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Salisbury Review May 2017

How democratic is a referendum? One may argue that asking the electorate to decide directly on an issue of vital importance is eminently democratic. Strange though it may seem however, the Brexit vote has been treated with some scorn in Switzerland, the land of the referendum par excellence. The Swiss have little time for a vote that is called by a Prime Minister to bolster his authority. The key rule in Swiss referendum practice is that any group of citizens able to raise a certain number of signatures can oblige the government to hold one. As a result, citizens are voting at least half a dozen times a year on issues ranging from immigration to health insurance, educational reform and renovating the village hall. That, say the Swiss, is direct democracy.

The opinions of a small Alpine nation may seem of limited interest to Britons, who show little appetite for voting on multiple issues, let alone embarking on constitutional reform. Better keep to the system we have, one might argue. Except that system of Parliamentary democracy pioneered by England hundreds of years ago has already been shaken. Brexit is being advanced by a Prime Minister who has not won a general election, Parliament has been side-lined, and there is no effective Parliamentary opposition.

Constitutional upheaval is therefore taking place already, and at this time it may be worth taking a serious look at the practice of a nation known for its stability, prosperity and conservative instincts. All the more since Switzerland is currently dealing with an issue similar to Brexit. A referendum called by supporters of the populist People’s Party to place limits on foreigners entering Switzerland was narrowly accepted in a vote held in 2014. If enacted literally, it would have resulted in automatic cancellation of all Switzerland’s bilateral agreements with the European Union. These agreements give Switzerland many of the benefits of EU membership, but oblige it to respect freedom of movement.

However a decision taken in a Swiss referendum is effective only when Parliament has passed a law implementing it. At the end of last year, Parliament did so merely by introducing mild measures favouring local workers in consideration for jobs, but with no quotas on foreigners and no discrimination against citizens of EU countries. The anti-foreigner People’s Party protested that the will of the people was not being respected, and there was a sense of unfinished business. The influential Neue Zuercher Zeitung newspaper called for “a cleansing thunderstorm” in the form of another referendum, but what shape this could take is still under debate. Instead of deciding again on quotas for immigrants, voters may be asked whether they prefer restrictions on entry of foreigners or continued access to the single market. That would force the Swiss, embedded as they are in the middle of Europe with an economy closely intermeshed with its neighbours, to acknowledge that restricting foreigners could have painful consequences.

Alternatively they may be asked whether Switzerland should continue its bilateral agreements with the EU, which are up for renegotiation. If the vote on that was “No”, there would be no hindrance to setting quotas on foreigners. One way or another, the issue is not dead, and some sort of a new vote on Europe seems inevitable.

This Swiss practice of “direct democracy” may seem tortuous, but it does offer people a chance to find their way out of a quandary. In a country in which citizens who can gather enough signatures can demand a referendum, one popular vote can effectively cancel out an earlier one – if the people choose to do so. Significantly, the People’s Party has so far made no move to consult the electorate again, perhaps sensing a change in the public mood.

One consequence of the facility of holding referendums is that it focuses Swiss voters on issues. Coalitions of political forces vary according to the question addressed. As a result no party can rule by itself, and politicians have to work with each other to build consensuses. This is favoured by a proportional voting system that makes it well-nigh impossible for one party to dominate. For more than half a century, the coalition government has comprised socialists, a centrist Christian party, a liberal conservative party and a populist party with roots in the countryside.

To outsiders, the Swiss political scene may seem boring and fossilised. But the inbuilt bias towards consensus-building is prompted not by mulish conformism but by the destructiveness of earlier conflict. In the 19th century, Swiss fought a civil war because they were unable to resolve deep-seated differences among language-groups and between Protestants and Catholics. The painful memories of the past still resonate and discourage Swiss from conflictual politics, all the more since deep divergences also pit city-dwellers against mountain people. In practice, Swiss political debate is as animated as in the U.K., but there is a strong tradition also of getting together in a café afterwards to agree.

The U.K. system of first-past-the-post representative democracy usually enables a party to rule for a good few years on the basis of the political programme that it has presented to the electorate. But the Member of Parliament elected in your constituency may not be the one you voted for, and he or she may exercise little influence amidst 649 others. Also, there is no assurance that Members will represent the opinions of their voters. Thus, although 70% of voters in Oxford voted Remain last June, both of Oxford’s Members of Parliament voted to trigger Brexit.

Democracy of course implies accepting the will of the majority, like it or not. However under the Swiss system, citizens have more opportunities to make their views felt. You win some and lose some. This may seem a recipe for inconsistency and weak government. But Switzerland’s experience is not that. Although decisions are taken more slowly than in the U.K., the painstaking consideration of all views consolidates public support behind a decision once it is finally made. People can participate frequently in the process, and feel less put upon. The end-result is Switzerland’s renowned political stability.

If Britain were to follow the Swiss example, this could mean another referendum on Brexit, taking into account that some Leavers may not have wanted to leave the single market. The question asked could be: “In our future relations with the European Union, do you wish to restrict free movement of EU citizens into the U.K. or stay in the single market?” This could be the “cleansing thunderstorm” that would enable people to make their voices heard again on a complex and far-reaching issue.

In reality, this is unlikely to happen, since the present U.K. government has no interest in holding a new referendum. More likely we shall continue with existing constitutional tradition – even if Parliament has already been partly undermined. If so, we should be wary of invoking the democratic quality of the Brexit decision. This British form of direct democracy is less close to the people than the Swiss model – which has helped create a sober-minded, conservative and prosperous society.
Marcus Ferrar

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