Thursday 19 June 2008

Vox populi

The jubilation among the anti-EU crowd is wild each time progress is halted. Parliamentary non-ratification is naturally fine, but nothing beats a No vote by the people.

It does not seem to matter if EU level questions are decided at the national level, if the outcome is based on fears and fantasies unconnected with the actual contents of the treaty, or if statesman-like vision is railroaded by almost total ignorance – as long as the result is No.

The prize seems to have been taken by one commentator signing off with the proverbial: Vox populi, vox dei.


I find that referendums are incredibly blunt instruments for complex questions. Legislative drafting, parliamentary debate, committee scrutiny, expert witnesses, plenary debate and final vote are incomparably superior to catchy but distortive slogans.

Still, I would respect principled arguments for referenda, based on their perceived benefits compared to representative democracy,

But I have seen few tenable principles for referenda, at least of the kind conducive to good governance.

Principled as the opposite of opportunistic. Meaning that the rules of representative democracy shall be set aside on certain, objective grounds in like cases.

The louder the praise of popular wisdom, the less safeguards against the use of referendums the proponents want, I presume.

One of the few merits of referendums, in my view, is the responsibility of the population to live with the consequences of its poor collective choices.


If there are thinking individuals among the referendum campaigners, they could read the article on Open Democracy by George Schöpflin: The referendum: populism vs democracy

available at:


Back to our ‘Vox populi’ commentator, seemingly unaware of the full proverb, as presented by the Wikipedia article Vox populi:

Nec audiendi qui solent dicere, Vox populi, vox Dei, quum tumultuositas vulgi semper insaniae proxima sit.

English translation:

And those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness.


Representative democracy is far from God’s voice, but thankfully less prone to delusions than our Vox populi.

Ralf Grahn

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