John Stanton: The road from Gettysburg. Are we nearly there yet?

johnLast Friday, much was made of the 50th anniversary of John F Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, 22 November 1963. The 35th President of the United States, ‘JFK’ oversaw, inter alia, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the early days of the Space Race and played a key part in America’s ongoing relations with the Soviet Union. It is only fitting, therefore, that his untimely and brutal demise be respected half a century down the line. Whilst not necessarily of comparable significance, however, last week also saw another key anniversary for the US Presidency. 19 November marked the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address and it is on this that I focus here.

By no means the longest speech of Lincoln’s presidential career, the Address, delivered amidst the toils of Civil War, was key in reaffirming the importance of equality. It is the last few words of that speech, however, that have perhaps endured with greatest prominence:

‘… we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth’ (Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, 19 November 1863)

Since that time, in the UK as well as in America, the importance of giving individuals democratic opportunity to have their say and to select representatives has become an indelible feature of executive and legislative processes. With this in mind, it is the purpose of this piece briefly to consider the extent to which ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’ can adequately be said to apply in the UK system 150 years after Lincoln’s famous statement.

Elections and referenda are perhaps the most widely prominent ways in which citizens have the opportunity to get their views across and input into a process of decision and policy-making. Issues with both, however, pose serious questions as to the effectiveness of the modern democratic process.

Elections have raised perennial concerns relating to low turnouts, with recent General Elections attracting little more than 60 – 65% of the UK population, and I am far from the first to note the consequent effect this can have in terms of appropriate representation. Disenchantment, disengagement and general apathy are often cited as contributory reasons behind such poor attendance at the ballot box, with citizens often feeling that their votes have no effect on the outcome or the process.

In a somewhat different vein, referenda seem to be rather in fashion at the moment. Little more than two and a half years after (just 42% of ) the country turned out to decide on a change to the Alternative Voting System, attention this last week has focused on the referendum due 18 September 2014 as regards Scottish Independence, and wider governmental deliberations have considered in recent times the potential for a referendum in 2017 relating to ongoing membership of the European Union.

At the local level as well, this mechanism for public consultation has a broad base. The Localism Act, for example, makes provision for referenda in three different instances, adding to the opportunities that exist elsewhere. As Baroness Hanham noted during Localism Bill’s progression through the Lords and just a month prior to Royal Assent,

Not only are there the council tax referendums, there are the right-to-build referendums and the neighbourhood planning referendums. Those complement the provisions for referendums which are already open to councils to carry out on governance. Any council may carry out parish polls and informal polls which are to do with its services and functions. (Baroness Hanham, HL Deb 10 October 2011, vol 730, col 1412).

In terms of legal and political foundations, therefore, referenda enjoy a certain prominence in the UK system. Though useful in gauging public opinion, however, their potential role as a vehicle for citizen-led governance is perhaps countered too greatly by the fact that decision and policy makers enjoy the luxury of framing the terms of the question put to the public vote and are, thereafter, not bound by its result.

On the interpretation, therefore, that Lincoln’s words allude to according free and equal citizens democratic opportunity to involve themselves in and lead forward governance and decision-making affecting their daily lives, the extent to which this can be said to ring true in the UK 150 years later is, to say the least, rather questionable. Elections fail to attract a sufficiently significant proportion of the country, and referenda – whilst very much in favour at the moment – seem to offer democratic opportunity on government’s own terms.

‘Government of the people’ – yes. ‘Government for the people’ – perhaps. ‘Government by the people’ – not really.

John Stanton is a lecturer in law at City University, London.

Suggested citation:  J. Stanton, ‘The road from Gettysburg. Are we nearly there yet?’  UK Const. L. Blog (28th November 2013) (available at