Hi everyone

I’m writing a book democracy at the moment. The concept of legitimacy is the element I’m finding it hardest to get to grips with, so I thought I’d set out my dilemma and see if others can help me out.

Imagine that there’s some important national decision to be taken. It could be taken in at least three ways (or in some or all in combination):

  1. Parliament could decide. That would give most influence to MPs, our elected representatives.
  2. There could be a referendum, which potentially gives every voter a say.
  3. A group of citizens could spend time learning about the issue with experts, discussing it, and coming to a conclusion. A Canadian example is the British Columbia Citizens Assembly (BCCA). This was set up by the government of British Columbia to review the electoral system, after two perverse election results, with a large mismatch between votes and seats. 160 citizens met regularly throughout most of 2004 learning about and discussing electoral reform, before recommending that British Columbia move from First Past the Post (FPTP) to Single Transferable Vote (STV).

Each of these approaches has different sources of legitimacy. The role of parliament has on its side longstanding custom and practice. A referendum has weight of numbers, although this depends on the size of the turnout and the closeness of the result. The BCCA model has the quality of its deliberation to back its recommendation. The quality of its discussion was reckoned to be better than that in the Canadian parliament. Its participants were also representative, in geographical and demographic terms, of the Canadian population as a whole.

All these sources of legitimacy are relevant to pretty much each approach. You might think that parliament was different, because MPs are elected. But how the citizens are chosen in 3. Is also relevant. It affects legitimacy, but not the same extent in different countries. We are used to random selection because of the jury system. China has no such tradition, so something like the BCCA held in China would have less legitimacy than the one held in Canada.

Similarly, the quality of debate is relevant to more than the first approach. Referendums might have more legitimacy if they were preceded by the ‘Deliberation Day’ proposed by two American professors, Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin. Parliament would I believe have more respect, more legitimacy, if the quality of debate were higher.

Here’s where I get stuck. It feels right that, if we are to reconsider our membership of the EU, it should be by referendum, and not either of the other two methods. But I’m not sure why. And I’m not sure I feel the same way about, say, the renewal of our Trident nuclear submarines. Why the difference? Is it because the EU is more important? Is it because the Trident decision involves more matters of fact, such as whether they actually act as a deterrent? Please send me a comment (below).

Thanks. Perry