Skip to main content
KBS_Icon_questionmark link-ico

"Democracy and Citizen Participation": YTL Law and Justice Forum – 6 December 2018

On the 6th of December, the YTL Centre for Politics, Philosophy and Law hosted a Law and Justice Forum on the topic of ‘Democracy and Citizen Participation’. The questions addressed included: to what extent is citizen participation essential to a healthy democracy; how it can be fostered and integrated with political representation; what are the effects of social divisions on political representation and participation; what is the role of referenda and plebiscites; what are the implications for the role of constitutional courts, the authority of experts, the rise of populism and social media; and ultimately, what is the impact of the EU on democratic political participation. 


The Form involved a dialogue on these questions which was truly international, bringing together as main speakers three leading legal and political thinkers from Australia, India and the UK: Laureate Professor Emeritus, Cheryl Saunders AO, at the University of Melbourne Law School, Professor and Vice-Chancellor Pratap Bhanu Mehta at Ashoka University and Professor David Runciman, head of the department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS) and staff fellow in Politics at Trinity Hall at the University of Cambridge were invited.


The forum started with David Runciman’s talk, chaired by Dr Sarah Fine (KCL). Professor Runciman explained the different forms of social division, tracing their source back to educational, political, as well as age differences. He noted that university education was the best predictor of whether people would vote Leave or Remain in the Brexit referendum and that almost all MPs are university graduates but that the majority of people are not. Moreover, the age profile of MPs has not changed in many years: the average age is 50 both today and in 1964. This raised a serious question regarding the under-representation of the young. He concluded with the non-frivolous proposal of lowering the voting age to 6. The commentator, David Goodhart, from Policy Exchange, drawing on his contrast between “Anywheres” and “Somewheres”, argued that since the 1990s there has been a period of “Anywhere” overreach at the expense of what can be called “decent populist values”, and argued that recent upheavals, such as Brexit, have led to a divide between “Admonished Anywhere” and “Militant Anywheres”. A lively debate followed with the audience, asking about forms of alternative participation desired by excluded groups, the efficiency of direct democratic mechanisms, as well as the extent to which, nowadays, there are ideas that inspire and speak to the majorities.


The second panel was initiated by Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta, with an interesting presentation on whether democratic participation can effectively help to bridge the gap between popular authorization and the legitimacy of political outcomes.  He noted that in India non-elected institutions, such as the Supreme Court, had stepped in to try to bridge this gap, but this strategy had various flaws; in particular, (1) many empirical assumptions, e.g. the immunity to politicization of non-elected bodies, proved false, and (2) rights  discourse helped avoid deeper questions regardingwho controls structures of power and allocation. Professor John Skorupski (University of St Andrews) commented on the legitimacy of democracy, assuming it is not a natural right, and explored the paradox of democracy, as well the open-ended question of justice. He concluded that the best justification for democracy is ‘the chance to throw the rascals out’.  The audience, including the chair of the panel, Claudia Chwalisz (OECD), posed challenging questions on the need to think about democracy beyond elections, the origins of accountability, as well as on the particularities of different political systems around the world.


In the final panel, Cheryl Saunders, shared her expertise on referenda and their relationship with representative democracy, drawing especially on the Australian experience. Professor Saunders outlined the main issues for referenda arising from their logistics, their manipulation, as well as the criteria for deciding which important issues (i.e. of the sovereignty or the constitution) are to be put up for decision. She argued that Australia is a case-study of the failure to adapt the notion of representative government to the institution of the referendum. By contrast Switzerland exemplifies how representative government and referendums can grow organically and harmoniously together. Professor Ramsey agreed with Professor Saunders that we will see more referendums in the future due to the failures of representative politics, but that they are not an adequate solution to the problem that is generating a demand for them. Nonetheless, he concluded with a vigorous defence of the imperative need to implement the result of the Brexit referendum or else risk undermining the culture of democracy in the United Kingdom. The audience engaged in a lively discussion, chaired by Professot Tasioulas, which shed further light on the responsibilities of citizenship, as well as on who exactly are the people from which democracy and referenda gain their legitimacy. The need for further work on the criteria for determining which questions should be submitted to referendums was broadly acknowledged.

Photos from the event can be found on the School of Law's Flickr account