Corby streetlights 'to save money'. Corby's Tory MP, elected because the constituency boundaries emasculate the immigrant, working-town enclave, was initially indifferent. Louise Bagshawe, after all, is rarely seen in the town, seems to share with it a mutual hatred, and has a sleb career to be getting on with. For her, the lights going off were an 'environmental matter' which a load of Labour types and unison organisers were blowing up out of proportion. She told a radio microphone so from a distance.

We've no recall, obviously--don't be silly, they're in charge--but a few short weeks later, and a vociferous grass-roots facebook campaign with more members than are in her majority, and she is on board, against the Tory Council, and 'consulting' on concerns.

There's the core of a Californian-style referendum culture here, I think, equally to be found in the bottom-up No Cuts for Kids as much as on the venerable EU Referendum page. It probably also touches on the Economic democracy concerns of things like the Co-Op movement and the Campaign for Public Ownership, and it's about connecting people with politics as though they had a sense of common good which is not communicated to or by their representatives.

Such a culture is often derided as populist and prone to contradiction. Let's leave that to one side--California's budget problems are as much to do with it's state legislature's spending rules and byzantine representative morass as its tax propositions--and concentrate on a fresh attempt to encapsulate what people want--Dr Richard North's 'referism'.

I should declare that I have a good deal of time for Dr North, and for his partner in crime, Christopher Booker, and I think well of their core schemes of sunlight in the family courts and a referendum on EU membership. For the past few weeks, North has been promoting an idea which links a robust, informed citizenry outside of the press in the blogosphere with the new Chartist idea of yearly referenda on the national and local budget. Others on the right, some of whom now claim to be 'radical' rather than Whig or Tory, have enthusiastically taken up the cause.

The idea is a good one. I find myself comparing the referist cause, however, with the fully-fledged child of the Radical tradition, the New England Town Meeting. Vermont, Maine, Connecticut and Massachusetts have, from colonial times, been holding local meetings. Average attendance is 20% of a township according to recent studies, but rises where referenda and the most serious issues are involved. At the town meetings, local ratepayers decide whether to raise debt, employ policemen, clean streets, fund libraries, or embrace the projects of selectmen who have to make their case. The system sounds idyllic, to me.

We know, however, that it doesn't work in big cities. A succession of neighbourhood council initiatives from Lyndon Johnson on have crashed and burned on the rocks of community politics and identity debates of the sort that are just not had when the local community, as is often the case in cities, can't trust on an individual or group basis. Big city populations are prone to games of selfish advancement and wedge-issue grifting, and they always will be so long as everyone has a voice and we don't have Athenian slavery. Democracy is very difficult to work when class interests clash. As Frank Gallagher once rhymed out in shameless,
Tickets this way for the Chatsworth Express.
Come and watch pikeys making a mess of the lives they were given by him upstairs. And kids they’re convinced aren’t actually theirs.

What sound on earth could ever replace kids needing money and wives in your face? 'Cos this, people reckon, and me included, Is why pubs and drugs were kindly invented

To calm us all down, stop us going mental. These are Chatsworth Estate’s basic essentials We are worth every penny, for grinding your axes You shit on our head, but you pay the taxes.

Imagine a Britain without Chatsworth buccaneers Who’ll cum on your face for the price of a beer. Make poverty history! cheaper drugs now! Make poverty history! cheaper drugs now!
There are exceptions. I think that the scheme in Brixton to create 'Brixton pounds' in a local exchange trading system sits as democratically as, say, the monetary decisions of your average canton. It makes sense in terms of an emerging new medievalism, however, not a monetary democracy because the effect of local currency is necessarily deflationary and conservative. Maybe it will look better after the hyperinflation.

I can't help thinking that class matters a lot when considering direct democracy. People who have known the genuine badness of poverty might fear, for instance, that there is a dark side to referism's radical inheritance. This would take the shape of the Yellow Peril, or Enoch's dockers, but I think these nativist movements bogeymen. The real spectre would be the Poor Law Guardians. These local worthies, almost forgotten now, were all elected locally and regularly in elections that were effectively referenda on whether local taxes should be used for the poor, or whether local rules should be deployed against the indigent. The Guardians, sitting above the working man in common with aldermen and magistrates, survived until the Welfare state abolished them. Workhouses are not things most people are now proud of, and they attract as far as I can tell no heritage tours.

Fear, though, leads to mistakes; if local referenda, when tried, have led to a refusal to pay higher taxes, it may be that the wise crowd does not wish to fund nonsense jobs and expenses. Without clear referenda, the councils and government are guaranteed to hit the poor and the popular for cliquey or administrative concerns and call it austerity. With it, they might be stopped.

We're seeing in the latter days a beginning of the breakdown of western order. As I write, there are between fifty thousand and half a million people in the central square in Athens whose weight is straining the euro senseless. There are a fifth of Americans unemployed, if one reads the figures with the right squint. There is rampant hidden inflation in every shopping basket as incomes lose value in a weird combination of economic stagnation and price distortion.

Out of this peak oil/high food/monetary/future wave pressure will come a tremendous need for people to go back to political basics, once the explosion and its after effects are gone. You can see the divisions forming amongst people of relative goodwill, just as the fascists and stalinists elsewhere are reformulating their case.

The graduate liberals and philistine secularists 'educated' in the west will cling to what they think is distributive justice, a fear of populism, and economic ordoliberalism, and in doing so will parody Habermas by treating the fifty-eighter as a soixante-huitard. Others will scrap over the Atlantic radical tradition, as Maurice Glasman and Phillip Blond are doing. Some, like me, will try to square the circles of economic democracy, the common good, and property-owning distributism in a frankly non-liberal way. But I hope that most will choose democracy under law as a starting point, and if they do, I can't see how an humane referism can go wrong. Maybe we should all get the chairs out for another New England-as long as we refrain from hitting people with them.


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