The Brexit referendum and direct democracy: should we be more like the Swiss?

Professor Clive Church

Looking at English, and it is surely English and not British, preparations for a referendum from the standpoint of someone more versed in Swiss practices, I am struck by the tremendous differences in political culture which are at work. For the English the forthcoming vote is a one off plebiscite, extracted from a government weakened by a specific political force to suit its own ideological demands.

Conversely, in Switzerland ‘votations’, which is a better way of describing such votes than ‘referendums’, are a wide ranging and very normal form of direct democratic decision making, securely anchored in the constitution and the public psyche. In fact there are at least a dozen different forms of public consultation, whether at national, cantonal or communal level. At national level there has to be a votation both on any specific changes to the Constitution and on any overall or ‘total’ revision. These are known as obligatory referendums. And they require a double majority, of voters and cantons. At the same time there is the voluntary referendum which allows 50,000 voters to call a vote on various kinds of parliamentary and governmental legislation, a provision best understood as a ‘challenge’ or veto. These are carried by popular majority alone.

All these referendums are distinguished from the initiative. This allows 100,000 electors to call for a vote on a proposal to add to, modify or remove specific articles of the Constitution. Such initiatives can be couched in general terms, allowing parliament to fine tune the idea or, and this is the most common type, as complete and specific new constitutional articles.  Government and Parliament can, and often do, table counter projects to achieve the same ends but in different – and possibly more realistic – ways.  All these require double majorities. And because they are so different technically from referendums in the Swiss sense, it is misleading to call them all referendums.

Moreover, at cantonal level there are all kinds of other public votes. Ordinary legislation can be proposed by initiative, which is not the case nationally. Some cantons impose an obligatory referendum on all new legislation while in canton Jura Parliament can put any law to the vote. Other cantons can require a public decision on specific policies like on nuclear power. And there can also be votes on repealing existing legislation. There are similar kinds of votes on financial matters, whether on expenditures over a specific level, or sometimes, on all expenditures. There is also a right of recall in some cantons, though it is rarely used. Communes can also use votations. So to call this variety of public decisions referendums is to lose sight of the range and depth of Swiss direct democracy.

So when UK Eurosceptics say they are acting like the Swiss, this is only a very partial truth. Yes there will be a public vote on a particular issue, but the way it came about, the actors calling it and the rules governing it are all very different. Indeed such a government-imposed plebiscite could not happen in Switzerland. Virtually the only Eurosceptics to have realized this are Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan.  In their 2008 book The Plan, they proposed local and national referendums and what they called people’s bills, whereby proposals if supported by enough signatures, would have to be debated in Parliament, albeit only for a day and only then if they were amongst the six most popular suggestions. And the Commons could amend them as it saw fit. This seems a recipe for popular frustration rather than a means of empowering the people.

In fact, the problems experienced by those calling for a new vote on EU membership in the UK would never have happened in Switzerland.  Eurosceptics would not have had to wait so long to have a referendum called until the government was sufficiently punch drunk to agree. They could, at a time of their choosing, have started collecting signatures. In the UK this would probably run at about a million signatures. If they got them, then a vote would be held down the line once parliament had given its verdict.

As this suggests, those campaigning for a Brexit would have been able to set up their own organization to collect and campaign. They would not need to be designated by the Electoral Commission. So there could be several supporting alliances on the same footing. Equally supporters of membership would have similar freedoms.

The rules would be different in at least two ways in Switzerland. On the one hand, there would be no need to spend time drafting special rules as with the 2015 Referendum Bill. Swiss rules are pretty clear and can be found in Article 89 of the Constitution and basic legislation. And attempts to strengthen these by limiting governmental information efforts were rejected by the electorate in June 2008. On the other hand, the Swiss would be counting on a cantonal constituency basis so as to ascertain whether a cantonal majority had been achieved. Nicola Sturgeon has called for all four nations to concur in any decision, something which is similar but unlikely to be conceded.

All told this would have been a quicker, simpler and more democratic process. It would probably also be less destabilizing, and this for three reasons. Firstly, because votations are so routine, even very radical proposals can be fitted into the basic fabric somewhat more easily. Clearly this will be in no way true of an emphatic ‘Leave’ vote in 2016 or 2017.  Secondly, because votations are an entrenched democratic channel, their decisions are respected and put into practice by government even if the Federal Council has opposed them. This was the case with the immigration vote in 9 February 2014. Hence, even though Christoph Blocher then said the government should resign, there was no question about the government changing as a result of a votation defeat. As normal the government accepted the decision and tried to resolve the problem caused by the popular decision. In England the majoritarian political culture implies that a government which was badly beaten on a proposal it had made, would surely be expected to resign.

Thirdly, there are no rules about how long before a failed proposal can be renewed. The concept of ‘what part of no do they not understand’ does not apply. So, over the years, the Swiss have voted several times on female suffrage, VAT and especially, maternity allowances. They tend to regard such repetition as a maturing or educational process. And, as the 9 February 2014 votation shows, there is nothing to stop opponents launching a counter initiative as the RAUS/RASA (Get out of the impasse) campaign has done. Sometime in 2016 the Swiss will vote on a proposal to remove Article 121a from the constitution, thus restoring the status quo.

However, whereas in the past direct democracy in Switzerland was a relatively rarely-used instrument for forces outside the charmed parliamentary circle, and in which initiatives were hardly ever successful, things have recently changed. Not only have votations become more frequent but initiatives have become more successful. And increasingly they have been initiated by parties, especially the SVP, to boost agenda setting and electoral influence. This has led to talk of reforming the system. This may lead nowhere but direct democracy will remain an entrenched and continuing system in Switzerland rather than an opportunist one off popular plebiscite such as faces us in England. To conclude, perhaps we should really be like the Swiss and have a proper system of votations.

Professor Clive Church, Emeritus Professor of European Studies, School of Politics and International Relations, University of Kent