Direct Democracy and Helvetophilia

I’m writing this blog entry in respect to a Twitter exchange I’ve had. In the context of an exchange on Direct Democracy and Switzerland, it would appear that my correspondent has trawled the news for some ‘dirt’ on Switzerland and come up with a story on apartheid in Switzerland. The same news story was found by a friend of mine some time ago and we had an exchange on the subject on Facebook.
The following text is based on my comment in reply to his post, although I’ve fleshed it out in the context of this standalone piece for my blog.
Well, there are a couple of things to point out. Firstly, if this were an article in the Daily Mail, it would have scorn poured upon it by many on the Left. It’s a gross misrepresentation of a story. Nothing to do with Direct Democracy, other than the fact that locals could actually overturn the decision.
This is an issue local to the town of Bremgarten, which has recently opened a new asylum centre – not a national policy. Switzerland is a confederation, where power is only assumed by a higher political level where necessary. The tendency is very much to push power as far as possible to the cantonal and communal level. Interestingly, according to, the director of social affairs, Susanne Hochuli, who is a Green party member, has stated
“The tight regulations don’t worry me at all. If asylum-seekers come to Switzerland, we’re not obliged to roll out the red carpet for them.”
It is supposedly a compromise agreement suggested by the Federal Office for Migration (BFM) to get the public on side over the new centre. Nevertheless, the article goes on to point out that the agreement is not legal, so this is in fact, legally speaking, a non-starter. In fact, I’m sure that many will also be pleased to hear that David Roth, president of the Young Socialists, has offered to hand out free entry tickets to the swimming pool to asylum seekers and to go swimming with them. So, despite the Independent’s attempt to make this sound like a big story, it’s a rather typically inflammatory bit of an attempt to make a story more significant than it is.
On the wider, anti-Direct Democracy point, by all means call Switzerland a failure if you consider that the following factors make it so:
  • A population of more than 25% foreigners
  • An unemployment rate of less than 3%
  • A history of non-intervention in foreign wars
  • A history of the public voting for what would be considered both left and right-wing policies in the past (see the voting records). Do you oppose these, for instance?: (referendum which has passed) (initiative which will trigger an upcoming referendum)
  • Strict environmental policies
  • Excellent public transport
  • A record of tolerance for those fleeing persecution
  • An enlightened approach to drugs, prostitution, and care of the dying
  • A country used as a base for countless international organisations
  • The country in which the Red Cross was founded
  • A country which consistently ranks as one of the best places to live and has one of the highest standards of living in the world
  • A country, which, despite Hitler’s plans for Operation Tannenbaum, resisted invasion through its strong military deterrent and ‘Redoubt’.
  • All this, despite it being outside the EU and a country with no natural resources and unfavourable terrain.
Most importantly, it’s a country in which no voter is disenfranchised and every vote counts… at all times. If that’s failure, can I have some failure too, please?
If we had Direct Democracy in this country and the anti-war crowd are right about levels of public opposition, there would have been no war in Iraq. Similarly, if so many are against student fees, they wouldn’t have happened.
Direct Democracy means, however, that you don’t always get your way. There’s no difference from representative democracy there though. What it does mean is that the public knows absolutely that they are ultimately responsible for their own destiny.
When the Swiss stop asylum seekers from entering the country, there may be reason to cry foul, although running at nearly twice the rate of other nations in Europe (a fact which speaks volumes in itself, both as a desirable destination for asylums seekers and as a mark of Swiss tolerance), and in a population of 8 million people, there may always be local factors of which we’re unaware. Bear in mind that any decision by a politician could be overturned by the public too, so, if you can convince enough people of your opinion through reasoned dialogue and public discussion, your side can win the day and overturn the decisions of politicians.
I think that on balance, if you look at the Swiss track record, you’d be surprised at how ‘progressive’ they’ve been in the past. They even considered abolishing the military in three referendums. For a nation in which the military plays a massive role in everyone’s life, that’s quite a big deal!
I’m yet to hear an argument levelled against Direct Democracy which couldn’t either be levelled at representative democracy or which criticises Direct Democracy on the basis that it isn’t a ‘perfect’ solution, as though our current system were!
A commonly cited drawback is that the electorate doesn’t have the requisite skills to make important political decisions. Well, for starters, that seems to imply that a) our current politicians always act in the interests of the country at large rather than in their own political interests and b) that our politicians always make good decisions. It doesn’t need me to point out the flaws in these assumptions.
In any case, the Swiss system addresses this concern by operating as a semi-Direct Democracy. Essentially, there is still a political system as we recognise it. The key noticeable difference is that it works as a perpetual coalition, comprising a government representing all parties elected to parliament, along the lines of a so called ‘magic formula’, and therefore acts at core in the interests of the country rather than in the ideological whims and interests of whichever single party or small coalition happens to be in power.
It doesn’t take a genius to realise that the current UK system is a system based on adversarial rather than collaborative politics; the physical layout of the parliament is set out in such a manner. The key aim of a political party in the UK is to gain full executive power and to retain it as long as possible. During its period in power, it must make decisions which are aimed to keep its own electorate on side and gain additional support from other sections of the electorate. This means that a government does not always operate in the best interests of the country, but in the best interests of its re-election.
I can’t possibly say that our current representative democracy has ever worked properly in my eyes, and I’m yet to meet someone who is fully content with it. There has never been a government in power with whom I’ve fully agreed. At least I’d know my voice would count on every issue under Direct Democracy – and not just once every five years. Yet I still regularly encounter others who arrogantly assume that the public is incapable of making sensible decisions. The successful example of Switzerland puts paid to such claims. The very fact that the Swiss electorate has power seems to lead to a more serious and realistic appraisal of decision-making, and this starts at the communal (level), at the cantonal level, and finally the national level. Villages are responsible for their own budgets and the populations understand when they need to raise taxes and to what end.
Despite my gut feeling that, as people feel further disenfranchised by our existing representative democracy, we will inevitably move to becoming a Direct Democracy in the UK, I’ve given up believing that this country will reform its antiquated and undemocratic system in the near to medium-term future. There are still too many vested interests in maintaining the status quo. It looks like one possible alternative long-term plan may be at risk though too.
Note, however, that any Swiss decision to back out of the treaty on freedom of movement with the EU will only see them back to the position they were in a few years ago (when I worked there), and it will be a decision made by and in the best interests of the Swiss people, because ultimately, political systems should be geared up to represent the interests of the population of a country at large – not the interests of domestic or foreign political parties, ideologues or small interest groups – at the expense of the majority of the domestic population. And as an independent state outside the EU, Switzerland still retains that simple luxury.